The eye test tells us that the Suns offense is stagnant and sticky this season, even though the main players are basically the same. But what do the numbers tell us?
As expected, the Phoenix Suns offense is centered around the point guards. Each point guard on the team is unique, but they do share a couple of common traits: driving to the rim with abandon, and taking pull up shots off the dribble.
The first seven games of the season have been frustrating for Suns fans. The ball sticks to the point guards. There's not enough passing. Not enough scoring assists. Not enough wide open three pointers. Not enough drives to the rim. If you read comment threads, based on the eye test you'd think the Suns are really struggling on offense this season.
Let's take a statistical look at how the Suns are really doing offensively, after seven games in the new season.
NBA.com/stats tracks drives as any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks. This year's Suns are driving more and converting more of them than a year ago.
As a team, the Suns are third in the league or better in shooting % on drives (54.2%, 2nd in league), player points per game on drives (18.9, 3rd) and team PPG on drives (32.7, 3rd). Remember, this doesn't even include fast break points, where the Suns are second in the league at 15 points per game.
Isaiah Thomas (50% on drives, 4.4 points per game for himself, another 3.5 on assists to others) has added to the Suns arsenal of Goran Dragic (63.2%, 4.4, 4.0) and Eric Bledsoe (48.1%, 5.1, 4.8) as the Slash Brothers have become, well, still the Slash Brothers just with 3 of them instead of 2.
This year's Slash Brothers are even better than last year's bros on drives. Last year, the Suns shot 48.6% on drives (still 3rd in league) with 15.7 players points per game on drives (15.7, 7th) and team PPG on drives (27.3, 6th).
NBA.com/stats tracks pull ups as any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took 1 or more dribbles before shooting. The pull up shot is more of a staple of this year's team than last year's.
As a team, the Suns are no worse than fourth in the league in points per game (20.0, 4th in league), makes (9.3, 3rd) and attempts (23.7, 1st), but they are just not making them as well as other teams, or even as well as they did last year. The Suns are just 13th in FG% on pull ups (38.7%) and 19th in FG% on three-point pull ups (25%). A year ago, the Suns took fewer pull up shots (7.7 makes per game on 20 attempts), making the same % overall but converting a much higher percentage of threes (36.8%).
Adding Isaiah Thomas, who loves to shoot and makes a good percentage of them when he does, accounts for the increase in pull up rate.
This year's team doesn't pass a whole heck of a lot. But neither did last year's team.
This year's Suns make 282 passes per game converting to 18.9 assists per game, both good for just 22nd in the league. But last year's team was just as bad (280 passes for 19.1 assists), ranking even lower on the comparative scale (29th).
So that's a non-starter.
You would think that this year's Suns are struggling to convert catch-and-shoot opportunities, described by NBA.com/stats as a shot taken within two seconds of catching the ball without taking a dribble. If they are better on drives and not much worse on pull-up jumpers, then the Suns must be struggling on catch-and-shoot opportunities, right?
That's actually not the case. This year's team is nearly identical on catch-and-shoot opportunities so far this season versus last year. Their catch-and-shoot points per game (26.1) are only down .5 points from last year (26.6) and the shooting % is nearly identical (38.4% vs. 39.3%).
After Sunday night, the Suns are right back up there in pace. The Suns are now 6th in pace (possessions per game) vs. 8th a year ago. We've all said it looks like they are walking the ball up too much, but in reality they walked it up a lot last year too.
So what gives? How are this year's Suns so much worse on offense?
It's not. The Suns are slightly worse on offense in terms of points per game, but not much worse at all.
Their points per 100 possessions (which takes pace out of the picture) is down 4.3 points, from 109.5 to 105.2. Their two-point field goal percentage is nearly identical to last season, so it's basically down to threes. The Suns are making about one less three pointer per game (down from 9.3 to 8.7) because they are shooting it a lot worse so far (from 37.2% last year to 33.7% this year).
Goran Dragic (25%) and Gerald Green (33%) are the main culprits. And if you factor in that this season is only 7 games old vs. last season's 82 games, you start to realize that three-point shooting percentages go up and down.
Once the Suns start making a reasonable number of their three point attempts, the offense this season could be a bit better than last year's because of the higher frequency and efficiency on drives to the rim.
I can't. Maybe we expected to see a much more fluid offense this year than last year. Maybe we didn't see the warts last year as clearly as we are seeing them this year. Last year's team was only 8th in points per 100 possessions and was just as focused as this year's on pull ups, drives and kick-outs.
Once the threes start falling like they're going to (36.5% the last three games vs. 33% for all seven combined), and the sample size gets bigger, the Suns will be right back up there on offense. This team is tracking to be just about as good - maybe a little better, maybe a little worse - than last year while they continue to grow and gain experience.
Over the course of the season, we can hope to see growth from the centers (Miles Plumlee and Alex Len are basically in their second and first playing years), from the Morrii and from the back court. This is a very young team in terms of NBA experience. There are no superstars on this team, but there are a lot of above-average NBA players who collectively can combine to win 50+ games this year on will power alone.
This year's team is nearly identical to last year's team. It's just that this year we expected so much more.
"Who wants to be a sixth man?" - Isaiah Thomas
Eric Bledsoe has high expectations for the Suns and their loaded backcourt. "I know we're trying to make the playoffs, but at the same time, I think we have a chance to get home-court advantage."
Isaiah Thomas is happy with his new situation in Phoenix, though doesn't deny that he still values himself as a starter. "But I've got to do what's best for this team and what's best as of right now is to come off the bench and be the sixth man and play my game when I do get in," Thomas said. "But at the same time, who wants to be a sixth man?"
So who is the NBA's top sixth man? Here's a look at some of the top options off the bench this season.
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