The Phoenix Suns don't believe in conventional wisdom.
Even with small-ball systems sweeping the NBA, most teams haven't been able to find success while running sets that involve two point guards. But the desert-based franchise soldiers on, attempting to prove that it can be the exception.
Sure, Phoenix ultimately fell just shy of a playoff berth in 2013-14, failing to beat the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies down the stretch as a battered and bruised Goran Dragic succumbed to the difficulty of carrying his team. Nonetheless, the team exceeded expectations in a big way during the first year of Jeff Hornacek's tenure, especially considering the major injury to Eric Bledsoe.
Had the man known fondly as "Mini LeBron" played in more than 43 games (rather than being knocked out of the lineup by a midseason meniscus injury), the postseason would've been a legitimate possibility. Though opponents played the Suns better when they weren't caught by surprise in the first matchup of the season, that decline in win-loss percentage also happened to correlate strongly with Bledsoe's absence.
First of all, this was an absolute steal for Phoenix.
Not only did it have to give up only minimal assets—just a $7 million trade exception and the draft rights to Alex Oriakhi, per CBS Sports' Ken Berger—but the contract is wonderful. Four years and $27 million is a flat-out Bargain (yes, with a capital "B") for a player of Thomas' caliber, particularly when he's only 25 years old and could continue to get better.
To put that in perspective, Thomas is now making less money per year on his new deal than the following free agents who have also signed new deals this offseason:
- Jordan Hill: Two years, $18 million with Los Angeles Lakers.
- Channing Frye: Four years, $32 million with Orlando Magic.
- Avery Bradley: Four years, $32 million with Boston Celtics.
- Boris Diaw: Three years, $22.5 million with San Antonio Spurs.
- Chandler Parsons: Three years, $45 million with Houston Rockets (once they inevitably match the Dallas Mavericks' offer sheet).
- Gordon Hayward: Four years, $63 million with Utah Jazz.
Parsons and Hayward are both better than the diminutive floor general, but not that much better. For him to make under $7 million per year is ridiculous.
During the 2013-14 season, Thomas averaged 20.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 34.9 percent beyond the arc. He earned a 20.5 player efficiency rating, according to Basketball-Reference, which made him one of only 22 players to top a 20 PER while playing over 32 minutes per game.
That list is quite an impressive one, but how about if we sort by a different advanced metric—win shares?
Only 33 players earned more than Thomas' 7.7 last season. Among those who didn't? LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyrie Irving, Tim Duncan, Lance Stephenson, Paul Millsap, Klay Thompson, Zach Randolph, Ty Lawson and so many others.
Point being, Thomas is supremely underrated, and his new contract is only the latest indication.
During my NBA 200 series, the former Mr. Irrelevant checked in No. 52, making him one of the top 15 players who qualified only at the point guard position, not as a combo guard. When you include the notable combos (Damian Lillard and Dragic), he drops to No. 17 at the position.
Amazingly, that gives the Phoenix backcourt three players who ranked in the top 52 and can all line up at point guard, assuming Bledsoe is retained (more on that shortly). Dragic checked in at No. 17 and Bledsoe at No. 27.
Talk about an abundance of wealth.
But what about that assumption? Are the Suns really going to retain Bledsoe when they already have two capable floor generals, as well as a third who was just drafted in Tyler Ennis? Would they even match a max offer sheet if that's what he ends up signing elsewhere?
So far, the indications all point toward yes.
"Bledsoe is a restricted free agent, but the Suns are trying to sign him before he inks an offer sheet for another team," explains the ESPN.com news services' report on the Thomas deal. "General manager Ryan McDonough has said Phoenix would match any offer sheet Bledsoe signs."
Paul Coro, writing for AZCentral.com, confirms this mentality:
The Suns could be protecting themselves for Dragic's uncertain future beyond next season but their immediate priority is to retain Bledsoe (they have rights to negotiate a new deal or match an offer sheet) and bolster this season's backcourt with Thomas as a sixth man.
It still makes sense to keep Bledsoe. Just as it's going to make sense to keep Ennis in the D-League, where he can develop until he's fully prepared for the challenges of the NBA.
Phoenix's system is almost completely dependent on point guard play.
It relies on the 1-guards to gain penetration while pushing the pace, keeping the ball in their hands much of the time so they can either score for themselves or facilitate for their teammates. Few teams are this dependent on the position, which is why Hornacek so often used lineups with multiple point guards on the court at one time.
"Hornacek has installed an offense that relies on two point guards who were supposed to get in the way of one another, and instead has used Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic's strengths to give the defense a nearly unsolvable problem," wrote CBS Sports' Matt Moore early in the season.
