The Phoenix Suns were riding high with three convincing wins behind scorching scoring from the explosive guard tandem of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight before getting roasted by Jimmy Butler and the Bulls Wednesday. Tonight, Phoenix hopes to bounce back against a Denver Nuggets team they manhandled less than a week ago.
When the Suns (6-5) last faced the Nuggets (6-6) in Phoenix last Saturday night, it was no contest. The Suns stepped on the Nuggets' throats early and never let up, leading 27-13 after the first quarter and never looking back en route to a 105-81 thumping. Suffocating Suns defense combined with inept Nugs' shooting to allow only two Nuggets to score in double figures, led by Will Barton's 19.
While the Nuggets have played a few stinkers this season, with all of their losses coming by double digits, a win tonight doesn't figure to come quite so easily for the Suns. Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight have been outstanding, each averaging over 20 PPG and demanding serious All-Star consideration, but the rest of the roster's performance has been uneven.
Third leading scorer Markieff Morris is averaging 12.2 PPG on a disappointing 39% shooting from the field. Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker continue to play their intangible-rich games, but the bench has been a scattered affair with Alex Len continuing his up and down play, Sonny Weems looking like a bust so far, and Mirza Teletovic only now starting to show he might be finding his rhythm.
The Suns' best bench player has been T.J. Warren, averaging 19.6 points/36 mins on a robust 54.7 eFG%. And speaking of healthy shooting %s, Devin Booker has shined in limited action, shooting an absurd 78% from behind the arc (small sample size of 7-9). Despite some rookie mistakes, Booker is mature beyond his barely 19 years. We can probably expect his playing time to increase as the season goes along.
As for the Nuggets, their 6-6 record so far is respectable considering they're coming off a 50 loss season in which they fired their head coach Brian Shaw amidst chatter he couldn't communicate or relate with his players. They're not a contender for a playoff spot, and don't excel at any one thing, but do boast some intriguing youngsters in Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic. Danilo Gallinari is actually healthy, and Barton is playing surprisingly well through 12 games of the season.
At home, we have to expect the Nuggets will come out with more energy and urgency than they did Saturday, when they were coming off a game the previous night. This is a game the Suns should be able to win, but not in an end to end blowout like last time.
Projected starting fives:
PG: Eric Bledsoe vs. Emmanuel Mudiay
SG: Brandon Knight vs. Gary Harris
SF: P.J. Tucker vs. Danilo Gallinari
PF: Markieff Morris vs. Kenneth Faried
C: Tyson Chandler vs. J.J. Hickson
Injury/illness note: After missing Wednesday's night's loss to the Bulls with an illness, Warren will play in Denver tonight, reports AZ Central's Paul Coro.
T.J. Warren will play in #SunsAtNuggets on Friday after missing Wednesday's game for illness.— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) November 19, 2015
Join the game thread here on Bright Side of the Sun, posted 30 minutes before game time, for all the fun.
All statistics cited courtesy of BasketballReference.com
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The Phoenix Suns have been touting a dual playmaker system for years, and have proven all along that the scheme can produce a winning record in the vaunted West without the benefit of any All-Stars.
The Phoenix Suns have been touting their dual playmaking system for years, and the evidence is beginning to show that not only does it work but it produces All-Star worthy statistics for both playmakers.
The system caters to the playmakers, and has produced Top-10 NBA offenses the entire time. The only periods the Suns have struggled on offense the last 2+ years has been when injuries and trades derailed the plan and forced the team to play a traditional one-playmaker lineup.
Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are two of only 12 players in the NBA this season with nightly line of 20 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. The only other pair of teammates posting that line so far this year are Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan in Toronto. The Suns have parlayed their stellar play into a Top-10 offense once again this season, just like the first half of 2014-15 and the entirety of 2013-14.
If you include an Effective Field Goal % of 50% or higher (which gives extra credit for three-point shots and proves a high rate of efficiency per shot), the list shrinks to eight. And Bledsoe and Knight are the only teammates on the list. The others on the short list are annual All-Stars LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Paul George and Damian Lillard.
