It is not just that the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers are in the same division and have to play each other four times a year, they are also making moves that make sense with each other. They are helping each other out. They are almost acting jovial with each other.
How is this happening?
The teams orchestrated a trade with one another to help improve the Clippers shooting (one of their biggest weaknesses) while sending the Suns a dynamic, young, athletic prospect -- three of the biggest weaknesses for the team last year.
Steve Perrin from ClipsNation joined the podcast this week to preview the Clippers and the lofty expectations they have. Through all the drama, trades, and moves made by the team; are they better and ready to contend for a Championship? The Clippers have great thing going with star talent, hope, have a winning culture, and are becoming a model franchise.
Much has been written about the Phoenix Suns' new starting backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Both are typically classified as point guards but have the versatility to play the off guard spot as well. They're athletic speed demons that thrive in the open floor and play tough, high-octane basketball. In fact, nearly a fifth of each player's total number of offensive plays were in transition. We can expect that number to rise in Jeff Hornacek's offense.
While we salivate over the thought of DragonBlade-led fast-breaks, we mustn't forget that there's this whole "defense" thing the Suns must play as well. There are many concerns about the success this new backcourt will have defensively, primarily because both players are point guards that may be undersized to play at the two-guard full-time. First and foremost, let's address this notion that the Dragic-Bledsoe back-court is "undersized."
The following is a list of the (projected) starting shooting guards for every Western Conference team, along with their heights, weights, and wingspans:
As can be seen above, the Suns' backcourt is undersized relative to Western Conference shooting guards, but not by much. Goran Dragic, the likelier of the Suns' two starting guards to defend opposing twos, is just over an inch shorter than the average shooting guard in the west and his wingspan is also only an inch shorter. On the other hand, Eric Bledsoe is significantly shorter than the average shooting guard but his phenomenal wingspan more than makes up for his lack of height. The biggest size-related weakness of this backcourt is in the weight category: the average Western Conference shooting guard is about 15 lbs. heavier than Dragic and 10 lbs. heavier than Bledsoe.
The average Western Conference shooting guard is about one inch taller, one inch longer, and 15 lbs. heavier than Goran Dragic.
Now that we've highlighted the physical differences between the Suns' starting guards and the rest of the starting two-guards in the Western Conference, let's turn our attention to analyzing the actual defensive abilities of Dragic and Bledsoe. The crux of this analysis will focus on their abilities to defend opposing off-guards. The stats used in this article are from last season (2012-13) and all advanced stats are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-reference.com, unless otherwise mentioned. Explanations of any statistical terms mentioned can be found on this page.
Before we analyze Dragic and Bledsoe's off-ball defense, here are a few quick notes about their on-ball defense:
-Eric Bledsoe is a ball-hawk. When defending pick & roll ball-handlers (the most common defensive play for point guards), he held opponents to just 0.71 points per possession (PPP), which is a great figure. Dragic was a pedestrian defender of pick & roll ball-handlers, yielding 0.89 PPP.
-On the other hand, Dragic was better than Bledsoe at defending isolation plays, giving up a decent 0.85 PPP, while Bledsoe surrendered 0.93 PPP. Bledsoe's opponents actually shot a worse percentage on isolation plays (39.7%) than the players Dragic defended (40.7%), but the reason for his higher PPP figure is that Bledsoe fouled isolation players at a much higher rate (13.2% of the time compared to Dragic's 5.2% foul rate on isolation plays). Bledsoe is a very aggressive defender, which often gets him into trouble (we will see this later on as well).
-Both Bledsoe and Dragic are adept at playing the passing lanes and creating turnovers. Bledsoe's STL% of 3.7% was third highest in the league last year among those who played at least 800 minutes (behind Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul). Dragic's 2.5 STL% was good for top 20 in the league.
Haven't had enough defensive stats yet? As I mentioned, the focus of this study is to analyze Dragic and Bledsoe's off-ball defense. I'll focus on three main types of plays: post-up defense, spot-up defense, and off-screen defense. I've watched hundreds of such plays and have noticed a few patterns in their defensive habits I will ultimately highlight.
