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One of the big keys to the Phoenix Suns season will be to win the battle of the three-point plays.

When you didn't make the playoffs last year, you need to improve in a lot of areas. The Suns were good in some ways, but lacking in others.

We can debate the makeup of the roster all day long, and even the schemes the Suns employ. We can even suggest trades that would fill in every hole known to man and somehow make the Suns an 82-0 team without giving up any necessary players. You know who you are. You're already itching to jump down to the comments section to suggest a blockbuster.

But this article focuses on the current Suns roster, and identifies one way the Suns can improve without making any trades.

Some things we know for sure about the Phoenix Suns this season:

  1. The Hydra will make the Suns exciting and will win the battle of back courts on most nights
  2. The front court will be frustrating and will lose the battle of front courts on most nights

Breaking down the pluses and minuses of the front court is a long, drawn-out conversation. Today, I am going to focus on three-point plays, some of which are generated in the paint as shooting fouls on made baskets.

Last season, the Suns finished in the Top 15 on defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) for the first time since the 2006-07 season. They did so not with a premiere shot blocking anchor in the middle, but with a three-point line defense that ranked #2 overall in the league.

The Suns allowed a lot of scores at the rim, but more than made up for it by winning the battle of the three-pointer.

Defending the three

When you are smaller than most of your opponents, you cannot expect to win by playing traditional defense. You're going to get beat up under the basket.

But games aren't won or lost under the basket any more. When the object is to score more points than your opponent, the key is to stop the shots that create the most points.

There are only two ways to score more than two points on a possession: making a three-point basket from behind the arc, and enticing a shooting-foul on a made basket.

The Suns were the second-best team in league at defending the three-point line (34.1%) while being 8th best overall in making them (37.2%). Overall, the Suns took 5.2 more threes than their opponent and outscored them by 9.1 points per game from behind the arc.

For the Suns to continue to have success this season, they will have to reprise that advantage. On the perimeter, the Suns bring back all of their regulars from last season, with only swapping undersized Ish Smith for undersized Isaiah Thomas.

And to that end, the Suns in the preseasons have defended just as well as last year (2nd in three-point defense) but have not shot the ball as well. You can throw preseason stats out the window, for sure, but still it's good to see consistency in scheme there.

Making the three

Despite losing Channing Frye to the Orlando Magic, the Suns return all four of their top three-point shooters from last season (Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris made 38.1 - 40.7%) and six of their top seven overall. They also added Anthony Tolliver who made 41% of his threes last season in Charlotte, which would have been tops on the Suns, and Isaiah Thomas who made 40% of his threes in Sacramento last year before hurting his shooting wrist in February.

The Suns were only 8th in three-point percentage last year, so it's not a stretch to assume similar or better results this season.

Committing shooting fouls - the other 3-point play

I cannot find a perfect stat for this, so bear with me. I wanted to find out where the Suns ranked last year on the other kind of three-point play - shooting fouls. Ideally, I wanted to know how many three-point plays the Suns converted versus surrendered last year via the shooting foul. Unfortunately, I could not find such a stat on a team level. Synergy used to have it but they have shut down public access as of October 1. But I got close.

Back in the mid-2000s, one of Mike D'Antoni's tenets for his Suns team was to commit the fewest fouls possible. In fact, the Suns regularly were in the bottom three of the league in fouls committed. His premise was sound: why allow the other team to turn a two-pointer into a three-pointer?

Where Phoenix struggled was committing way too many fouls. The Suns committed the 23rd-most fouls last season and were 23rd in opponent free throw attempts per offensive play.

These errors should be correctable. As Miles Plumlee gains experience, he will learn when and how to commit fouls and when to just allow the points. He will also get better at early positioning on defense, so he doesn't put himself into recovery mode that so often results in fouls. Unfortunately, Plumlee hasn't shown any progress in this area in preseason.

Also working against the Suns this season is the role Alex Len will play. The 7'1" Len is only 21 and has barely played in the past 18 months, so he is very likely to have a high foul rate this season.

The Morris twins, as well, have high foul rates despite having a lot more NBA experience. As they enter their fourth seasons, each should be expected to reduce their foul rates this year.

If the Suns can somehow finish in the middle of the pack on shooting fouls committed, they can stop shooting themselves in the foot so much this season.