You could say that I'm cherry-picking stats to fit my narrative, and you'd be right. But I've got good reason to do so. The Suns have banked their playing model on a two-point guard system since GM Ryan McDonough arrived and
Trevor Buckstein he landed Eric Bledsoe on day two of free agency.
The Suns had to play their best players, so they hatched a plan to pair Dragic and Bledsoe in the backcourt. Coach Jeff Hornacek had been a playmaking shooting guard his whole career next to Kevin Johnson and John Stockton, so of course he saw the wisdom in the approach.
For a two playmaker system to work, the Suns needed well-rounded players who were effective and efficient at their craft and would be the dual stars of the program.
Year one produced a pairing of at least 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 52% eFG% between Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. When in the starting lineup together, they won 23 of 34 games. Injuries hurt what could have been a playoff season. That season validated the Suns' claims the dual playmaking system could work.
Only seven other players in the 2013-14 season posted a line of at least 17.5, 5, 3.2, 50+% and all were All-Stars: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, and rookie Damian Lillard.
Year two was muddy. We don't need to go into it any further than to say that too much of a good thing can spoil it. Still, the Suns point guards put up impressive all-around numbers.
The Suns system has proven a couple of things: that point guards who share the court can each succeed and produce All-Star worthy statistics. In fact, they can each put up career highs without canceling each other out. They can also win games together. We've yet to see a playoff appearance by the Suns, but they've been close each year and - if you discount the awful final month of last season (11 games) - the system has resulted a winning record.
Back to this season and Bledsoe and Knight's potentially historic matching stat lines of 20/4/4/50%.
Going back ten years, the only other pair of teammates to reach those heights (20/4/4/50%) in the same season are Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, who did it for three consecutive seasons in Miami from 2010-2013. That's it. That's the list of teammates who posted a better all-around stat line than Bledsoe and Knight over a full season in the past decade.
Of course, your first conclusion should be that Bledsoe and Knight can't keep up this pace. There's 71 games to go in the season and a lot of opportunities for slumps. Keeping up a 20/4/4/50% pace is tough for good reason, and historical evidence shows you can't just show up and do it.
That ten year list of players who've posted 20/4/4/50% over a full season? It's only 26 players long. This year, Bledsoe and Knight are the only new candidates for the club.
But the way this Suns offense is designed, and the way Bledsoe and Knight get their points, assists and rebounds should give you confidence they can keep up the pace.
Knight seems to be getting better, as does Bledsoe. The assists appear to be a given, as do the points. No one else in the Suns offense seems poised to take away the scoring opportunities afforded these two. It's possible Markieff Morris takes enough shots away and balance the scoring a bit more. It's also possible that T.J. Warren or another player improve enough to take points as well. But with Knight and Bledsoe both getting most scoring opportunities, the shot distribution likely won't change much.
Which is why I include the 50+% effective field goal percentage as a barometer. Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan and Reggie Jackson also put up 20/4/4 so far this season, but none top the 50+% eFG mark. Once you get below 50%, you have to consider giving more shots to the big men who are closer to the basket. Big men regularly top 50% on eFG even without the threes.
So as long as Knight and Bledsoe are efficient, they should still take most of the shots.
Maybe the rebounds fall off? Not likely. Consider that Bledsoe and Knight have both averaged 3.2+ rebounds per game as starters their entire careers and both have improved that mark each season. Last year, Knight grabbed 3.9 rebounds while Bledsoe grabbed 5.2.
This will be fun to watch all season long, Suns fans.
If Knight and Bledsoe keep up the pace while the Suns are winning games into late January, and still in the playoff race, they will really force the coaches' hands on whether to include them on the All-Star team.
All-Star berths are not based on stats alone, but Knight and Bledsoe's lofty, exclusive company in the 20/4/4/50% club should make the decision harder than ever.