There are a few terrific quotes in Moore's piece. First, from the mouth of Hornacek himself:
There are times when Goran's (playing) a point guard and times when Eric's a point guard. It's probably falling out that Eric's probably got the ball 40 percent of the time when they're on the floor together. But in fast break and in our offense, we swing it from one side to the other. So it may be Eric that starts out with it but it ends up in Goran's hands. That's what we're trying to accomplish on offense. It's good for us that they're both pretty similar in their stats so one guy's not saying 'Gosh, I'm not getting the ball enough.'
Goran's a really good shooter, and last year he didn't shoot the ball well from three (32 percent). I think a lot of that is because a lot of them were off the dribble, and that's a tougher shot. And now he's getting a lot of catch-and-shoot opportunities and consequently his percentage is up.
Next, Dragic speaking about Hornacek's vision:
The first time I spoke to him. I was back in Europe. And he said 'We want to be like those old Suns, use two ball-handlers and play extremely fast, up-tempo.' You never know if that's going to work or not, but he always tries to give you that confidence. Even in tense minutes on the floor, he's always calm. It helps you to not get worried, and just play your game.
Well, it worked.
Per 82games.com, the Suns enjoyed fantastic contributions from the backcourt throughout the season, with 1- and 2-guards racking up respective PERs of 20.6 and 16.2. When you factor in defense, no positions had higher net PERs in the desert.
Throwing a third high-quality guard into the mix makes the team even more dangerous, for a number of reasons. One of them, as HardwoodParoxysm.com's Andrew Lynch explains, is that it can alleviate wear and tear.
Would make sense for Suns to learn the lessons of the Spurs, reduce playing time for Dragic/Bledsoe, and have a great 3rd guard to stagger.— Andrew Lynch (@AndrewLynch) July 11, 2014
Between Bledsoe's fragile health and Dragic's 28-year-old frame, one that's taken quite the beating over the last calendar year thanks to his physical play and constant effort, conservation has to be considered. These Suns are no longer going to be OK with barely missing out on the playoffs; they want to take part in the postseason festivities.
If you reduce the minutes slightly for each starter and hand Thomas the sixth-man role—except an even bigger one than normal because he can capably play next to either Dragic or Bledsoe—you're keeping everyone fresh for the later stages of the 2014-15 season.
And that's where the next benefit comes into play.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Suns played with the No. 8 pace in the NBA last year.
Can you imagine if they started to push the tempo even more, keeping all the guards fresh throughout the game because they have so many at their disposal? Defenders would surely hate to see Phoenix looming on the schedule, knowing they're in for a hard night of constant movement and tough responsibilities.
Hornacek's plan of using two floor generals at once is inherently dependent on having two at his disposal. Rostering three isn't a luxury; it's a necessity for that system to stand the rigorous test of a full 82-game campaign with enough energy to spare for a postseason run.
Plus, it's not as though Dragic and Bledsoe struggle when they're asked to play the 2. The latter is admittedly better when he's playing point guard, but the former's offensive decline when he plays the bigger spot in the lineup is made up for by his impressive defense.
As shown by 82games.com, "The Dragon" held opposing 1s and 2s to respective PERs of 15.4 and 10.3, leaving little doubt as to his more effective defensive position.
Adding Thomas into the fray works stylistically, as he's capable of filling either starter's role when he comes off the bench. If he's replacing Dragic, he can function more as a facilitator. But if Bledsoe is on the bench, he's willing and able to be an off-ball scoring threat. Or an on-ball one, just to throw yet another wrinkle into the plan.
Will he top 20 points per game again?
Probably not, but there's no reason he can't get even more efficient. Something tells me he won't post a 57.4 true-shooting percentage for the fourth season in a row, as there's typically some sort of tradeoff between volume and efficiency, particularly when moving to a new team.
Do you like the decision to sign Isaiah Thomas and further crowd the backcourt?
The Suns are getting even more dangerous, and the backcourt will continue to be the driving force for this up-and-coming playoff contender in the Western Conference. It may be a crowded group of players, but Hornacek's ideologies make everything flow in a cohesive manner.
Here's hoping he takes his disregard for convention even further, throwing out a three-point guard lineup at some point during garbage time. Hey, if Rick Adelman can play four 7-footers—Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Yao Ming—at once during the 2003 All-Star Game, it can come to pass. That alone proves the "stranger things have happened" theorem.
Phoenix should be even more competitive than it was in 2013-14, which could very well lead to a playoff berth in the ridiculously tough Western Conference. At the very least, it'll be a League Pass special, just as it was last year.
Except this time, Thomas on the roster should make the small-ball Suns even more entertaining.