During the fourth quarter of Thursday's Summer League game, where the Suns were holding a big lead to go 4-0 and qualify for the quarterfinals of the SL tourney, new Suns GM Ryan McDonough laid out the blueprint for the Phoenix Suns going forward.

"When you think of the Phoenix Suns," he said to Rick Kamla and Sam Mitchell of NBATV. "You think of fast-paced offensive basketball, aggressive, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. And we're trying to bring that back."

Over the past few forty years, the Phoenix Suns have wanted to play fast, exciting offense with enough defense sprinkled in to close out games. When the Suns acquired players, it was always with an eye toward scoring. And if they could play defense as well that was a bonus.

With an offense-first, defense-second mentality, the Suns were always a pleasure to watch and the eventual purveyors of heartbreak in the playoffs. But at least the fans were happy and the players loved the scheme.

Occasionally, the Suns would put together the right lineup to score the ball like crazy yet boast just enough two-way players to keep the other team from scoring even more.

In the late 80s, it was Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle on the wings who could both score and defend with defense-only Mark West guarding the paint. In the early 90s, during the Finals run, Majerle still offered two-way play while Westphal rotated in offensive and defensive players often enough to approximate enough defense to win a ton of games.

In the late 90s, the Suns went too heavy on defense, too light on offense and began to lose the interest of the fan base while scraping into the playoffs for early exits.

In the mid-2000s, the offense returned with a vengeance. The Nash era boasted league-leading offense with elite-ish wing defenders Shawn Marion and Raja Bell who provided enough defense to keep the other team in check while defensive specialists (ie. Kurt Thomas) dotted the lineup as needed.

As always before, the offense-first, defense-second mentality was a pleasure to watch but eventually broke hearts in the playoffs. So the Suns briefly tried to morph into a defensive team (without having the necessary defensive players) without losing a lot on offense. It did not work.

The offense, win totals and fanbase suffered as the team lost its identity.

Enter a new era with a Back to the Future theme.

"We're trying to play with effort, pushing the ball and trying to play uptempo," McDonough said of the plan for the Suns going forward.

He brought in one of the Suns' two-way players from yesteryear, Jeff Hornacek, to show these guys the right way to play. When pre-SL practices started, Hornacek spent time on three major things:

  • run, run, and run some more
  • shoot, shoot and shoot some more (game-speed shots, not jacking randomly from the perimeter)
  • generate offense off defensive turnovers

The immediate results are encouraging. The Suns incumbent players - Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Kendall Marshall, Diante Garrett, and P.J. Tucker - are all in great shape and moving at a faster clip than at any point last season.

Hornacek says he had to spend time last week making these guys pick up the pace - no walking it up the court, no loafing - and it's worked to the tune of a 4-0 start in SL with three of them convincing wins (and one buzzer-beater after a 24-point comeback). You've seen it yourself. These Summer Suns are running on every possession, and they are playing very efficient basketball. High field goal percentage and SL-leading offense.

It helped that Hornacek knew what he was walking into.

"He knew every single player on our roster, their strengths and weaknesses," McDonough said of Hornacek's job interview.

Since taking over, McDonough has shown that he knows how to formulate a roster to execute his vision. He has drafted and/or acquired three two-way players - C Alex Len, G Eric Bledsoe and G Archie Goodwin - who can move the ball with speed. Goodwin is already showing flashes of this in Summer League. The other acquisition - Caron Butler - offers shooting on the wing and a leadership presence for the young locker room.

Those new guys supplement a host of players that just might not be as bad as they played last year. The Morrii and Marshall, in particular, are proving that they are not the worst collection of young talent in the NBA. They have led an SL team that's 4-0 and has barely broken a sweat doing it.

Folks question how all these parts will fit next season. When Bledsoe was acquired, folks wondered about incumbent PG Goran Dragic. McDonough and Hornacek have no such qualms.

"It's not Goran or Eric, it's Goran and Eric," McDonough said without hesitation or contrived confidence. "The way Jeff and I would like to play is whoever gets the ball outlets it to the guard on that side. Goran and Eric are both very aggressive, very athletic, they get in the paint well and they play defense well."

These Suns are going to be blinding fast. And with Dragic, Goodwin and Bledsoe on the perimeter they can also defend at a high level and create offense with turnovers and fast-breaks.

But before you start getting excited about the Suns win totals, McDonough wants to preach patience. He knows the Suns haven't arrived anywhere yet.

"This year, I think the process is more important than the results," he said. "If we can get these guys to buy in, they play hard, they play unselfishly, they're not worried about shots or minutes. If they're just worried about winning and playing the right way, I think we'll do some great things."

Certainly, the Suns are not going to win many games without more talent. Winning requires top-end talent that can close out games. The Suns don't have any top-end talent.

But they can play fast. And maybe they can get the fans a little more excited about their future while coming up short in the win column.

"We still have a ways to go," McDonough warns us.

Extra point:

McDonough riffed a bit on his background, and the mistaken notion that he's all about analytics over traditional methods of scouting.