One might think Dragic would struggle defending post-up plays, especially against bigger players. However, Dragic was very good defending the post last year and displayed strong defensive instincts while using his underrated strength. The sample size is a bit small - he defended just 34 total post-ups in 2012-13 - but Dragic held opponents to just 0.71 PPP and 37.9 FG% in this category, while not fouling even a single time. Let's take a look at two plays to see why he's so successful at guarding the post.
Goran Dragic defending James Harden post-up
1) Here, James Harden posts up Goran Dragic near the baseline. Note that Harden has about 25 lbs. on Dragic:
2) Dragic manages to hold his ground and actually forces Harden towards the middle and actually away from the basket:
3) Harden ends up in the middle of the paint and puts up a wild turnaround jumper, which Dragic contests. Result: missed shot.
Although he wasn't quite as great as Dragic, Bledsoe also proved to be a good post-play defender in a limited sample size. In just 24 total post-up plays, Bledsoe yielded 0.79 PPP on 42.9 FG%, and had a pretty high foul rate of 16.7%. Because he's built like a tank and has a ridiculous wingspan, Bledsoe is actually quite capable of defending larger players in the post. However, his aggressive defense sometimes gets him into trouble in this category, as can be seen in the following play.
Eric Bledsoe defending Eric Gordon post-up
1) In this play, Eric Gordon (who has a 1.5 in. longer wingspan and weighs 20 lbs. more) posts up Bledsoe in almost the exact same spot as the Harden-Dragic play above.
2) Unlike Dragic, who held his stance and forced Harden away from the basket, Bledsoe overaggressively attacks the ball and completely opens up the baseline for him.
3) With a clear path to the hoops, Gordon attacks the rim and Bledsoe has no choice but to foul him from behind in order to stop the easy dunk. Result: foul
The raw stats will tell you that Dragic is an average spot-up defender. He surrendered 0.99 PPP on 40.7 FG% on 139 total plays. However, it should be noted that he played on a Phoenix Suns team that was absolutely abysmal on defense. Guarding spot-up shooters requires good team communication and strong rotations on defense, which the Suns definitely did not have. The following play illustrates this perfectly.
Goran Dragic defending Klay Thompson spot-up shot
1) In this play, Dragic is seen defending David Lee, who has the ball. The Suns' team defense is already in limbo here: both Luis Scola and Michael Beasley can be seen guarding the same player in the purple circle below. Jared Dudley is marking Klay Thompson but has to rotate to the top of the key to an open Steph Curry, which means that someone else (Gortat) needs to rotate out to the wing to defend Thompson.
2) Due to a miscommunication, both Dudley and Dragic rotate to Steph Curry, who now has the ball and is about to swing it to Klay Thompson, who remains open because no one else rotated out to him.
3) Dragic does his best to try and reach Thompson but he's too late. Notice how much ground Dragic has covered in this play from starting out on Lee, then rotating to Curry, then sprinting to Thompson. Meanwhile, Beasley is literally in the exact same spot that he was in when the play started. Terrible team defense resulted in this broken play and an easy open shot for Klay Thompson. Result: made 3-pointer.
Defensive possession stats reveal Bledsoe to also be an average spot-up defender. Although he was on a much stronger defensive team than Dragic was last year, he gave up slightly more points on these plays: 1.02 PPP on 40.8 FG%. He actually defended a significantly greater number of spot-up plays that Dragic did (199 compared to Goran's 139) because he played a good deal of his minutes alongside Chris Paul. Bledose's off-ball defensive strengths are his phenomenal speed and athleticism, but he does often get caught watching the ball and sometimes ends up falling asleep when he's off the ball. The following play illustrates this weakness while also highlighting his remarkable physical attributes.
Eric Bledsoe defending Goran Dragic spot-up shot
1) Here, Bledsoe is seen defending his now partner-in-crime Goran Dragic on the near side of the court while PJ Tucker has the ball at the top of the key.
2) Bledsoe gets caught watching the ball as it moves on the far side of the court and doesn't notice that Dragic is sliding over to the corner.
3) The ball swings cross-court and lands in the hands of the open Goran Dragic. Bledsoe actually does a very good job of running back to contest the shot but he's just a fraction of a second too late as Dragic gets off his shot. Result: made 3-pointer.