Drawing shooting fouls

Back in the mid-2000s, the Suns would prefer to convert their own three-point plays than watch the other team do it. In those days, PF Amare Stoudemire was a master at drawing shooting fouls on the pick-and-roll.

These Suns of 2014-15 have no one like STAT. Yet these Suns do have three point guards who thrive at drawing shooting fouls on drives to the rim from the perimeter. Overall, the Suns were a respectable 13th overall last season in free throws attempted per offensive play. Considering the Suns disadvantage in size, it's a testament to Dragic and Bledsoe's, as well as Markieff Morris', fearlessness driving into the teeth of the defense.

This year, the Suns have added Isaiah Thomas who is good in his own right at driving to the rim and drawing fouls along the way.

All three of the Hydra were among the league's Top 13 players with the most drives per game, Top 14 in team PPG on drives and Top 16 on personal PPG on drives, per NBA.com/stats. These guys create points in bunches.

Summary

Three out of four ain't bad. The Suns are:

  • Really good at stopping three-pointers
  • Pretty good at making them
  • Okay, and getting better, at drawing shooting fouls
  • Really bad at committing shooting fouls

The Suns will likely continue to focus on both kinds of three-point plays this season and it will be one of their keys to the season. Between the long-range bomber offense and the Slash Brothers, or Slash Triplets, or Hydra, they will continue to score in bunches.

Where the Suns need to improve is on the defensive end. They need to maintain their effectiveness in defending the long bombs while also reducing their foul rate at the rim.

Teams are going to score at the rim. They just will. The Suns are not the biggest team in the NBA nor the stingiest defense.

They just need to stop making matters worse by committing shooting fouls. The Suns are an aggressive defense. Fouls will happen. Layups will be given up.

Just don't make it a three-point play.

Will the Suns' reliance on their guards to provide the bulk of the scoring be an issue this season?

If the Phoenix Suns showed anything during the preseason, it's that they have the deepest, and likely the most dangerous guard rotation in the NBA.

In fact, their best three players, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas, all play the same position.  But the great thing about the Suns' system is that they run an offense in which both guards share the duties of bringing the ball up the court and facilitating the offense.

Phoenix also experimented with the three-guard line-up which also proved successful.  In fact, having Dragic-Bledsoe-Thomas on the court together against the Utah Jazz spurred a 9-4 run to help them overcome an 89-88 deficit, and close out a victory late in the fourth quarter.

In addition to the three point guards, the Suns have also mixed in a heavy helping of Gerald Green off the bench. And once again, Green is proving to be an offensive spark plug...bolstering both his teammates and the fans with high-flying dunks and three-point shooting.

The Four-Headed Monster?

All in all, the Suns finished the preseason with a record of 5-2.  Who were their top scorers?  Yep, you guessed it.  Bledsoe was 1st (15 ppg); Thomas was 2nd (14.1 ppg); Dragic was 3rd (12.4 ppg); and Green was 4th (12.3 ppg).

However, as great as that is for the Suns guards, it does raise some questions as to the balance of the offense.  It certainly isn't normal that the four highest scorers on the team are all guards.  In fact, I looked at the stats around the league just to make sure, and found that no other team had all guards in their top four.

In fact, only the Pacers had four guards among their top five scorers as the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th highest during the preseason. Even then, this would almost certainly be different if Paul George were playing.

So what does this all mean?  Well, no one really knows...yet.

One thing that stands out though, when looking at the numbers, is that the Suns are obviously getting excellent production from their back-court.  But their front-court?  Not so much.

Let's Look At The Numbers

In order to try to make this as realistic as possible, I looked at the top 10 players according to the minutes they played, which happens to be the same 10-man rotation most likely to play in the regular season as well.

Of those ten players, the total points scored per game, on average, was 92.6.  Of that total, the guards accounted for 53.9 points per game, and the forwards and centers accounted for 38.7.

This means that the guards scored 58.2% of the points per game, and everyone else scored only 41.8%.

But is this really a cause for concern?  After all, if your best players are all guards, you would naturally want them to do most of the scoring.

But Wait, There's More...

Looking closer at the numbers, the top 10 players took an average of 69.3 shots per game.  Of those shot attempts, the guards took 53% of the shots, and the forwards and centers took 47%.  This is a much more balanced distribution than the scoring numbers would suggest.  So what is going on?

