Phoenix- The final spot in the Western Conference playoffs may come down to which team can stay the healthiest. New Orleans Pelicans (37-30) coach Monty Williams announced before Thursday’s...

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A preview of a critical Suns game against New Orleans, one of the two teams that the Suns must catch in the West.

      
 
 

Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek wanted his team to be among the top three fastest teams in the league this season, considering all the youth on the team after finishing 8th in pace a year ago.

This year, he wanted the Suns to get the ball down the court a lot faster, on both makes and misses. He got what he wanted, though what he got might not be what everyone thought they'd be getting.

Where the Suns are fast

The Suns are 2nd in the NBA in pace, a measure of the number of possessions per game. A possession ends on a shot or turnover. The Suns take the 2nd most shots in the league and have the 6th most turnovers.

"We want to bring it up the court, get into our early offense," Hornacek said, with a bit more detail. "Swing it from side to side, quick hitters for our guards so they can break the defense down and then kick out to guys."

The Suns do create a bunch of early offense, and Hornacek is right that the earlier the shot, the higher percentage it will be a scoring play.

nba-stats-shot-clock

*courtesy NBA.com/stats

The later the shot, the worse the Suns' field goal percentage. This is true of every NBA team, not just the Suns.

More than 40% of the Suns shot attempts come before the clock strikes 15, helped out by being 2nd in the league in fast break points. And on those shot attempts, their effective field goal % (factoring in three pointers and free throws) is higher than 50%.

Another interesting stat is the "touch time" per to each shot - a measure of how long the shooter was in possession of the ball before taking the shot. Simply, a 'catch and shoot' shot would have a very short touch time, while an isolation shot by the point guard after taking the ball inbounds would have a long touch time.

suns-touch-time

Only 10% of the Suns shots are taken after holding the ball 6+ seconds. This should assuage those concerned by the rampant "iso ball" the Suns seem to rely too heavily on. Maybe there are "iso ball" tendencies, but they don't seem to be of the pound-the-ball variety.

However, the Suns appear to be fast dribblers. While only 10% of their shots are taken after holding the ball for 6+ seconds, a whopping 27% of their shots are taken after 3+ dribbles by the shooter.

suns-dribbles

As you can see, the Suns field goal percentage drops with every dribble. This is true of ALL NBA teams, not just the Suns.

study done by nerd-olifics at HP basketball comes to the same conclusions as these Suns charts show. The earlier in the shot clock, the fewer the dribbles and the more open the shot, the better the chance it will fall through the net.

The way to reduce dribbling and get a better shot is to pass the ball. While the Suns take a lot of shots really early in the shot clock (40% in the first 9 seconds, #2 in pace) and with very few dribbles (73% on 2 or fewer dribbles), they don't do a ton of passing the ball to each other.

Where the Suns are slow

The Suns are only 19th in the NBA in passing (286 passes per game) and 25th in assists per game. This is a much better number than a year ago (23rd and 29th, respectively) but still pretty bad.

The reason this fits in the slow category is that one of the reasons the Suns don't pass a lot is because guys aren't cutting and moving to get open. The offense is designed around the point guard creating shots off his own drives while everyone else stands around on the wing - a perfect design when you've got Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas running the show.

The Suns don't pass the ball a lot, but at least they know how to score when they touch the ball. The Suns are 5th in points per touch (.255), and surprisingly 3rd (THIRD!) in the league in points per half-court touch (.355).

Unfortunately, while the Suns are quick to get up a shot, they are not very fast in NBA terms.

According to NBA.com's SportVu data, the Suns are the league's second-slowest team (4.0 miles per hour) and they travel the 3rd shortest distance per game (16.4 miles).

How is that possible? Because the Suns offense is not designed to cover a lot of ground in the half court. Players without the ball stand around waiting for the kickout, whereas teams like the Hawks, Jazz, Spurs and Warriors are constantly on the move.

What it means

It means that the Suns are really good at jogging the ball up and taking the quickest shot possible, using 'the earlier the better' motto that is quite proven to work.

They run a lot, but they don't run very fast.

They are second in the league in fast break points, but are 2nd slowest in terms of speed and travel the 3rd shortest distance over the course of a game.

It appears that the Suns players have focused more on taking the first open shot possible and less on creating open shots through passes.

