In this edition of Bright Side of the Sun's 2014-15 season preview, we chow down on the Phoenix Suns' wings.
Dividing the Suns' roster into traditional basketball positions can be tricky under the unorthodox system of Jeff Hornacek. With a lineup employing dual playmaking point guards, plus the Channing Frye role (played this year by Anthony Tolliver) which really deserves it's own designation, the wing positions have been somewhat marginalized.
Hornacek has eschewed the traditional SG/SF lineup in favor of putting an extra serving of speed and ball-handling on the floor in the form of an additional point guard, and thus minutes at the wing position will be scarce in 2014-15. It creates a small problem, then, considering that the Suns boast a handful of players at this position that can make excellent cases for increased court time.
This handful of players represent a different characterization than the rest of the roster. The point guard trio of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas will provide most of the scoring. The frontcourt consists of young big men that the Suns are somewhat counting on to continue to improve this season.
The wings, in contrast, are led by super role-players P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green -- two veterans who have seen their NBA careers die once already, and play with the intensity of men that have nothing left to lose. They'll be pushed for minutes by youngsters Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren, and Marcus Morris figures to be splitting time here as well.
Quite the crowded house. Who will get the lion's share of the minutes? Will the youngsters find a way to steal a rotation spot by season's end? Only the next 82 games will answer these questions -- in the meantime, here's all you need to know about this eclectic batch of wings and how they figure to be used on this team.
By now the secret is out among NBA teams. The corner three is the most efficient place to shoot from the floor outside of layups and dunks, and this revelation has not been lost on Hornacek. 27.3% of the Suns' three-point attempts came from the corner -- the 7th-highest such percentage in the league. They converted at a 40.4% clip, good for 8th overall.
With Dragic, Bledsoe and Channing Frye doing most of their damage from the middle of the floor, the corners were largely left to the wings -- namely Tucker, Green and Marcus.
Tucker developed a niche from the corner pocket, which accounted for 87% of his 191 attempts from deep. He converted 41% of his corner shots, giving him just enough scoring ability in a Bruce Bowen sort of way to become the everyday starter at SF. This development really cannot be overstated. With a new found usefulness on offense, the resulting increase in minutes saw Tucker's win shares jump from 2.9 in 2012/13 to 6.1 last season.
Green didn't attempt as many corner shots as Tucker, given that his offensive repertoire is much more versatile, but when he did find himself open he was cash money. He nailed 46% of his 138 attempts from the corner pocket, contributing greatly to his career-high .585 TS%.
Marcus Morris represents an outlier in the theory of corner 3PA's, actually shooting a lower percentage (.373) from the corners than he did overall (.381).
Here is where Tucker outshines his colleagues, and frankly it isn't even close.
Both Green and Marcus are passable at defending the wing on their best days, and on their worst days are a liability. Goodwin and Warren both have potential to be plus defenders, Goodwin with his 6'10 wingspan and Warren with his high motor, but in the meantime Tucker will again be relied upon heavily to stymie the opponent's best scorer.
The Suns as a team allowed 30% of their opponents' field goal attempts to come within 3 feet of the rim. That was the 8th worst mark in the league. The 7 teams that were worse than the Suns in this regard all missed the playoffs.
They also surrendered the 5th most free-throw attempts. Again, all the teams with worse marks than the Suns missed the playoffs. There is a pattern here.
Due to the better-than-you-think interior defense of Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye, the Suns were 16th in the NBA in FG% allowed within 3 feet (.639). This is also a number that needs to improve (are you reading this, Alex Len?), but considering the onslaught of field goal attempts at the rim that the Suns interior defenders faced it's hard to place much blame on the big guys.
The Suns did allow an opponents' 3FG% of only .341, second only to the Clippers league-wide. However, chasing opponents off the three-point line is only a workable strategy if one can avoid chasing them all the way to the rim.
Not all of this rests on the shoulders of the Suns' perimeter defenders. The team rebounded only 73% of their opponents' misses (9th worst in the league) which surely led to plenty of putbacks at the rim. However, all this is meant to highlight the impact of one P.J. Tucker.
