Sixteen games into the season, the Phoenix Suns are looking for answers. Answers to why they can't finish, answers to why they can’t hold a lead. Answers to the question: “Are they the same old Suns?”
Monty Williams is facing a unique challenge that we have not seen in Phoenix for quite some time: how do you manage depth? Which lever do you pull to maximize the effort on the court?
Even during the Seven Seconds or Less era of Suns basketball, depth wasn’t necessarily a team strength. Mike D’Antoni relied on seven or eight players to navigate a game, keeping his stars on the court to generate the fast paced offense that defined the team. Outside of injury, this formula worked...in the regular season. Come playoff time, the team was battered and bruised, tired and overtaxed.
The 2020-21 version of the Suns has a roster chalked full of talent, even if some of the skillsets are redundant. Unlike recent teams, the back end of the rotation has veteran presence. Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Kaminsky, Abdel Nader, and Cameron Payne create a problem for Williams. Like a baseball manager trying to maneuver the final innings of a game with a talented bullpen, you need the right guy to finish the job.
The glaring deficiency of this team thus far this season is the ability to maintain a lead. I’m not talking a 5-point lead in a back and forth game. I’m talking a 10+ point lead. The Suns started 5-2 and in their 6 losses since that point, here is how they fared with leads:
- Loss to the Pistons: Lead by 23, lost by 5
- Loss to Wizards: Never lead
- Loss to Grizzlies: Lead by 10, lost by 4
- Loss to Nuggets: Lead by 14, lost by 4
- Loss to Nuggets: Lead by 8, lost by 8
- Loss to Thunder: Lead by 17, lost by 5
Phoenix falls in love with the three-ball during stretches of the game and, due to an inability to effectively generate offense at the rim, possessions are one-and-done while the opposition generates a run to get back into the game.
Just run! Stop freakin walking the ball for 7.9 seconds just to get to mid court, only to be shooting a contested three with no time on the shot clock— Suns Fans Mexico (@SunsMexico) January 28, 2021
This is where Monty needs to make the adjustment.
When the offense goes stagnant, force the issue. This is why having a player like Devin Booker is so valuable to the team (and you can see where he is missed). His affinity for scoring below the arc keeps opposing teams honest, does not allow them to spring out on fast breaks and put points on the board.
Focus on slowing the game down; not with pace (waiting until 3 seconds are left in the shot clock to chuck up a contested three-pointer isn’t the answer) but with aggressiveness at the rim.
And Monty knows it:
Here's Monty Williams' full postgame availability after a bad Suns loss to the Thunder. pic.twitter.com/hM89O4RhwH— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) January 28, 2021
Coach the team to play like Abdel Nader has been playing.
Nader, the ‘plus one’ from the Chris Paul marriage, is one of the only players who consistently is trying to force the issue at the rim. He puts the opposition in compromising positions and in doing so generates fouls and/or easy buckets at the rim. More importantly, he breaks the others team’s offensive rhythm by doing so.
Nader has only played in five games thus far, so the sample size is quite small. The team’s offensive rating with him on the court is 98.8, among the lowest on the team. But his individual offensive rating through 82 minutes played this season is 117, third highest on the Suns. That 98.8 is due to the lineup, not him.
While he shoots 44.4 percent from deep (4-9, again, small sample size), only 34.6 percent of his shots come from beyond the arc. Compare that to the 69.5 percent of shots Cameron Johnson shoots from downtown or the hefty 78.2 percent from Jae Crowder (the two other wings he has spent the most time on the court with).
Nader changes the conversation. He actually takes the ball to the rim. And guess what? He draws fouls.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) January 28, 2021
What a concept! https://t.co/ScwhUyd8Qz
Johnson, Crowder, and Mikal Bridges all possess an average first step; they are not going to blow by defenders with ease. But when they begin to drive to the basket it disrupts the defense, allows opportunities for back cuts and weak side screens to garner results. If you stand in the corner and just wait for the ball, you make it too easy to defend.
Another way to increase the probability for the defense to be effective is to be predictable. The Suns wait until 11 seconds are left to run their first offensive set, and if the look isn’t there, it’s a three-ball. Opposing teams know they can take the first few seconds of a possession off because, well, so are the Suns.
A whopping 10.7 percent of the Suns’ shots come with four seconds or less on the shot clock. They are No. 1 in the NBA with 9.5 FGA that late in the shot clock. Of those 9.5 shots, 5.3 of them are threes (again, highest in the league). They are shooting 29.8 percent on those attempts.
Play like Nader.
Just 4.3% of his shots are under the gun. When he has the ball and an opportunity to create offense, he attempts to do so. If he doesn’t have the ball, he cuts. He hustles. He tries to put the defense at a disadvantage. Per B-Ball Index, last season, Nader was in the 95th percentile in movement impact per 75 possessions. That is points scored from off-screen and cutting scoring chances relative to the rest of the league.
Am I saying that Abdel Nader is the answer to the Suns droughts? Oh hell no. If Abdel Nader is the answer to the Suns’ woes, the we have a bigger problem.
What I am saying is his style of play, focusing on more than just the three ball, needs to be emulated by his cohorts. His willingness to move, to do more than stand and watch, and his desire to move downhill is what can bridge the gap between the productive periods of play.
And the Suns need productive offense to negate opposing runs that ultimately cost them the game.