The number one goal in NBA roster construction, especially over the last decade, is to acquire stars and build around those stars. Then-Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown famously said, “We are star hunting, or we are developing stars. That’s how you win championships.”
In 2015, the Phoenix Suns were lucky enough to draft one in the late lottery at 13 in Devin Booker, who no one expected to be a star and frankly isn’t even a consensus star to the general public due to refusal to give credit where credit is due after being wrong, like so many were.
Booker’s suffering through five losing seasons was not in vein, since legendary point guard Chris Paul decided the program that Phoenix was building headed by James Jones and Monty Williams was the place he should be. After a trade that included assets Phoenix was ready to move off of anyway, the team found themselves in a situation where so many NBA teams are desperate to be: two stars.
Along with the gold mine that comes with having two stars, especially both playing guard, comes an inherent problem that can lead the offense to become predictable. Defenses can sell out at the point of attack or elsewhere on the perimeter, and immediately the rate at which the offense capably functions decreases, or even comes to a halt.
What do the numbers tell us?
A few data points illustrate Phoenix’s predictability well. I gathered two groups of data: top two most frequent ball-handlers out of the pick-and-roll (P&R) for each team as well as top two most frequent isolators for each team. Phoenix is one of 11 teams with the same top two in both data sets, meaning those 11 teams rely on their top two creators a lot.
To make matters worse, the usage of Phoenix’s two stars skyrocketed even further once they got to the playoffs. This happens most of the time with other teams as well, champion Milwaukee Bucks included. The difference is that Phoenix’s efficiency dropped much more than a team like Milwaukee’s did.
This brings us to our main point of having a backup plan or two or three or four. Teams knew that once they neutralized Paul and Booker with any sort of success, they were in the clear. The amount of credible threats a team had really tended to dictate the series, rather than the capability of the best or even second best threat.
Lakers struggled because their threats were banged up (and Schroder decided to no-show). Denver struggled because they only had one healthy threat. Clippers did well behind Paul George and Reggie Jackson, but the dropoff from Kawhi Leonard to Terance Mann was too much for them to overcome. Then in the Finals, Milwaukee thrived having three on-ball threats in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday with spot appearances from Brook Lopez or even Pat Connaughton.
Efficiency Drop-off from Regular Season to Playoffs for Conference Finalists:
Phoenix’s isolation efficiency did take a jump thanks to Paul and Booker being so well-equipped in playoff isolation situations due to their mid-range prowess and ability to get to their spots. However, isolation is quintessential predictability, since it allows teams to ball-watch without suffering the consequences.
Phoenix’s secondary options:
Since Phoenix struggled to get contributions from the secondary threats like Mikal Bridges or Cam Payne for sustained stretches in the Finals, it ended up being their downfall. As for each of those players’ data regarding P&R and isolation frequency, their possessions all dropped:
- Bridges’s P&R frequency dropped from an already-too-low 0.4 possessions per game (and 82nd percentile in efficiency) during the regular season fell to 0.3 possessions in the playoffs. His isolation frequency fell from 0.2 to 0.1.
- Payne’s P&R frequency actually improved from 3.2 to 4.8 possessions per game, but his efficiency ranking fell from 80th percentile in the regular season to 19th in the playoffs. His isolation frequency also improved from 0.5 to 0.6 but also got worse in efficiency going from 89th to 73rd percentile.
Phoenix’s ability to get back to the Finals - and potentially win the whole dang thing - will depend on their variety of threats and the potency of them.
Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. just signed an extension for 5 years, $207 million. If Bridges thinks he deserves that same financial respect, he has to prove it by being the on-ball threat that Porter Jr. so often is able to be.
Chris Paul is getting up there in age. If Payne wants to be the starting point guard of the future, he has to show control over this offense and a diminutive nature that he failed to show during the Finals, albeit on a mostly bum ankle.
Cam Johnson’s candidacy:
I also want to take a chance to show some love to Cam Johnson, who wasn’t given much opportunity to shine in these on-ball roles I’m begging the secondary and tertiary guys to take on more of.
That time may be coming for Johnson, and I want to point to an appearance he made on the PHNX Suns podcast on Sep. 15 when he said, “Obviously what I hoped [for] out of my NBA career is when I stepped in at first, I would be able to do my baseline things, be able to do what I’ve always been able to do, pitch in as an accessory. But when it comes time to step up and become a necessity… if I became a little bit more of a necessity… towards the Finals. That’s the result of two years of work everyday behind the scenes… and continuing to work on bringing things out in my game that I think can continue to add to the team.”
Johnson played 20+ minutes in four different games in the Finals, including a game 3 showing reaching 30 minutes, when he had 14 points, 5 rebounds, a steal, and a block, finishing with a plus-minus of -8, which was third-best on the team in a 20-point loss. And no one could forget his posterization of P.J. Tucker later in the series.
This team is only going to reach its ceiling if the ancillary threats surrounding their two stars make significant progress toward reaching their own ceilings. Sure, Booker could average 27.3 points instead of 25.6 and Paul could average 1.7 turnovers instead of 2.4, but unless another significant option or two arises, Phoenix may not even make it back to a conference finals with how other teams in the West have re-tooled.