This is a definite area of weakness for Goran Dragic's defensive abilities. For some reason, he seems to have trouble fighting through screens to get to his defender and his struggles are most apparent when he's dealing with off-ball screens. On plays that he defended guys coming off (off-ball) screens, Dragic gave up 0.98 PPP 42.1% shooting. Once again, it's important to note that clear team communication is absolutely essential for good defense, and this is especially true when defending screens. Dragic's troubles defending screens might have been accentuated by a lack of help from his teammates. In any case, the following play showcases his off-screen defensive issues.
Goran Dragic defending Chris Paul off screens
1) In this play, Dragic is defending Chris Paul at the top of the key while the ball is in Willie Green's hands on the far side of the court. Paul will force Dragic to chase him through a series of screens.
2) Here, Paul has made his way down to the baseline and is getting ready to go through another screen as he goes back up near the top of the key, already having created a bit of separation between Dragic and himself. Meanwhile, the ball has rotated to Blake Griffin on the left elbow.
3) Paul makes his way to the right elbow and has a wide open shot after receiving a pass from Griffin. Dragic gets caught on a Deandre Jordan Screen near the free throw line and finds himself not several feet away from Chris Paul. No chance. Result: made shot
Eric Bledose is an even worse defender off-screens than Dragic. Playing on a much better defensive team last year, he surrendered 1.08 PPP on 45.8 FG% to players coming off screens. To find a reason for his surprisingly bad off-screen defense, we can once again look at his overaggressiveness and tendency to watch the ball and lose track of his man. The following play is a great example of this weakness.
1) At the beginning of this play, we see Bledsoe covering Lou Williams very well off the ball at the top of the key.
2) As Williams slides over to the right wing, Bledsoe decides to leave him and aggressively attack the ball, which is promptly passed to another Hawks player.
3) By the time Bledsoe realizes his man is wide open and runs after him, Williams slides back up to the top of the key and hides behind a screen set by his teammate, which Bledsoe can't get around. This play is a direct result of Bledsoe leaving his man to instead try and steal the ball when he really didn't have a great chance to. Result: made shot.
Having gone through a lot of data and screencaps, it's time to summarize the findings (essentially a TL;DR section):
1) Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are good overall defenders. They have strong physical attributes that enable them to defend well and both provide great effort and hustle out on the floor. However, they definitely have some weaknesses that will be tough to hide as they play alongside one another.
2) Eric Bledsoe should primarily defend opposing point guards, while Dragic should defend shooting guards. Pick-and-roll defense is one of Bledsoe's fortes, mainly because it's an area that is well-suited for his aggressiveness and tenacity. On the other hand, Dragic is better at defending players in the post, spotting up, or coming off screens, which enables him to be a better defender of opposing two-guards than Bledsoe.
3) However, there will be some instances where Bledsoe is better suited to defend the opposing team's shooting guard and Dragic the point guard. Specifically, Bledsoe should defend opposing twos that are better slashers and drivers than shooters. For example, when the Suns play the Dallas Mavericks, I believe Dragic should defend Jose Calderon while Bledsoe marks Monta Ellis.
4) The backcourt's "lack of size" will not be a big liability. As mentioned above, the average starting shooting guard on a Western Conference team only has about a one inch advantage in wingspan over the Suns' starting guards. The biggest difference is in weight, but both Dragic and Bledsoe have proven they can defend the post well, albeit in a limited sample size. In any case, there are very few two-guards who post up well in today's NBA (Kobe, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson are the only ones who come to mind). In fact, as Jacob's recent shooting guard rankings revealed, that position is currently the weakest in the league in terms of overall talent, which should bode well for the Suns' two-headed point guard experiment.
5) Defending spot-up shots and plays off screens will be the toughest task for this backcourt. The analysis revealed that defending players coming off screens is the one defensive area in which Dragic and Bledsoe both struggled the most last year. In the former's case, poor rotations and lack of team defensive discipline and communication might have been the issue. For the latter, overaggressiveness and ignoring his man in favor of chasing the ball has been a recurring problem. The new coaching staff will need to address both of these issues in order to maximize this backcour's defensive potential.