Without having great shooters, this translates to the league's 12th-rated offense overall, in terms of efficiency. But the Suns are going in the wrong direction since the All-Star break, and that speaks to an offense geared to succeed on isolation scorers once into the half court.

Through December, the Suns were as high as 4th in offensive efficiency (points per possession). By the All-Star break, which includes a slump, they'd dropped to 7th overall. Still really good, with a scheme to match the scoring skills of Dragic, Thomas, Bledsoe and the Morrii.

But after great isolation scorers Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas were traded, and not replaced by similar iso scorers, the Suns offense has dropped to 23rd in the league since the Break. Bledsoe and the Morrii have not picked up the missing points, leaving the void to be filled by Knight, Len and others who are not nearly as good at getting their own shot.

To succeed with the new lineup, the Suns will have to start passing more to create open shots on the catch-and-shoot. They've improved that a bit, but not enough to be efficient once into the half court.

That's why you think they've lost their way a bit on offense. It's because they have.

Suns vs Pelicans tonight at 7pm PST on Fox Sports Arizona! How freaking good is Anthony Davis?

Ryan McDonough is inarguably a better GM than Dell Demps of the New Orleans Pelicans. Demps is responsible for the Pelicans paying Omer Asik, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holliday, and Eric Gordon over $52 million this season. He is the reason the Pelicans did not have a draft pick last year in the lottery and he is the reason they won’t have one this year, most likely in the lottery.

Demps is the reason Anthony Davis was drafted along with point guard of the future Austin Rivers in 2012, and he is the reason Anthony Davis is not currently joined by Nerlens Noel in the frontcourt. In 2013 Demps opted to trade Noel for Jrue Holliday immediately after drafting him. Instead of Davis and Noel dominating for the next decade-- keep in mind the two of them combine for a wingspan over 15 feet long-- Noel is hanging out in Philadelphia doing 76er things. Dell Demps still has a job.

Despite the fact that New Orleans has employed one of the worst GMs in basketball for the past five seasons its fan base really has nothing to fear. Anthony Davis is on track to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, barring injury. This month since coming back from shoulder problems Davis has averaged 29.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. This season Anthony Davis averages 4.3 blocks/steals per game combined. He is shooting 54.2% from the field and 83% from the free throw line, where he makes 6.6 trips per game.

Dell Demps drafted Anthony Davis first overall in 2012 in a draft where all 30 GMs would have made the exact same pick with the first overall selection.  The New Orleans Pelicans and Dell Demps have made mistakes recently, but none of it really matters. Because of Bird Rights Davis may spend the next decade in NOLA, and Anthony Davis is a mistake eraser. Davis is a reason to tank. A true franchise savior in every way. Anthony Davis is a nightmare for anybody he plays against who knows they can’t match his length and agility, and a nightmare for GMs like Ryan McDonough who know none of their hard work will matter if they can’t find someone 70% this talented.

Suns vs Pelicans tonight! IF THE SUNS WIN MAYBE DELL DEMPS WILL GET FIRED! But what do the others think…

What Vegas Thinks: Close Call (Suns -1, O/U 207.5)

According to Vegas the number of points separating these two teams tonight is unlikely to surpass the number of eyebrow the Pelicans’ star player possesses. This spread would probably be larger in the Suns favor if Alex Len were likely to be playing. Despite New Orleans having a 2 game advantage and coming into this game with more momentum than Phoenix the Pelicans have been a sub-.500 team on the road all season. However, without Len the Suns are likely to matchup against The Brow with Markieff Morris and Brandan Wright, both of who are likely to be lit up by Davis in the post and on the wing. However, the Suns have far more to work with in terms of players 2 thru 9 and even Davis has not played nearly as well away from the Smoothie King Center… yes that is the arena’s real name in New Orleans. A 1-point spread is nothing to get excited about as it is basically a toss-up, but it is indicative of how much these injuries are hurting Phoenix. This game would tilt strong toward the Suns if their ankles were made of titanium.

What the National Media Thinks: MVP?

This year’s MVP race is without a doubt the closest in a very long time and one of the most crowded. Anthony Davis may be its greatest casualty. Davis has a good chance of having a better stat line than any other fifth place finisher in votes in the league’s history. In 2006, Steve Nash’s second straight MVP season, Chauncey Billups finished fifth place in the MVP voting with 18.5 ppg and 8.6 assists. Billups shot 41.8% from the field and although his defense was always strong, it certainly wasn’t MVP level. In 2015, Davis is likely to finish in 5th place in the MVP voting behind Curry, Harden, James, and Westbrook. An argument could be made that many seasons, including those Nash years, Davis’s would be enough to win the MVP race by a decent margin even on a team who will be an 8th seed at best, and likely not a playoff team at all.