There have been some premature projections of T.J. Warren or perhaps Marcus Morris horning in on Tucker's minutes at small forward, but Tucker was probably the biggest reason that the Suns' defense in 2013/14 was just good enough to put the team in the playoff picture. As shoddy as the numbers above are, imagine what they might look like without 81 games from Tucker. If they want to end their four-year playoff drought -- and they really, really do -- shoring up the defense in the paint will go a long way to improving their win total from last season. Logically they will need their best defender on the floor to hound opposing wings and blow up pick-and-rolls for this to happen.
In short, don't expect anyone to take minutes away from P.J. anytime soon. You've seen what happens when one tries to take a loose ball away from him, right?
Yet another area where Tucker outshines his peers. Of all the Suns players to get at least 500 minutes of court time last season P.J. came in 4th on the team in rebounds per-36 (7.6) and TRB% (11.9). In contrast, Green was saved by Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa (only 368 MP) from being the worst rebounder on the team, grabbing 4.2 boards per-36.
Marcus Morris rebounding adequately for a SF last season, grabbing 6.4 rebounds per-36 -- a small notch below Channing Frye. Considering how much time he spends manning the 4, improvement would be welcome in this category. As a wing, however, his rebounding is a plus.
The real shocker here was Archie Goodwin, who nabbed 5.9 rebounds per-36 -- easily the best among the guards on the team. He accomplished this feat in only 533 total minutes of court time, which could very well make this an aberration, but perhaps it portends to the all-around player Goodwin is hoped to become.
The Suns will again look to Gerald Green to provide a scoring punch in 2014/15, but likely will not rely upon it quite so much as they were forced to when Eric Bledsoe was lost for half a season. Green responded emphatically to the increased role and was perhaps the biggest surprise on a team full of them, but with the added depth in the backcourt, expect a slightly reduced role for him this time around.
Despite iffy handles and suspect shot selection, Green proved capable of scoring from everywhere on the court, and in all kinds of crazy fashions. Can Green reach his stellar shooting numbers from the prior season, when he nailed 40% of his 3's and was the team's second leading scorer per minute?
The good news for the Suns is, they might not need him to.
Keep an eye out for Marcus Morris as well. The combo forward reportedly spent all summer in the gym with his bro, and will need to keep his nose to the grindstone if he wants to avoid losing minutes. He showed some versatility last season, scoring efficiently from the midrange as well as hitting a stellar .381 from 3. It remains to be seen where Mook will get the bulk of his minutes, but look for him to show off a few new moves in 2014/15.
Goodwin and Warren both have the potential to be microwave scorers off the bench. In the four games in which Goodwin played at least 19 minutes, he scored 17.2 PPG on a combined 27/38 from the field. Warren has produced extremely well during his floor time in summer league and preseason, but alas the Suns are shooting for the playoffs and the young guns will be hard-pressed to steal minutes from the veterans entrenched ahead of them.
Tucker and Green are the embodiment of the newfound culture in Phoenix. The Suns shocked everyone en route to their 48-win season in 2013/14, and it was through sheer hustle and energy that they were able to notch so many wins despite being outmatched on paper against many teams. Tucker battles for every loose ball and rebound as if it's the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. Green sets the crowd on edge every time he steps onto the floor, and wears his heart on his sleeve during every minute. Goran Dragic might the heart and soul of this team, but Tucker and Green have been the fire.
It sets a high bar for the young wings on this team, and don't be surprised if Zoran Dragic is the one to steal minutes for much of the same reasons.
The cohesiveness of this Suns team has been attainable in large part due to the fact that every player knows their role. There is no better example of this than their wings. While the young guns indeed possess tantalizing potential, this part of the floor is held down by the veterans until further notice.
If anyone wants to steal minutes from P.J. Tucker, they'll have to make a case for the team to keep it's best defender and one of it's best rebounders on the bench. It shouldn't be much easier to supplant Green either, provided that he continues to provide the luxury of a player that can take the game over at any moment.
Perhaps next season will be about Goodwin, Warren and/or Zoran stepping into the spotlight, but this team is looking to make noise in 2014/15. They'll need Tucker and Green for this to happen. Defense, corner 3's, microwave scoring, rebounding ... combine the two and you have an All-Star player.
Personally, I wouldn't bet against them.