6) Defensive success is largely based on the team, not the individual. More than offense, defensive cohesion requires a team to be on the same page, with all five players giving maximum effort and buying into the team's system. This was a huge problem for last year's Phoenix Suns team, which struggled mightily with rotations, individual defense, effort, and basically all other important facets of basketball. A player's defensive statistics rely heavily on the success of his team's defense. For example, one might think that Kevin Martin is a great off-ball defender based on his 0.85 PPP allowed overall and 0.83 PPP allowed off screens in 2012-13. However, it must be understood that his defensive success was largely a product of the OKC Thunder's team defense (in 2011-12, he surrendered a much higher 1.09 PPP off screens on a worse defensive team, the Houston Rockets).
Since they are such a young (and not very talented) team, the Phoenix Suns will most likely struggle with team defense this year, which will trickle down and hurt even good defenders like Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. It's important for this coaching staff to instill strong defensive principles into the entire team. In an interview with me last month, new Defensive Coordinator Mike Longabardi recognized that this would be no easy task:
"Teaching defensive values will be a day-to-day effort. There's no magic wand to immediately get there...We're going to have to get consistent effort. We know that there are going to be some nights that we might lose because we're overmatched with talent. But the important thing is to give effort and see progress."
This is an important step for a new coaching staff with a young, inexperienced team. Although the team's overall defense may struggle this season, I think Dragic and Bledsoe will prove to form a successful starting backcourt on both sides of the court. They will have their issues, especially against teams that boast shooters with good size (the Warriors, for example, with Klay Thompson), but I do believe the uniqueness of this pairing's versatility will result in a net success in the backcourt. At the very least, they'll be an exciting duo to watch.
For the National pundits I more or less get that they have forgotten about the Suns. With them it is "out of sight, out of mind" and by "out of sight" that means out of the playoff hunt. That is a hunt the team has not been invited on for a few years now, but to be called the least watchable team in the NBA is a bit extreme.
That is like throwing the clothes and TV out the window of the second story before giving them a chance to tell their side of the story. Extreme break-up move there National Media.
Have we forgotten about the ghost of Boston Celtics past with that abysmal roster that, do not omit the fact that they are minus Rajon Rondo for a while, as one of the most unwatchable teams? How about the Philadelphia 76ers and that JV team they are trying to put together on the fly?
Not trying to be a Suns apologist here, they are going to bad, and tough to watch on a lot of occasions, but they are not unwatchable. That comes down to style, preference, and other intangibles.
Let's put this issue to rest, Bright Side Staff... CONVERGE!
Fifteenth Topic: The watch-ability of the 2013-2014 Phoenix Suns
1. Breaking the Ice: Are the Phoenix Suns the most unwatchable team in the NBA this year?
Jacob Padilla: Philadelphia is probably in the driver's seat here as the 76ers have a chance to be spectacularly disastrous this year. They traded away their most talented and most exciting player in Jrue Holiday for a player who is going to miss some time, their other lottery pick is an incredibly raw player who is going to be starting at point guard. Evan Turner is still on the roster and will probably have the ball a lot. Kwame Brown and Spencer Hawes are their big men. That team is going to be both bad and ugly. With that being said, the Suns deserve to be near the top of watchability reverse power rankings. No true star, turnover-prone players and a lack of shooting does not an entertaining style of basketball make. However, there will be more highlights than last year at least.
Dave King: Hardly. With the promise of a faster pace based on drives to the hoop and kick outs to Frye and the Morrii, the season will at least be entertaining. Sure, the Suns will miss a great many of those open jumpers but there will be a lot of breakaways and steals and blocks to initiate excitement. Unwatchable was last year - predictably bad, lacking spirit. Did you SEE that Top Ten Plays of 2012-13? I mean, that was boring.
Kris Habbas: There is a significant difference in being an "unwatchable" team and being a bad team. This season the Suns will be a bad team and, at times, unwatchable, but take a quick peek at the roster in Philadelphia. How about Toronto? Again, there is a difference in being a bad team and being unwatchable. They are in the bottom five in all likelihood. That would be a fairer distinction.
Richard Parker: Absolutely not. Obviously, this is probably a biased platform to be asking that question on but I just don't see how this team is less "watchable" than the 76ers, who will pretty much be fielding a D-League team, or several other teams. Jeff Hornacek's offense has great promise and with speed demons like Dragic and Bledsoe leading the way, I think this team will be far from unwatchable (and be much more entertaining than last year's team).
