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Suns are playing faster, but not for the reasons you think

The Phoenix Suns are 4th in pace this year, but the reasons are not all good, leading to a deep dive on both sides of the ball

NBA: Houston Rockets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After beating the Sacramento Kings on Monday night, the Phoenix Suns have won five straight games and are now 6-3 on the season. That’s a good pace, for sure. But all is not resolved. The team is still mid-pack on offense and defense, trying to incorporate new bench players while not relying so much on Devin Booker and Chris Paul to generate ALL the offense.

What you might not have noticed, though, is that the Suns are playing faster this year — 4th overall in pace, at 102.6 possessions per game — compared to last year’s 24th ranking at 98 possessions per game.

Really? They are faster?

Fast break points are basically the same (14.0 ppg this year vs. 13.1 last year). Chris Paul is still the point guard.

What gives? This led me down a stats rabbit hole that I find fascinating. Hopefully you do too.

The Suns are 3rd in the league in assists per game (27.3) but despite your fond memories they are not making as many total passes — the 266 per game this year ranks 4th-lowest in the league. A year ago, the Suns were at 284 passes per game for 17th-most in the league, on basically the same assists per game (26.9). What happened to those 18 passes per game?

The answer partially lays in the offensive flow being more stilted and forced so far. But the answer also lays in an increase in turnovers.

While the starting lineup is the same as last year, and that starting lineup plays a majority of the minutes in the game, they are not playing as clean and crisp yet. This year the Suns, up and down the roster, are collective sieves in areas they managed extremely well a year ago.

Offensive Struggles

On the plus side, the Suns are shooting well this year — tops in the league in overall field goal percentage! — but on the minus side, they are still just mid-pack in points per possession because they simply don’t generate enough threes and they’re giving away the ball too often.

To state the obvious, three points counts more than two points. If you score on five out of 10 possessions by taking two-point shots every time, you have 10 points on 50% shooting. If on the next 10 possessions, you make 2 of 6 three-pointers (33%) and 2 of 4 two-pointers (50%), you end up with the same 10 points. Seems like a wash, right?

Yes, in a microcosm its a wash.

Except teams on average make a higher percentage than that scenario on threes (36%) and lower on twos (45%), so over the course of a game for every three pointer you can launch the more points per possession you end up with.

The Suns right now are testing that theory to its limits. They are trying to maximize their twos, and end up with just enough more possessions to win the game. Their net points differential after 9 games is basically zero.

To improve the win probability, the Suns need to increase their threes and lower their turnovers.

On offense, they have the league’s 5th fewest three-point makes this season (10.4 per game, for 31.2 points), but even worse is their 3rd fewest attempts (30.6 per game) — way down from 13.1 for 34.6, respectively, a year ago.

What explains the deficit on threes, after mostly this same group won the three-point battle on average last year?

Let’s dive. The starters are taking fewer threes on the same number of shots. In the starting group, Devin Booker is shooting more threes this year (6.4 per game vs. 5.5 per game last year, on about the same total attempts), but the other threes shooters — Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder — are down a combined 2.7 three points attempts per game. Paul’s can be explained by taking fewer shots overall so far this season, but Crowder (same) and Bridges (+2) are more often exchanging threes for drives at streaking defenders.

Maybe we can credit the opponent defense for some of that, but you can see that Bridges is more ready to attack even a far-away closeout than he was last year. Given that he doesn’t draw fouls for and-ones, you could argue he’s sacrificing a couple points per game right now. Again, some of that is opponent defense. Let’s see how the season balances out. The same is true of Jae, but not quite to the same extent.

The starting unit deficit almost explains the whole difference in three-point makes and attempts this year, but not quite.

Cameron Payne’s health is the key to the bench unit getting back to positive on threes because you’re swapping 4 attempts per game from Cam vs. 0 attempts from Elfrid Payton.

Even if the offense improves, the defense needs more work too.

Defensive Struggles

Check out these particular areas the Suns are struggling this year.

  • 3rd most points allowed per game on three pointers (14.3 * 3 = 42.9 ppg)
  • 8th most points allowed off turnovers (18.7)
  • 10th most second-chance points allowed (13.0)
  • 12th most points allowed per 100 possessions (110.4)

In all those areas, the Suns were very good a year ago:

  • 7th fewest points allowed per game on three pointers (11.6 * 3 = 34.8 ppg)
  • 3rd fewest points allowed off turnovers (14.1)
  • 13th fewest second chance points allowed (12.4)
  • 6th fewest points allowed per 100 possessions (107.9)*

*The league overall is scoring almost 5 points per 100 possessions less this season so far, compared to last season. Yet the Suns are somehow giving up MORE points than a year ago.

On defense, the Suns just cannot contain the three point line. The offense keeps giving away live-ball turnovers that become quick scores for the other team, and when they force a miss they’re more likely to allow second-chance points compared to the other teams. All that translates to worse defensive results.

Just barely good enough

Luckily, the Suns are still good enough to beat bad teams (4-1 against teams below .500 compared to 2-2 against winning teams) and also luckily they’ve been playing a lot of them.

Check out the Western Conference standings, and pay particular attention to the two columns on the right. Among the playoff contenders, the four teams with the most wins so far this season, including the Suns, have played the fewest games against good teams.

The Warriors, Jazz, Mavericks and Suns have all played 4 or fewer games against teams with a .500 or better record, while the Grizzlies, Nuggets and Blazers have all played 7 or more against such teams.

Bottom line: the Suns are winning, but mostly because their schedule has been easy and not because they’ve been very good.

If you are a glass half-full person, you will appreciate the trend in the right direction over the last three games (two against quality opponents).

Last three games

  • 13th fewest points allowed per game on threes (11.7 * 3 = 35.1 ppg)
  • 11h fewest points off turnovers allowed (15.3)
  • 17th (tied) fewest second chance points allowed (13.0)
  • 15th fewest points allowed per 100 possessions (105.4)

Not great, but better. Looking more like last year. Phew.

“Everything starts with our defense,” Suns player/coach _________ (insert anyone’s name) said after every game for the past 54 years.

Agreed. The defense has to get better. They have to run opponents off the three point line better. Trading threes for twos worked in the Suns favor last year and needs to be tweaked to work in their favor again. Once opponents regress to the mean on making them (Suns opponents are shooting 39%!), the Suns defense will be back to where we expect.

*All stats in this article are readily available at basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats

Going forward

Watch for the Suns to work hard to balance out the threes and reduce their live-ball turnovers, starting with their game against the Portland TrailBlazers on Wednesday night.

For more of a preview, check out my pod with BlazersEdge.com writer/podcaster Danny Marang today.