It's a supplement (analytics). I came up as more of a traditional scout. For me, analytics help complement what my eyes can see. I try to watch as many games as I can in person or on film. I try to study the players and get to know everything about them. And you hope what the analytics show confirms what your eyes tell you. Sometimes it confirms it, sometimes it refutes it.

There are a few guys in the draft model, for example, that I didn't like as much or didn't spend as much time on, so then I'll go back and spend more time on those guys to see if I'm missing something. But for me it always is traditional scouting first and foremost, and I know Jeff's the same way. He goes by his eyes, but also understands the analytics, understands the effective field goal percentage, the value of 2-for-1s.


    The good news is that the Summer Suns played a really great second quarter, outscoring the Blazers 33-13. It was spectacular. Diante Garrett made all five second-quarter shots for a total of 12 points and a +23 point differential while he was on the floor.

    The bad news is that all that wonderful play was superceded by an NBA press conference that no one watching this game cared about. So I missed it. Bah.

    Instead, we got to see the Blazers win the first period 24-19, and then hang tough in the third quarter making it a close-enough game that Suns fans must have been wondering how their team even had a big lead.

    Jeff Hornacek discusses Suns win over Blazers.

    But a big lead it was. The Suns held strong in the third by playing with resolve and energy despite the Blazers playing desperate and getting some opportunistic scores.

    The most interesting thing about the late-third period was Markieff Morris' foul trouble. He was collecting fouls like it was regular summer league (max of 10), but suddenly Morris found himself with 4 before he knew what hit him. Luckily the Suns were up 16 at that point.

    This was also when Keef had a solid 15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot, while at the same time the NBATV announcer was comparing Portland's Thomas Robinson to Reggie Evans. It's never good when a top-5 pick is compared to Reggie Evans in only his second NBA season.

    The fourth was a slopfest while the Suns lost their edge with the second unit, and Portland at one point cut the lead to 9 with 5 minutes left. Will Barton put the Blazers on his back with several drives for scores and free throws.

    Luckily, Chris Babb hit a three pointer late in the shot clock just before C.J. McCollum hit one of his own.

    When the Blazers came up just short of a steal that resulted in an easy dunk by the Suns, they seemed to lose energy with a couple of quick-shot misses and soon enough the game was over without the Suns starters breaking a sweat.

    The Blazers made one more little run while the Suns thought the game was over, but eventually it really was and the Suns were on to the quarter finals on Saturday.


    More than likely that is not on Ryan McDonough, Lon Babby, or Robert Sarver's actual plan of attack as the Phoenix Suns (3-0) look to parlay an undefeated Summer League to date into a win in the "playoffs." So far the Suns have been impressive, well as impressive as a Summer League team can be.

    Here is the Summer League Bracket for future reference.

    Through three games the team has knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Memphis Grizzlies leaving bodies in their wake as the firing squad rolls into a round one re-match with the Trail Blazers.

    It has been an interesting experiment with the Suns sending down four active roster members, all of which played at least 14+ minutes a game last year and even started portions of the season. This group is tenured, experienced, and should have tan advantage against rosters comprised of rookies, D-League hopefuls, and P.J. Tucker types looking for an opportunity. Having all of them along with first round pick Archie Goodwin that makes up 41.6% of next years potential rotation.

    Last time out the Blazers were in firm control early behind the great play and scoring of rookie C.J. McCollum. He torched the team early for 14 points on efficient shooting before the Suns adjusted with strategic double-teams.

    So far in Summer League the Blazers (1-3) have struggled to score the ball in general with 68.5 points per game, which is more alarming when you subtract the 20.0 PPG coming from McCollum. Through these four games McCollum has not shot the ball well (37.3%), but has been aggressive.

    If the Suns win, up next will be either the Toronto Raptors or the Denver Nuggets in round three of the Summer League Playoffs. This would be the first playoff win for the Suns since may 25th, 2010 and would also be the longest winning streak by the team in 29 months.

    Oh, by the way I got into McDonough's office and took a picture of the Suns Secret Plan:


    The Suns are 3-0 thus far in the Las Vegas Summer League, but not everyone is feeling lucky in the desert. Over the last few days, questions about last year’s first-round draft pick Kendall Marshall...

    [[ This is a content summary only. Visit my website for full links, other content, and more! ]]

    Last year's Phoenix Suns were very difficult to watch, so much so that the Summer Suns are a breath of fresh air by comparison. But the dirty work has only just begun: talking players out of taking their "comfort" shots because they are a low percentage, low-value shot.

    "We gotta get rid of that long 2," Hornacek told Lowe for Grantland.com in an in-depth interview. "I'm not opposed to the middle jumper, in that 15- or 16-foot range. I think all but two teams that were in the playoffs, their effective field goal percentages were above 51 percent."

    Well, he was pretty close.

    In fact, 11 of 16 playoff teams began the playoffs with an Effective Field Goal % above 50% (and only four of those maintained that pace in the playoffs themselves). The Phoenix Suns were 22nd in the league at 47.7% (only slightly worse under Hunter than Gentry).

