The Fundamentals: Suns blowing past expectations, but just how good are they?
The NBA regular season is lined with mirages, those tricks of randomness that prop up situational factors at the expense of underlying truth. A great player stumbles into a brutal shooting slump. New teammates take to one another instantly before falling back to earth. A questionable team swells as a contender slips. The beats of those progressions are as familiar as the bounce of a ball, and just as fundamental to the league. So long as we continue to pay attention to the recent, the brief, the unverifiable, there will continue to be mirages en masse.
This year’s Suns are anything but a fluke, though the very concept serves to explain some of the lingering skepticism surrounding one of the better teams in the NBA thus far. Through 23 games, Phoenix — thought by many to be in dreary contention for the league’s worst record — has not only made a case for a playoff spot, but ranks as one of the 10 best teams in the league by way of pace-adjusted point differential. Their success at 14-9 and winners of five straight has been indisputable, but only now are we nearing the point where the Suns can lean on any kind of proper empirical support.
Even then, the notion that the Suns could be defined after a quarter of a season is a bit preposterous, if only for all the relative unknowns involved. Teams like Houston and Golden State are a bit easier to comprehend, no matter their significant offseason additions; fundamentally, they are established rosters adding established players, all of which could be gauged while accounting for a variety of transitional factors. Phoenix, on the other hand, still faces doubt for all that has yet to be determined. They’re treated by many as a mirage not because they are one, but because young teams of developing players tend to leave a bit more up in the air.
Consider the Suns’ defense. Through the opening stretch of the season, Phoenix was defending at a top-five level behind former Celtics assistant Mike Longabardi, who had successfully imported the basics of a Thibodeau-style scheme and unleashed the inner ballhawk in Eric Bledsoe. That combination helped the Suns keep competitive against most any opponent, with early wins over Portland and Denver paired with close losses to Oklahoma City and San Antonio. There was promise in Phoenix’s coverage, one that faded as the season settled. At present, those same Suns rank a mere 17th in the league in points allowed per possession, squarely in the territory of the defensively challenged Mavericks and the lottery-bound Magic.
These things happen, and they’re not an indictment of the Suns so much as a limitation of the evaluative process. Phoenix’s opening salvo still demands attention, but 10 games is no sample by which to make definitive statement. Neither is 23 games, frankly, but we work from what we’re given and glean what we can.
In the Suns’ case, that leads us largely to the offense — the more consistently beneficial side of the ball for Phoenix through this young season. At the core of the Suns’ scoring success are Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, two flexible guards bonded through thermonuclear fusion. Both are dynamic in their own right; Bledsoe’s emergence has understandably drawn more attention, but the true co-leads in Phoenix have put together nearly identical stat lines while keeping the offense humming.
That, as much as anything, has been a pleasant surprise. Despite Bledsoe playing for a new contract as a first-time starter and Dragic seeing his team acquire a talented young player at his natural position, both have been incredibly unselfish in their operation of the offense. The ball pops from side to side and from inside out, orbiting around Bledsoe and Dragic in a relay of pick-and-rolls. Both have been set up brilliantly for those sequences by a head coach in Jeff Hornacek who is pushing his team towards the most efficient shots possible, and by a supporting cast that helps to max out the space available:
This is the spread pick-and-roll in its purest form, upheld by the return of Channing Frye, the improved shooting of Dragic, P.J. Tucker, and Marcus Morris, the development of Markieff Morris, and the arrival of a competent roll man in Miles Plumlee. Bledsoe’s off-the-dribble explosion makes the chain reaction of the pick-and-roll that much more difficult to contain, particularly when flanked by knockdown shooters in both corners. It’s all a relatively simple formula, but carried out at such speeds — both in terms of half-court tempo and open-court pace — that most opponents suffer the full blunt force of the Suns’ blitz.
This basic strategy, laced with preambling diversions and layered actions, is workable in the long term. Yet there are some odd quirks in the pairing of Phoenix’s guards still, primarily on Bledsoe’s side of the aisle. When Dragic is on the floor, Bledsoe’s field-goal percentage plummets from nearly 50 percent on average to 41 percent, while his long range shooting dips from a roughly league-average mark to 30 percent. Bledsoe gets deep into the paint significantly less often, draws fewer fouls per minute, and struggles to convert intermediate shots when paired with Dragic. Phoenix on the whole still does quite well when playing its two lead guards together, though in all these are mildly concerning factors for a player who could be central to the Suns’ future.
Adding another layer of complexity to the situation is that Bledsoe-led lineups without Dragic have been a bit of a mess for the Suns, as they suffer losses on both ends of the floor. Some of that is simply the nature of leaning on players like Gerald Green in Dragic’s stead, though it’s hard to tease out a distinct reason why Phoenix would fare so well with Dragic sans Bledsoe and so poorly under the opposite arrangement. Here’s a full breakdown of the Suns’ performance in lineups featuring Bledsoe and Dragic together, one without the other, or none of the above:
Charted data via NBA Wowy.
In total, Bledsoe — who may be the face of the franchise going forward — has not yet been successful in leading lineups without Dragic’s aid. At the same time, he’s both more productive (as one would expect) and more efficient (as one likely wouldn’t) with Dragic out of the game, creating a slight disconnect between what is currently best for Bledsoe and what has ultimately worked for the Suns. This isn’t much of an issue when Phoenix is riding high on a five-game winning streak, and is still subject to such incredible noise that it isn’t worth making a fuss about. Dragic has been incredible, Bledsoe is a star in the making very worthy of the public adoration he’s received, and the Suns are a fun, winning team. Yet the basketball relationship between the two bears watching, as it certainly isn’t without its kinks.
To zoom out a bit, though, these are deeper problems facing a team just 23 games old, brought on by the best reason possible: Phoenix is winning far more than anyone expected. They’re so far ahead of schedule as to make this conversation possible, which in itself is a remarkable achievement. With that, let’s delay any rush to say what this team is or isn’t capable of, given that it’s unlikely that Suns officials — who seemed to be in a tanking pattern going into the season — are even quite sure.
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