For good reason the national media is obsessed with this year’s MVP race. Recently Anthony Davis has grabbed the torch as the guy everybody thinks should be in the MVP race but isn’t really in the MVP race and so 150 media writers do pieces about how Anthony Davis should be in the MVP race. The same article has been written every single year about Chris Paul, and is written every single year if LeBron isn’t the favorite. We truly have reached the dog days of the season, even for media members, and these pieces get clicks. Ken Berger of CBS Sports is one of the writers who did a piece like this, and his is my favorite so it is the one I will reward with a hyperlink. If you want a strong look at how insane it is that Davis isn’t likely to finish top 3 in this year’s voting, go ahead and give it a read.

What Pelicans Fans Think: Fire Monty!

Boy, I knew Pelicans fans were not big on Monty Williams, nor should they be, but I was surprised to see this from The Bird Writes—incredible SB Nation name by the way—writer Kyle Gahagan. Apparently things have gotten so bad that New Orleans fans are interested in reading about NCAA coaches who should take over. Keep in mind this team is a game out of the playoffs and coming up on a stretch of games that determines their season. I have to give his list credit because Gahagan’s top candidate is Sean Miller, and as an ASU fan there is nothing I would love more than Miller exiting my life forever. What he has been able to do at U of A is remarkable even by their standards, however the rest of the list is unremarkable. Pitino is a retread whose strength lies in recruiting, not teaching. Tony Bennett has had a couple great years in Virginia, but I wouldn’t peg him as ready for an NBA gig yet. Beilein has as a bad season for every two good seasons at Michigan, and far more good seasons than great ones. Billy Donovan is an interesting name, and probably the only name on the list that would consider the job, but I’m not ready to hand him the reigns to the youngest super-duper star in the NBA yet. Donovan is more suited for a team like Orlando or Philadelphia, where his entire team is young and can be improved upon.

If the Pelicans fire Williams at the end of the season, which they most certainly will, and the Bulls fire Thibs, much less certain but very possible, then he should be the only name on their list. As a matter of fact, if Thibs is not the coach of the Bulls OR Pelicans next year then the commissioner should veto the move and make Thibs coach New Orleans. This sort of thing has precedent.

Also, I heard Lindsey Hunter is available? Trust me New Orleans, you would love him! HUNTER FOR NOLA 2015!

Suns vs Pelicans tonight at 7pm PST on Fox Sports Arizona! How freaking good is Anthony Davis?

Ryan McDonough is inarguably a better GM than Dell Demps of the New Orleans Pelicans. Demps is responsible for the Pelicans paying Omer Asik, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holliday, and Eric Gordon over $52 million this season. He is the reason the Pelicans did not have a draft pick last year in the lottery and he is the reason they won’t have one this year, most likely in the lottery.

Demps is the reason Anthony Davis was drafted along with point guard of the future Austin Rivers in 2012, and he is the reason Anthony Davis is not currently joined by Nerlens Noel in the frontcourt. In 2013 Demps opted to trade Noel for Jrue Holliday immediately after drafting him. Instead of Davis and Noel dominating for the next decade-- keep in mind the two of them combine for a wingspan over 15 feet long-- Noel is hanging out in Philadelphia doing 76er things. Dell Demps still has a job.

Despite the fact that New Orleans has employed one of the worst GMs in basketball for the past five seasons its fan base really has nothing to fear. Anthony Davis is on track to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, barring injury. This month since coming back from shoulder problems Davis has averaged 29.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. This season Anthony Davis averages 4.3 blocks/steals per game combined. He is shooting 54.2% from the field and 83% from the free throw line, where he makes 6.6 trips per game.

Dell Demps drafted Anthony Davis first overall in 2012 in a draft where all 30 GMs would have made the exact same pick with the first overall selection.  The New Orleans Pelicans and Dell Demps have made mistakes recently, but none of it really matters. Because of Bird Rights Davis may spend the next decade in NOLA, and Anthony Davis is a mistake eraser. Davis is a reason to tank. A true franchise savior in every way. Anthony Davis is a nightmare for anybody he plays against who knows they can’t match his length and agility, and a nightmare for GMs like Ryan McDonough who know none of their hard work will matter if they can’t find someone 70% this talented.