    Effective Field Goal % gives extra credit for 3-pointers, something the Suns were terrible at shooting last season. If the Suns had been an average 3-point shooting team, their eFG% would have been middle of the pack as well.

    But that is not all, oh no. That is not all.

    The Suns took a ton of mid-range jumpers, the least valuable shot in the NBA.

    There are three pure shot values in the NBA - one pointers (free throws from 15 feet), two pointers (field goals inside, generally, 23 feet) and three pointers (jump shots outside, generally, 23 feet).

    The good shots

    The easiest and highest percentage shot is the very short two-pointer, a dunk or layup in the restricted area. But every team knows that and designs their defense to prevent opposing players from getting too many of those shots.

    The Suns were middle of the pack in attempts inside the restricted area (the semi-circle under the basket) and 10th in shooting percentage (61.6%). That was the good news. And the only good news.

    The next best shot on the court, in terms of value, is the 3-point shot. Generally, that's a 23+ foot shot except in the corners where it's a 2 feet shorter. Because these are worth 3 points, it's acceptable to make only 40% of them since that translates to a 50% higher effective field goal percentage.

    The Suns were terrible in this regard last season. On the shorter corner 3s, the Suns were 16th in attempts but only 20th in FG% (36.8%). The league leaders, Golden State, made 45.8% of their corner threes.

    The "above the break" threes, anywhere out of the corner along the line, the Suns 22nd in attempts and an abysmal 29th in FG% (31.9%).

    These stats highlight a couple of important things that must be handled independently by the new coaching staff.

    First, the Suns were terrible at MAKING threes, which can be improved with new players and/or a lot of practice.

    Second, the Suns were terrible at TAKING threes. The Suns were in the bottom third of the league in attempts and only in the middle of the pack in shots in the restricted area. This means they lived and died by the mid-range jumper, the worst shot on the court.

    The bad shots

    The further away from the basket a player is, the lower the chances of making the shot. So, good teams take as few of these kinds of shots as possible unless it's far enough out to be worth three points.

    "The ones we have to eliminate are the ones that are within 4 or 5 feet of the 3-point line," Hornacek said smartly to Lowe.

    This is where the Suns died last year.

    The 2012-13 Phoenix Suns took the SECOND MOST MID-RANGE SHOTS IN THE ENTIRE LEAGUE. Ugh. Only the Philadelphia 76ers took more mid-range shots than the Suns 2,341 attempts.

    To make matters worse, the Suns weren't even good at making them. They finished only 16th in the league in FG% on mid-range shots.

    Teams that took the fewest number of mid-range shots last year? Houston and Denver.

    The Suns

    If Hornacek wants to get rid of mid-range shots, or at least the ones closest to the three-point line, he's got a lot of coaching to do.

    "The one thing I really like to show players," Hornacek continued. "Which I don't think a lot of them actually look at, is just simple shot charts. Where do they shoot the ball well from? And where don't they?

    "You'd be surprised how many times I ask a player, "If I make a play for you to shoot from the free throw line, that's a great shot for you, right?" And the guy will say, "Oh, yeah, absolutely." And then I'll pull out the sheet and show him he only shot 34 percent last year from that spot. I don't think they understand where they shoot well from."

    Michael Beasley, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris all make much of their living on the mid-range, least valuable shot on the court.

    The highest volume of Beasley's shots in 2012-13 were from 16-<23 feet (just inside the three-point line) and he made only 34.9% of those shots.

    If you look at his heat chart (courtesy of basketball-reference.com) you can see that his most effective spots - gasp! - were at the rim and on the corner 3.


    Yet, Beasley prefers the mid-range shots in games. Go figure.

    Markieff Morris's shot chart is quite similar. His highest volume of shots was at the basket, thankfully, but a close second was the mid-range shot.


    Again, in terms of actual points scored, Markieff was most effective at the three-point line and at point-blank range. Yet, he still found a way to shoot a bunch of midrange jumpers. Some of that is the offense, but a lot of it is comfort level. Hornacek needs to work with these guys on their shot selection.

    Marcus Morris, the twin from Houston, is a very interesting case. Look at his shot distribution in 2012-13.


    This looks like a great distribution of shots and points. Over the course of the year, Marcus took most of his shots from the 3-point line or the basket area.

    Yet, breaking it down before/after the All-Star break (ie. his trade to Phoenix) is quite interesting. In the Suns helter-skelter offense, Morris went from being a high-efficiency shooter to a low-efficiency shooter. I couldn't find the heat charts that would split Morris between Houston and Phoenix, but I did find this.


    In Houston, where he played 20 minutes per game for one of the highest-efficiency teams in the league, Morris was quite effective. Nearly half of his shots were 3-pointers, where he made nearly 39% of them.

    But look at March, his only "full" month in Phoenix. Less than 30% of Morris' shots were 3-pointers. Not surprisingly, his success rate plummeted and he was suddenly just another player who can't take good shots.

    And while his summer league has been good in Vegas, you'll notice that he and his brother are taking a lot of mid-range shots. Mook's game winner, in fact, was a step-in long-two ad happened to find the bottom of the net.

    Hornacek has a lot of coaching to do.

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