Well, if you haven't already figured it out, the difference is in the efficiency.

It's not that the Suns aren't trying to spread the ball around on offense, it's that their guards are substantially outperforming the other positions when it comes to making their shots.

The guards averaged 49.8% shooting from the field throughout the preseason.  The forwards and centers averaged only 39.8% (when you take out Alex Len's only two shots that he attempted and made in one game).

This is especially concerning when you consider that the forwards and centers are normally shooting the ball much closer to the basket on average, and they should actually have a higher field goal percentage because of it.

A Look At The Competition

Take the Golden State Warriors, for instance, who also have one of the best back-court duo's in the league, and are probably the most similar team to the Suns overall.

The guards on the Warriors accounted for 52% of the scoring, compared to 48% for the forwards and centers.  That alone is a substantial difference from the Suns.

In addition to that, the guards averaged 50.6% from the field, and their forwards and centers averaged 58.7%.

This shows that the Warriors were very balanced offensively this preseason, and although their guards scored more points, their forwards and centers were more efficient inside and made the most of their opportunities when they got their touches.

Uncharted Territory

The Suns are embarking on a brand new experiment this season that could rival the Seven-Seconds-or-Less, Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash system, that brought the fast-paced, high-scoring style of offense to the league.

But will it be as successful?  Could it be even more so?

That remains to be seen.  I certainly don't think the Suns mind the guards taking the majority of the shots or scoring the bulk of the points offensively.

After all, the main priority of the Suns' big men will be to defend the rim and rebound. But at the same time, the Suns have to be able to convert high-percentage shots at and around the basket without relying so heavily on the guards to carry the load.

The data shows that they are trying to get the other players involved in the offense, but that they just haven't been nearly efficient enough when given the opportunity.

Of course, that could certainly change.  Markieff Morris had a slow start to the preseason, but played much better in the finale against the Jazz.  Last year, Keef was the fourth-leading scorer, and averaged 13.7 points per game, while shooting 48.6 % from the field.

If the Suns can get that type of production from him, plus solid defense and rebounding from the center position, I see no reason why they can't make this work.

Not only that, but things could even out now that the exhibition games have ended--with the rotations becoming more static, and the focus more on execution than experimentation.

Still, this will definitely be something to keep an eye on as the regular season gets underway.

Finishing 33-33 and out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the 2011-12 Phoenix Suns were not a particularly memorable squad. But that season featured the last great performance of certain future Ring of Honor and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Steve Nash. He made the All-Star team and nearly led the league in assists.

Steve Nash's final two Suns seasons, post-Amar'e, missing the playoffs and looking like a shell of their former "7 Seconds or Less" selves, were difficult for many fans to take after the thrills of the high-scoring, championship-contending teams of the mid and late '00s.

Personally, I found enjoyment in the 2011-12 team. After a slow start, a less than awe-inspiring starting lineup of Nash, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat proved to be extremely effective. Nash and Gortat executed a deadly pick and roll game, with Frye and Dudley providing floor spacing, and Hill wing defense. That five-man group produced +13.4 points per 100 possessions over opponents.

Unfortunately, the slow start, a weak bench and late injuries to Hill and Frye doomed the Suns to the lottery again.

That season was also my first as a front page writer here, and I posted on a regular basis, which may be a reason I hold fonder memories of it than most. I was fully engaged and invested in that team.

For those of you who weren't around then, or anyone who wants to take a walk down memory lane, here are a few of the Nash pieces I wrote then. They're all more meaningful than anything I could write about him now that he's been gone so long.

Steve Nash, Greatest Phoenix Suns Player Ever

Members of the staff wrote tributes to Nash to celebrate his 38th birthday on February 7th, 2012. I used the occasion to stake my claim that Nash is the greatest ever Suns player.

When he returned to Phoenix from Dallas, the Suns were a 29-53 team, with the 21st rated offense in the league. In his first season back, 2004-2005, the Suns won 62 games with the NBA's best offense, making the Western Conference Finals only to lose to the eventual league champion San Antonio Spurs. Another 60-win season, two 50-win seasons and two more conference finals appearances followed as Nash won league MVP twice.

Then, like a boss, Nash went out and hit the game-winning shot that night.