Sean Sullivan: I don't think so. Last year was borderline unwatchable, but this year there is hope; and a reason to watch in order to see the development of the young players and possible future of this franchise.
2. So if they are not exciting and unwatchable then by process of elimination, they are boring, right?
JP: Well, I did say they were going to be pretty unwatchable above. But they're not going to be boring for the most part (although I'm sure the offense will get bogged down more often than we'd like). Athletic players in an up-tempo system should produce a fair number of highlights on a pretty regular basis. However, on this team there will also likely be plenty of Shaqtin' A Fool style highlights as well. Either way, you shouldn't be falling asleep during these games.
DK: Not boring. With an average age of about 23, the team will look helter skelter a lot, but at least should be moving at all times. If you're only looking at a box score the next morning, then yes the team may appear boring to you. But i you're a game-watcher, then there will be some highlight reel plays each night that make you smile.
KH: This group feels like a really athletic college team that has potential to do some things, but they are fundamentally flawed in areas that will hold them back. There is no questioning the teams athleticism and young energy, but they are very young, leaderless, and have a shooting handicap that will be easy to exploit.
RP: I don't think they're boring. Sure, they will be bad, but the roster boasts some quality athleticism in guys like Bledsoe, Dragic, and Green and the fast-paced offense will cater to their strengths. The lack of star talent and fundamentals will obviously hold the team back, but that doesn't mean they'll be boring.
SS: To the casual fan, maybe. The Suns don't have any superstars, and they won't get hardly any national exposure. However, to Suns fans, I don't think this season will be boring at all. We have a new coach and a new system along with new players that should make for a relatively entertaining if not exciting season.
3. One of the key off-season acquisitions for the team was Eric Bledsoe and he is about as exciting as they come. Are you not entertained?
DK: Bledsoe will help ramp up the craziness. His personal Top Ten plays from last season topped most of the Suns' plays, but none of them were on a designed play. They were are broken plays, open-court wildness that Suns fans can only hope repeats itself in Phoenix.
KH: Bledsoe is a one man demolition derby! He blocks shots, steals the ball right out of the hands of the best, dunks on your dreams, and comes off your screen like a 3D movie... Of course you have to be entertained! In all seriousness the addition of Bledsoe alone makes the Suns are much more watchable and exciting team than the likes of the 76ers and potentially other teams. He is a play-maker in so many ways. He comes in with the tale of Paul Bunyan's Shadow and may not be able to meet those expectations, but he is a very exciting player on both ends of the floor.
RP: Bledsoe is a very exciting player. He's a dynamic swiss army knife-type player who contributes in pretty much every statistical category and regularly makes highlight plays with his athleticism, both on offense and defense. He has several deficiencies he needs to work on to be a premier guard but his athleticism and raw talent is unquestionably entertaining.
SS: Eric Bledsoe is certainly one reason to watch....like I said, at least for Suns fans. I don't think even Bledsoe is enough to garner much national appeal though. The Suns would have to become relevant again in order to do that, and I think they are at least a couple of seasons away from that at the moment.
JP: I've already written extensively on what Bledsoe brings to the court offensively. Short answer: yes.
4. The style of play normally generates excitement. The Warriors of the early to mid-2000's didn't win many games, but were fun as hell to watch. Will this team have a style that makes them watchable despite the win/loss record?
KH: The Suns want to run. I am still in the minority that they do not have the shooters and scorers to get to that 103+ points per game mark this season, but they will try. The style is absolutely indicative of the watchability. For years the San Antonio Spurs were called boring, then Coach Popovich unleashed Tony Parker and they were the funnest team in the NBA to watch last year. Style induces ratings and appeal.
RP: I think so. With a coach that wants to run and gun, the team will at least be exciting on offense. They lack shooters to really make the offense potent and their defense will definitely struggle, but for a team that will be in the running to be one of the worst in the league this year, they could be much, much less watchable (see 2012-13 Phoenix Suns).
SS: I think the most likely draw this season will be watching the return of the run-and-gun style of play. The Suns are built for speed and athleticism, and I believe Hornacek plans on using those attributes to the Suns' advantage. I don't think the Suns will generate anywhere near the same excitement as the Warriors in the mid 2000's though when they knocked off the Mavs in the first round of the playoffs, but I do think Suns fans will still enjoy watching them this season.
