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Suns heavily reliant on three point shot making to win games

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The Suns are good when they make a normal number of threes, but bad when they don’t. Read on for who, how and why

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The contents of this article is a quick, digestible 20-games-in update for Bright Siders. Something to chew on, ruminate about, use in convos with your friends to blow their minds or at least prove you know more about the Suns than they do.

Them: “How are the Suns doing this year?”

You: “Better than usual! They’re 11-9 and expected to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. They got Chris Paul, so two All-Stars now.”

Them: “Cool! But they lost last night right?”

You (takes breath): “Yep, can’t win em all.”

Them: “Are the... what are they, Pelicans?... good this year? They’ve got that Zion guy right?”

You: “Umm, no actually, they’ve been bad. Next to worst in the conference so far this year, terrible defense.”

Them: “Oh. Yeah. Okay.”

You:

Them:

You:

Them: “Okay. Well...how bout them Bucs?”

Many of you will have that conversation with casual fan friends today. It’s frustrating! So much more fun to answer after they’d just beat the Mavericks twice in a row.

You don’t want the Suns to lose to a bad team, and you’re aching to tell the world the reasons for the loss. But not to casual fans who couldn’t care less. So you turn to Bright Side comment section. Or twitter. Or facebook. That’s where the fun starts.

There’s never one reason the Suns lose a game. As you scroll the comments, you’re surprised by how many different reasons people mention. Blaming the coach. The stars. The role players. Wishing the one who never got off the bench could’ve played, because he definitely would have made a difference.

When the Suns lose, they did everything wrong. When the Suns win, they did (most) things right.

But here’s a big reason (not the only reason, but a big one) the Suns lost last night.

This year, the Suns take the 7th most three pointers per possession in the league. Three-point shots account for more than 40% of all shots the Suns take.

If the threes fall, the Suns are likely going to win. If the threes miss, the Suns are likely going to lose.

That’s your Suns this year.

You: “Why are the Suns relying SO MUCH on three pointers? Drive to the basket! Draw the foul, and make three points the old fashioned way.”

That’s a good question.

One answer is that the Suns personnel just isn’t built to draw fouls on the way to the rim. They are second-to-last in the league in free throw attempts per game at 19/g, down from being 10th in the league a year ago at 23.8/g. The difference is primarily tied to the loss of Kelly Oubre’s aggressive drives (4.4 attempts per game) and regression from Devin Booker.

Booker has averaged 7+ free throws per game the last two seasons, but this year is taking only 5.3 per game — his fewest since his rookie year. That will likely tick up over the year, but he will have to get back to his more aggressive ways to make it happen.

Kelly’s minutes have been replaced, but the replacements — Jae Crowder, mainly — just don’t get to the line at the same rate, offsetting that by taking more shots.

You all know about Ayton’s contact-avoidance when he has the ball, yet Ayton is somehow 3rd on the team in getting to the line (2.6 attempts per game), behind only Devin Booker and Chris Paul. He was fourth a year ago. The Suns need more drives to the rim from more people than Ayton, but it sure would help if Ayton could draw more fouls, wouldn’t it?

Another answer is that the Suns offense is designed to generate threes at a 42-percent-of-all-shots rate. The Suns use passing, quick decisions, drive-and-kick and ball sharing to generate open threes. The Suns are 10th in the league with generating WIDE open threes (no one within 6 feet of the shooter) on 20.7% of their total shots. Another 17% of their shots are open threes (closest defender 4-6 feet away).

TL;DR — That’s 37% of all their shots being relatively uncontested three pointers — a top-10 rate in the league. When you’re behind the three point line on the catch and no one is close to you, you take the shot. You just gotta make it.

It’s a good design, in theory. Making threes at a 33+% rate is worth more points per shot than making 50% of your twos. Making them at a 40% rate is worth more than making 60% of your twos (the usual conversion rate of shots in the paint). But as you can see from the tweet above, the Suns are not consistent enough in making threes to always always have that advantage.

The Suns are a lowly 27th in the league at MAKING those wide open threes (no one within 6 feet of the shooter). Twenty-seventh??? That’s 20.7% of their total shots, and they’re clanging them by draining only 37%.

On the Bright Side, a year ago the Suns finished 17th in making wide open threes, at 38.1%. With a lot fewer good shooters on the roster. And that’s only a 1.1% difference, meaning two things: (1) the Suns will improve over the season and (2) the rest of the league will likely regress a bit. This year the 17th best team on those shots is draining 39%.


This was a short story because it’s a short topic.

The Suns offense is generating open threes on 37% of possessions, just not draining them often enough. When that ticks up, the team record will improve. Booker, Paul and Cameron Johnson are all struggling a bit on threes to start the season. If they turn it around, the Suns will be a better team. Simple as that.

On Wednesday night, the Suns lost to the Pelicans partly/mostly because they made only 22% of their threes.

“It’s a hard one to explain,” coach Monty Williams said after the game. “The shot quality is there ... We missed so many open shots. We knew the defense that they were going to implement, where the low man was going to take DA on the dive and we were gonna have shots on the weak side — we just couldn’t make ‘em.”

On the good side, when the Suns went through a 20-game stretch last year ranking 25th or worse on making their wide open threes, they went 4-16. This year it’s 11-9 so far.


Next Up

The Suns are 6-4 against teams with winning records this year, but only 6-5 against teams with losing records.

They start a 7-game home-stand this weekend, all against East teams, mostly teams with winning records.

Pistons are up first, likely a team the Suns want badly to beat after losing to them earlier this season already.