Suns Win Shootout in Indy, Down Pacers 113-111

The Suns dug themselves out of an early season hole to make a push for the #8 playoff seed with strong play in late February and March. On March 23rd, they exploded for 113 points against the vaunted Pacers defense (sound familiar?), as Nash dished 17 assists. Remember that Gortat led the Suns in scoring that season behind the effectiveness of Nash's pick and roll game with him.

The Suns and Pacers played a good old-fashioned shootout tonight, with the Suns prevailing 113-111. Steve Nash added another masterpiece to his ever-growing collection with 17 assists and 12 points, Grant Hill showed he loves playing in Indianapolis with a season-high 22 points, and Marcin Gortat came up strong in his duel with All-Star center Roy Hibbert, scoring 23.

Steve Nash Doesn't Want to Be Traded, National Media Need to Get Over It

One of the less pleasant parts of Nash's final season was the constant trade rumors, even though Nash and Babby both repeatedly stated he wouldn't be traded. I did not like this. I did not like it one bit, and got nice and ranty one Friday afternoon in March of that year.

Most importantly, Nash says he wants to honor his contract and fulfill his commitment in Phoenix. What the hell is it with so-called experts who pretend they know his situation and motivations better than he does? On last night's post-game, analyst Dennis Scott called Nash "too loyal" and that the Suns "owe him" a trade. Those sound like the words of a man who isn't loyal enough, or who has no clue what loyalty is.

And before anyone even thinks of telling me, "But Ray, he ended up on the Lakers, so you were wrong." No. Surely, we can all tell the difference between a player under contract requesting a trade, and a free agent leaving his previous team when they've already signed his replacement, right?

Steve Nash as a 40 Year Old Point Guard: Why Not?

Hey, I'm not a doctor or trainer. Who knew a piece of luggage would do him in? Also, I think now is a fair time to debate Nash vs. Stockton.

All of which is to say that, while what Nash will attempt to do is rarely achieved, it's not unprecedented. Nobody can tell the future, especially with regards to injuries, but there are no obvious reasons he can't continue his current level of play for at least another couple of seasons.

I enjoyed watching Nash play more than nearly every athlete in my lifetime as a sports fan. It was watching a master craftsman at work.

When he left for the Lakers, it stunned and disappointed us all, but then I think we understood it was a.) for the best and b.) not his fault since the Suns clearly didn't want him any more after drafting Kendall Marshall and signing Goran Dragic as a free agent.

Now we have Archie Goodwin and another pick on the way, and we'll always have the great memories of Steve Nash as the brightest Sun of all.

The Suns waived Earl Barron today

Today, the Phoenix Suns made what is likely to be the final move to their roster before the start of the NBA season, by waiving 7' 0" center Earl Barron.

Barron, a seven-year NBA veteran, was a training camp invitee who signed with the Suns on Sept. 26th.  Earl was given the opportunity to help fortify the center position behind Miles Plumlee and Alex Len.  Barron's competition for the 15th and final spot on the roster was also the other player hoping to be the team's third center, Shavlik Randolph.

The advantage for Randolph coming in, is that he was already signed to a guaranteed contract of $1.22 million for the season, so if Earl was planning on unseating him, he would have to make a big statement.

In the first few preseason games, Barron did just that.  In his best game, he scored 10 points on 5/8 shooting from the field and grabbed 13 rebounds against the Houston Rockets.

However, he was not able to sustain his production over the entire preseason the way he needed to, and Shavlik Randolph answered back shortly after with an impressive game of his own against the Los Angeles Lakers, in which he showed of his three-point shooting range...including a clutch shot to help the Suns win in overtime.

In the end, the Suns chose to keep their guy who was already under contract for the season.  But it isn't just because of that.

In addition to his improved shooting range, Randolph has also proven to be reliable enough to play at both the four and the five, and always hustles on both ends of the floor.  His versatility as a player, ability to spread the floor, and energy on both ends of the court were probably the most substantial factors in the decision to keep him over Barron.

With this move, the Suns are now at 15 players, the maximum they can keep on their regular season roster.  This is likely the last move they will make before the start of the season, but that doesn't mean they won't continue to look for opportunities to continue improving their team during the season either.

If the Suns were able to keep a 16th player, I have little doubt they would have kept Earl Barron on the roster for now.  However, there simply isn't enough room, and someone had to go.

Good luck, Earl.

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