JP: Yes and no. Up-tempo basketball is certainly more fun to watch than the alternative, so in that sense it should be better than last year. However, I see the game a bit differently than many casual fans. I'm a fan of good basketball more so than any particular style. I enjoy seeing execution. A perfect pocket pass or a great defensive rotation is as entertaining as a high-flying dunk for me at times. I'm not sure how much good basketball we'll get this year, but the up-tempo offense should hopefully mask that at least a little bit.
DK: The key is making enough shots to keep teams honest. Having a Channing Frye and the Morrii making enough shots to keep the defense hesitating on drives can only help Bledsoe, Dragic and Goodwin. Gortat will be throwing a pick a possession to free up the guards, while Plumlee and Kravtsov warm up their pick techniques as well.
5. Separating emotion from it; how do you even determine whether a team is watchable or unwatchable? In your opinion what is the most unwatchable team in the NBA?
RP: Effort and excitement are big. A bad team has to give 100% effort to make every game as competitive as possible. Furthermore, a team has to generate some level of excitement in fans - it can be in the form of young, talented players (Bledsoe), style of play (fast-paced), etc. I think the 76ers will easily be the most unwatchable team in the NBA this year. Last year, the Suns were probably up there but I'd put the Charlotte Bobcats ahead (or behind?) of them.
SS: Let's face it... most fans want to watch championship contenders and All-Stars... neither of which currently fits the Suns right now. I have a different perspective than the casual fan though, as I would assume is the same with most of the readers here as well. So for the BSOTS community, I think this season will be much, much better than the last. But as for the mainstream sports networks, fans, and media, the Suns probably won't get much love at all.
JP: I already touched on it above, an Kris does a good job of explaining my perspective below. I like to watch good basketball, plain and simple, and the essence of good basketball is execution. If you play the game the right way, the highlight plays will follow.
DK: What makes a team watchable is sprinkling in just enough exciting plays to keep the fans wondering when its coming next. Bledsoe and Dragic need to be near the top of the league in steals as a pair if the Suns hope to keep fans engaged. Fans love the unexpected, but they also love to anticipate it an exciting play unfolding. Fast breaks are great. Threes are great. Dunks are great. The Suns can at least offer one of those.
KH: Effort, style of play, and execution. Three simple factors. If a team is sloppy, all over the place, score 110 points, but lose by 20 are they really exciting? Not to me. The Suns can average 95 points per game again and be an exciting team if they execute and have an engaging style of play.
BONUS: The bulk of the off season was re-imaging the front office, cleaning house, and getting the right people in place to lead the team. That is exciting to some, but is that maybe why this "unwatchable" banter is circling the internet? Or is it because #EarlySeptemberSoBasicallyStillAugust
SS: I think people are basing that on last season, and what a mess the Suns had to deal with. Like any other sport, you're only as good as your last game, and the Suns won't change any opinions until the get out on the court and give people a reason to pay attention again.
JP: The "unwatchable" banter stems from a terrible 2013-14 season, a roster that returns a decent amount of the players that caused the terrible season and even now what appear to be an unbalanced roster that might not fit together. The behind-the-scenes changes are great, but just because the Suns are on the right track doesn't mean that will pay immediate dividends in terms of on-court success and watchability.
DK: Yes, people inside and outside Phoenix are more interested in the turnover and the 2015 season than next month. But I do think the Suns have a chance to surprise people with their competitiveness, even if most games end in a loss due to missed jumpers. That should be the Suns' mantra: Make 'em work for it!
KH: Probably. To someone like me seeing the right front office guys get the jobs, new coaching staffs getting put together, and the process of the off-season and NBA Draft are what excite me the most. Then again I owned the first copy of Head Coach (with Bill Cowher on the cover) and spend hours (or days) putting teams together and minutes on the actual games. I was that kid.
RP: The necessary success of the Suns' offseason definitely has me excited. It's exactly with the last few months in mind that I think the Suns will prove to be at least entertaining in their journey to another top-5 pick this year. In the end though, I think way too much is being made of this one article that said Phoenix would be the most unwatchable team in the league. Everyone has an opinion and in August/September (for NBA purposes), they typically don't matter.