How Phoenix Suns Can Make Leap from Feel-Good Story to Real Deal

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How Phoenix Suns Can Make Leap from Feel-Good Story to Real Deal
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The Phoenix Suns were squatting in last season's living room, hiding behind the couch all summer only to jump up and scream right as each team walked in the door.

Surprise! The Suns are actually competitive.

In a season that was supposed to be year one of a rebuilding project, Phoenix shocked the basketball world, winning 48 games and narrowly missing what would have been its first playoff appearance since it made its Western Conference Finals run in 2010. But there were plenty of reasons we couldn't have seen the Suns' uproar coming.

The Suns may have been a feel-good story this past year, but don't convolute the facts: This wasn't a team whose success was purely based on the narrative. 

Goran Dragic transformed into an All-NBA-caliber point guard seemingly out of nowhere. Gerald Green had the best year of his career after flaming out in Indiana the previous season. Younger guys like Miles Plumlee, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Eric Bledsoe all put together their own versions of breakout seasons. Plus, who could have guessed that first-year coach Jeff Hornacek would become one of the craftiest minds sitting on an NBA bench?

Matt York/Associated Press

The 2013-14 Suns were a wonderful team to watch if only for their unselfishness. The offense was so fluid. It was like watching a completely different team than the one that pulled out just 25 victories the previous season. And the Suns almost rode their eighth-ranked offense all the way to the playoffs, falling just one game short of the postseason in the brutal Western Conference.

The odd part of the Suns offense came in its assist rate. The Hornacek attack shared the ball as well as any other team this past season, but the most basic passing numbers didn't exactly show that.

Phoenix ranked dead last in assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio in 2013-14, which may be more of an indictment on the assist as a statistic than anything else, because the Suns absolutely moved the ball.

The assist isn't exactly the best way to measure strong passing. If it were, wouldn't someone like Tony Parker be averaging far more than 5.7 dimes per night? Conversely, how often do we see someone aimlessly dribble around for 14 seconds only to dump the ball off to a teammate who hits a contested fadeaway as the shot clock winds down?

Assists are convoluted. They say as much about how often a player touches and dribbles the ball as they do about how well he actually distributes it.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

That's why we reference corner-three attempts so often. They're not just about getting opportunities from the short corner and creating chances to hit the 22' long ball. They can also show the process that leads to facilitating those attempts.

No one is dribbling to that spot and then putting up a shot. A corner-three opportunity usually means a team swung the ball around the perimeter or drove-and-kicked properly enough to get an open look.

To evaluate how an offense passes, you have to ask yourself the most basic question possible: What is the purest point of passing?

The answer sounds basic as well: to get guys open. And sure, that's one of the true reasons, but really, don't offenses pass to get the defense to move as much as anything else? And forcing a defense to drift into uncomfortable positions is something Phoenix does expertly. 

That's how the Suns got all those corner-three attempts, finishing this year with the fourth-most shots from the corner in the league (subscription required). They wedged the D out of place and did it best while running the pick-and-roll, a set they executed as effectively as anyone else last season. They averaged 0.98 points per play that started with a screen-and-roll, second only to the Miami Heat, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

So much of that had to do with the transformation in Dragic's game. Once he or Bledsoe got in the lane, defenses had to collapse. How can they not when they're dealing with two of the best finishers around the rim in the whole league?

Dragic and Bledsoe shot 69.6 and 66.5 percent at the rim, respectively, in 2013-14, and their screen-and-roll attack was John McClane aggressive. We're talking lethal.

The Suns averaged 1.05 points per pick-and-roll play when Dragic acted as the ball-handler this year, per Synergy. Judging by that metric, such a figure made the Suns point guard the most effective screen-and-roll facilitator in the NBA. Better than Parker. Better than Chris Paul. Better than anyone.

Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel even went as far as saying the Dragic-Channing Frye pick-and-roll was "maybe the hardest to cover in the game."

With Bledsoe, who is still learning how to distribute in those sorts of sets, Phoenix still scored at a perfectly respectable rate. So, the Suns' strategy this offseason has been to bolster their pick-and-roll threats as much as possible.

They drafted the most poised screen-and-roll point guard in this year's rookie class, Tyler Ennis, with the 18th pick. They also picked up Bogdan Bogdanovic, a young shooting guard who already commands the floor while dribbling around screens, 27th overall.

Everything Phoenix does is predicated around pick-and-roll basketball. That's exactly why a Kevin Love-to-the-Suns deal may make more basketball sense than any other Love trade scenario.

