At the quarter pole of this NBA season, it's safe to say the Phoenix Suns are the biggest surprise story in the league. Sitting at 14-9 and in sixth place in the Western Conference, the Suns have already won nearly as many games as some expected them to win all season (In ESPN's Summer Forecast series, in which I was a participant, the Suns were projected to finish last in the Western Conference and win just 22 games all year).
The Suns play at a pretty quick pace, as new head coach Jeff Hornacek indicated they would in an offseason chat with Grantland's Zach Lowe. They're not quite as fast as the Seven Seconds or Less teams, but they are in the top half of the league in possessions per game, averaging about a possession more per game than they did last season, per NBA.com.
The engine that drives the transition attack is Eric Bledsoe, who is likely the most terrifying open-court force in the league west of LeBron James.
Bledsoe's hounding perimeter ball pressure helps the Suns force turnovers, which in turn fuels the break. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Bledsoe finishes over 23 percent of his plays (defined as a possession that ends with a FGA, FTA or TO) in transition, where he averages 1.22 points per play (PPP) and shoots 66.7 percent from the field. Additionally, 40 of Bledsoe's 109 assists on the season have come in transition.
Bledsoe is a bowling ball of energy and, though he can appear out of control at times, he's never more dangerous than when attacking the basket on the break with a full head of steam. He's an outrageous athletic specimen, capable of feats very few other players in the league can accomplish. It's not uncommon to see him beat the entire defense down the floor and lay one in within just a few seconds of a made basket.
Bledsoe's backcourt mate Goran Dragic has also been a terror in transition, averaging 1.39 PPP, shooting 65.7 percent from the floor and making half of his threes, per Synergy. Dragic also has 22 transition assists (out of 121 total) so far this season. The 62 transition assists he and Bledsoe have combined for account for over 30 percent of Pheonix's total transition baskets this year.
The Bledsoe-Dragic backcourt has been a resounding success, sharing the "point guard" duties just as Hornacek envisioned in his summer chat with Lowe.
The two have nearly identical season averages in excess of 19 points and 6 assists per game, with true shooting marks within one percent of the other. The Suns have outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions in the 310 minutes the pair have shared the court, per NBA.com, a number that exceeds even their overall per-possession scoring margin that ranks as the ninth-best in the league.
When the Suns get into their half-court offense, running Bledsoe and Dragic in an endless series of pick-and-rolls has been their best source of points. Plays finished by one of the two players directly involved in a pick-and-roll have accounted for nearly 21 percent of the Suns' total this season, per Synergy, up a tick from the 18 percent they accounted for last season. Most of those plays are initiated and/or finished by one of Bledsoe or Dragic.
Both players like to attack the basket when coming around a screen. For his part, Dragic ranks fifth in the NBA in drives per game, many of which come when he's handling the ball on screen-and-rolls. He's quite successful with it, too, as he also ranks fifth in team points per game on drives.
One of the reasons both he and Bledsoe have been able to be so successful driving to the rim off screens is because of the tendencies of the Phoenix screeners. While Miles Plumlee likes to roll directly to the rim after setting a pick, the rest of the Phoenix big men prefer to pop out toward the perimeter for a jumper, which helps clear the lane.
Of the 127 shots Phoenix screeners have taken this season, 79 of them have been jumpers, according to Synergy. Of the 85 shots taken by non-Plumlee bigs, 71 of those have been jumpers. Channing Frye, in particular, is able to clear space for Bledsoe and Dragic by drawing stay-attached coverage on pick-and-pops due to his long-range shooting prowess.
Consider the Dragic-Frye pick-and-pop in the video above, where Shane Battier gives a hard hedge to cry to cut off Dragic's driving lane, but, rather than sticking with him and forcing him away from the basket, drifts back to Frye on the perimeter so as not to give up an open pick-and-pop three.
A similar situation occurs here, as Bledsoe comes raring around a screen from Frye, as David Lee helplessly can't decide between cutting off his driving lane and protecting against a pass back to Frye, instead doing neither and allowing Bledsoe an open lane to the rim. This type of coverage is a large part of the reason Bledsoe averages the fifth-most points per game on drives in the league.
Both Bledsoe and Dragic have been able to make teams pay with the jumper as well as the drive when their defenders are distracted by Frye.
Take this Bledsoe-Frye pick-and-pop against the Warriors on Sunday night, for example.
Bledsoe comes around the screen toward the top of the key. Lee hedges at first, and he lingers for a beat before scurrying back to Frye on the wing. That wouldn't be a problem, except that Curry also lingers in no-man's land for a beat, which gives Bledsoe enough time to lock and load from long distance.
Of course, if teams do decide to cut off the driving lanes for Bledsoe and/or Dragic, Frye has been able to make them pay.
In his first season back from a scary heart condition, Frye has been one of the league's best long-range shooters, especially off the catch. He's currently 14th in catch-and-shoot points per game, 11th in catch-and-shoot field-goal percentage and second in PPP as a roll man in pick-and-rolls. He has 18 three-point shots out of the pick-and-roll already this season, and teams are loathe to leave him open from beyond the arc.
It's not just Frye beating teams with pick-and-pops, though.
Markieff Morris is shooting in excess of 50 percent as a roll man this season, per Synergy, and his brother Marcus has even gotten in on the action as well.
And when the pick-and-roll ends with someone not directly involved in the action, the Suns have been consistently making teams pay the price for aggressively helping on the perimeter. They've generated 27.6 percentage of their points this season from three-point range, a number that ranks third in the NBA.
According to Synergy, the Suns are shooting 41.6 percent on their spot-up threes, many of which are generated through pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops.
Dragic, Bledsoe, Frye, the Morrii, P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green; each is a threat to shoot from distance, all but Markieff with a three-point percentage above the league average on at least 2.5 attempts per game.
Add this all up and the Suns are a surprising eighth in offensive efficiency in the early goings of the season, per NBA.com, which has helped make up for their 17th-ranked defense.
It's still early yet, and some of the success the Suns are experiencing could turn out to be a mirage, but it doesn't seem like it will. The players are being put in a position to succeed based on their skill sets, and they're taking advantage of the opportunities presented.
Bledsoe was a per-minute wonder for the Los Angeles Clippers, and he's been dynamite in extended minutes since new general manager Ryan McDonough brought him over this offseason. Dragic has continued to be one of the more underrated scorers and playmakers in the league. Frye has gotten back to bombing from deep. And Miles Plumlee is one of the NBA's most pleasant surprises, doubling as a rim-protector on defense and a lane-knifing roll man on offense.
Surround that crew with a stable of willing wing defenders and shooters, as the Suns have done, and you've got the recipe for the biggest surprise in the league.
Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.
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