Why the Phoenix Suns' Tiny Backcourt Is a Surprising Recipe for Success

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Why the Phoenix Suns' Tiny Backcourt Is a Surprising Recipe for Success
Ross D. Franklin

“Nobody knew if that’s gonna work, including Me or Eric,” Goran Dragic told ESPN Radio in an interview during All-Star Weekend (via Valley of the Suns), referring to doubts concerning his ability to play seamlessly with newly acquired point guard Eric Bledsoe.

“We talked with the coach, Jeff [Hornacek], and he said, ‘Let’s try this.’”

Try—and succeed—they have.

Thanks in large part to the incongruous brilliance of Bledsoe and Dragic, the Phoenix Suns—picked by many to dwell in the NBA cellar—have turned the 2013-14 season into their own collective coming-out party, giving themselves a legitimate shot at the playoffs in the process.

But how sustainable is Phoenix’s two-headed point guard, really?

A Backcourt Boon
Player Points Assists TS% PER
Goran Dragic 20.4* 5.9 .609* 21.7*
Eric Bledsoe 17.6* 5.5* .573* 19.4*
* Denotes career highs

Basketball Reference.com

Considered free of context, Bledsoe and Dragic’s respective seasons would be enough to make any coach or general manager drool.

And while having both on its roster affords Phoenix a unique near-term flexibility, cynics continue to sound the argument that its outwardly awkward backcourt duo will eventually—inevitably, even—rear an ugly statistical head.

We're still waiting for that to happen.

Viewed through the lens of some fascinating statistical esoterica, presented in fascinating detail in this recent slideshow by Suns.com’s Ben York, the Dragic-Bledsoe duo has been beyond merely dynamic.

To wit: The two have put up 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in two different games thus far, they’ve both scored 16 or more in the same game 13 times and remain just two of seven guards in the entire NBA to average more than 17 points and shoot better than 46 percent from the floor.

Then again, the concern was never really about whether Bledsoe and Dragic could complement one another offensively. Rather, it was at the other end—pitted against other teams' 2-guards—where Phoenix risked the most danger. Here’s Bleacher Report’s Simon Cherin-Gordon from way back in September:

By the same token, both men have PG bodies (Bledsoe is only 6'1" while Dragic is 6'4" but weighs 180 pounds) and neither seem to be capable of stopping NBA shooting guards. This is true, although the strong Bledsoe is still a better bet to defend a 2-guard than anyone else on Phoenix's roster.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Bledsoe’s defensive rating—which had climbed to a career high of 101 a season ago—has dropped all the way down to 106 since coming to Phoenix.

Of Bledsoe’s 1,215 total minutes thus far this season, 767 of them—well over half—have been played with Dragic, per NBA.com (subscription required). It therefore stands to reason that a considerable number of Bledsoe's minutes have been spent guarding the opposing team's shooting guard.

Here’s the interesting part: Not only is the Dragic-Bledsoe pairing charting the fifth-best net rating (10.5) of any Phoenix two-man unit with more than 100 minutes logged, it’s also logging the fifth-best defensive rating (98.4)—as clear a sign as any that sharing the backcourt doesn’t necessarily spell defensive doom for Bledsoe or the Suns.

To be fair, there is some evidence to suggest each is slightly more potent offensively with the other off the floor rather than on.

Dragic / Bledsoe On / Off
Player PPS PPP 3P% TS%
Dragic (Bledsoe On) 1.21 1.12 .368 .570
Dragic (Bledsoe Off) 1.23 1.15 .439 .615
Bledsoe (Dragic On) 1.06 1.01 .333 .532
Bledsoe (Dragic Off) 1.26 1.10 .366 .630

NBAWowy.com

Still, such statistics are merely anecdotal when considered in light of the larger point: Dragic and Bledsoe are both very, very good players with room to grow, and the Suns are very, very good when they’re both manning the backcourt.

How long they’ll remain joined at the fore of Phoenix’s renaissance is another question entirely.

Bledsoe is the most immediate concern, why with his $3.7 million qualifying offer for next season sure to be tested by a number of guard-starved teams.

But if comments made back in February by Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby on The Doug and Wolf Show (Arizona Sports 98.7 FM) are any indication, Phoenix has every intention of matching whatever offer Bledsoe fetches—at least for now.

Via Adam Green of ArizonaSpots.com.

I think our answer to that is yes, that we know enough about Eric as a player. Even more importantly, we've lived with him now for almost a year as a person. We like everything about him. Like him as a teammate, like him as a representative of our franchise and everything that he stands for. He's got a tremendous future.

Lest a rival team make Bledsoe an offer the notoriously pennywise Suns might not be willing to meet, Babby’s comments were understandably tempered.

Dragic, meanwhile, is looking at a $7.5 million player option for the 2015-16 season. That’s an eminently fair price, of course. But given Dragic’s spike in production, he could easily fetch something on the order of $10-to-$12 million on the open market.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As recently as January 3, CBS’ Ken Berger suggested Dragic’s days in Phoenix might be numbered:

But league sources say the pairing of Bledsoe and Dragic in the backcourt is not expected to be a long-term solution for the Suns. The growing belief among league executives is that Dragic will opt out of his contract following the 2014-15 season, potentially ramping up the pressure on GM Ryan McDonough to pursue a trade.

All of this is a long ways in the future, of course. Any team worth its salt is bound to explore trade scenarios it feels puts it in a better position to win, and Dragic is bound to become enticing bait indeed.

But what if the Bledsoe-Dragic pairing somehow leads Phoenix to a playoff berth, while wielding its two-way impact to increasing effectiveness? At that point, the stats-savvy Suns would have more than enough evidence to justify keeping both players for the long haul.

All the while, the same exhaustive analysis that led many to predict a clumsy backcourt marriage could continue to crumble, another casualty of our tendency to err on the side of causality over chemistry.

 

Most NBA.com stats subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 6, unless otherwise noted.

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