Suns vs Pelicans tonight! IF THE SUNS WIN MAYBE DELL DEMPS WILL GET FIRED! But what do the others think…

What Vegas Thinks: Close Call (Suns -1, O/U 207.5)

According to Vegas the number of points separating these two teams tonight is unlikely to surpass the number of eyebrow the Pelicans’ star player possesses. This spread would probably be larger in the Suns favor if Alex Len were likely to be playing. Despite New Orleans having a 2 game advantage and coming into this game with more momentum than Phoenix the Pelicans have been a sub-.500 team on the road all season. However, without Len the Suns are likely to matchup against The Brow with Markieff Morris and Brandan Wright, both of who are likely to be lit up by Davis in the post and on the wing. However, the Suns have far more to work with in terms of players 2 thru 9 and even Davis has not played nearly as well away from the Smoothie King Center… yes that is the arena’s real name in New Orleans. A 1-point spread is nothing to get excited about as it is basically a toss-up, but it is indicative of how much these injuries are hurting Phoenix. This game would tilt strong toward the Suns if their ankles were made of titanium.

What the National Media Thinks: MVP?

This year’s MVP race is without a doubt the closest in a very long time and one of the most crowded. Anthony Davis may be its greatest casualty. Davis has a good chance of having a better stat line than any other fifth place finisher in votes in the league’s history. In 2006, Steve Nash’s second straight MVP season, Chauncey Billups finished fifth place in the MVP voting with 18.5 ppg and 8.6 assists. Billups shot 41.8% from the field and although his defense was always strong, it certainly wasn’t MVP level. In 2015, Davis is likely to finish in 5th place in the MVP voting behind Curry, Harden, James, and Westbrook. An argument could be made that many seasons, including those Nash years, Davis’s would be enough to win the MVP race by a decent margin even on a team who will be an 8th seed at best, and likely not a playoff team at all.

For good reason the national media is obsessed with this year’s MVP race. Recently Anthony Davis has grabbed the torch as the guy everybody thinks should be in the MVP race but isn’t really in the MVP race and so 150 media writers do pieces about how Anthony Davis should be in the MVP race. The same article has been written every single year about Chris Paul, and is written every single year if LeBron isn’t the favorite. We truly have reached the dog days of the season, even for media members, and these pieces get clicks. Ken Berger of CBS Sports is one of the writers who did a piece like this, and his is my favorite so it is the one I will reward with a hyperlink. If you want a strong look at how insane it is that Davis isn’t likely to finish top 3 in this year’s voting, go ahead and give it a read.

What Pelicans Fans Think: Fire Monty!

Boy, I knew Pelicans fans were not big on Monty Williams, nor should they be, but I was surprised to see this from The Bird Writes—incredible SB Nation name by the way—writer Kyle Gahagan. Apparently things have gotten so bad that New Orleans fans are interested in reading about NCAA coaches who should take over. Keep in mind this team is a game out of the playoffs and coming up on a stretch of games that determines their season. I have to give his list credit because Gahagan’s top candidate is Sean Miller, and as an ASU fan there is nothing I would love more than Miller exiting my life forever. What he has been able to do at U of A is remarkable even by their standards, however the rest of the list is unremarkable. Pitino is a retread whose strength lies in recruiting, not teaching. Tony Bennett has had a couple great years in Virginia, but I wouldn’t peg him as ready for an NBA gig yet. Beilein has as a bad season for every two good seasons at Michigan, and far more good seasons than great ones. Billy Donovan is an interesting name, and probably the only name on the list that would consider the job, but I’m not ready to hand him the reigns to the youngest super-duper star in the NBA yet. Donovan is more suited for a team like Orlando or Philadelphia, where his entire team is young and can be improved upon.

If the Pelicans fire Williams at the end of the season, which they most certainly will, and the Bulls fire Thibs, much less certain but very possible, then he should be the only name on their list. As a matter of fact, if Thibs is not the coach of the Bulls OR Pelicans next year then the commissioner should veto the move and make Thibs coach New Orleans. This sort of thing has precedent.

Also, I heard Lindsey Hunter is available? Trust me New Orleans, you would love him! HUNTER FOR NOLA 2015!

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