Matt York/Associated Press

Love is probably the best pick-and-pop big man in the game. Add him to the brothers Morris, who pop like Pringles cans, and Plumlee, who is getting better and better as a screen-setter, and the Suns' pick-and-roll propensity would become even more extreme.

Didn't the Suns subtly set themselves up for a Love deal with the Ennis pick, anyway? With Bledsoe wading in the waters of restricted free agency and Frye hitting the open market, couldn't a Bledsoe sign-and-trade for Love—one that would give the Minnesota Timberwolves one of the peskiest defensive backcourts in the league—make sense for both sides?

What are you trying to tell us, Ryan McDonough?

A team that succeeds to such a degree with one offensive set should find personnel to slide perfectly into it to attain optimal success, and it's not like we haven't seen a similar story in Phoenix before.

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Mike D'Antoni's Suns thrived in their spread pick-and-roll sets, mainly because they had Steve Nash, the league's best guard when dribbling around screens, and one of its best roll men in Amar'e Stoudemire. This current iteration of the Suns has its elite ball-handler to run screen-and-rolls. What it needs is the upper-echelon big to pair with Dragic, one who can roll or pop. 

Love could be that guy, basically an enhanced version of Frye. So could Chris Bosh, who seems to want a max contract and could immediately help the Suns' 13th-ranked defense jump into the league's top 10.

Though he's not the shooter that Love is, Bosh hit 33.9 percent of his threes and 48.4 percent of his mid-range attempts last year. He's become a legitimate threat from all over the floor. Meanwhile, the Suns would have the cap flexibility to make a move for him without having to give up major pieces like they would for Love.

Having a floor-spacing big is one of the most important aspects of the Suns' pick-and-roll scheme. Dragic told as much to Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry back in March:

This year, when we play pick-and-roll, Channing stretches the floor, so I have room to operate. I can get inside the paint and make other plays for him and everybody else. He just gives us that spacing, and especially for me and Eric, he makes things much easier, because nobody can rotate from him.

With Dragic's $7.5 million as the highest salary on record for next season, the Suns currently have just $23.6 million on the books for the upcoming year, per Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders. That gives Phoenix just more than $35 million of cap room with work to maneuver. That means the Suns can put on their best salary-cap tuxes and start to get fancy.

Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

This team is still young. Dragic is only entering his prime. Bledsoe, Plumlee and each of the Morrises just capitalized on their first heavy-minutes seasons. Actually, the only two 30-year-olds from last year's roster were Frye and Shavlik Randolph. Now, one is a free agent, and the other is Shavlik Randolph.

Because of that youth infusion, there's no reason to feel pressure this offseason. 

Winning fewer than 48 games next year isn't necessarily a step back, as long as this team continues to set itself up for the future. Let's remember that this organization was in rebuilding mode just 10 months ago. Even after a surprise season, there's no reason to stray from that mentality. 

That means not overpaying or overextending for a big man who will clog up the hole left for an elite screen partner for Dragic. It means finding guys who will fit the system in three years and not just today. It means targeting others who thrive in the pick-and-roll and who can make an impact defensively.

From that angle, maybe signing Bosh should be the Suns' goal, considering Love's defense, though overly criticized, doesn't compare much to Bosh's. Or maybe Pau Gasol, another guy who has been picked on far too often while playing with a superstar, is the answer in Arizona. 

The Suns have the cap room to get creative. If they sign an elite pick-and-roll big along with another wing defender (14th overall pick T.J. Warren could play this role as well), all of a sudden, the roster would become scary.

Matt York/Associated Press

Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Suns would pursue LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, but wouldn't this team be terrifying if it brought in Bosh and Trevor Ariza, who can do everything P.J. Tucker does at a higher level (defense, corner threes, spot-up shooting off pick-and-roll dribbling and off-ball movement)?

Phoenix doesn't need to force-feed itself. At this stage, every signing should be about fit, even with the success the Suns found last season.

The Suns might have been one of the 10 best teams in the NBA this year, but still, their ninth-place standing in the tough-as-ever Western Conference seemed perfectly fair.

If the Suns were from Virginia, Delaware or any other eastern state, they would have had a chance to win their conference. But they're not. They're sitting at the grown-up table out west, and because of that, they need to man their group with a few extra pieces to ready themselves for a title run.

Now, Phoenix moves forward as one of the most youthful teams in the league. Next year's roster will be different, but the core (and mainly the core principles) will still be in place, and with an intelligent coach entering the second year of his career on the bench, Hornacek's team may only need consistency and familiarity to improve and boost itself into the playoffs next season.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of July 5 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN'TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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