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Three-PG Lineup Is Best Blueprint for Phoenix Suns Success

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 27, 2014

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With dual-point guard sets slowly rising to prominence in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns are going to be taking things one step further. With Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas all on the roster, it's time for Jeff Hornacek to experiment with lineups that feature not one, not two but three floor generals on the court at the same time. 

Yes, three players who typically line up at the same position, all on the floor together at once. 

It's a unit the Suns actually experimented with briefly throughout the preseason, and it worked quite nicely during the short bursts in which all three 1-guards were on the floor. 

"Phoenix had previously used this group to outscore the San Antonio Spurs 11-2 in a short stint, and this time head coach Jeff Hornacek decided to go small with 5:16 remaining and his team trailing by one point," explains James Herbert for CBS Sports. "The Suns ended up winning [against the Utah Jazz] 105-100."

It's a small sample size, sure.

The Suns have only used such a three-guard set in two preseason games, and it's not as though either was implemented for a particularly long duration. Nevertheless, it's worked both times, and it makes sense schematically. 

If you have talent to use, why not use it? Positions are becoming antiquated designations, limiting coaches to sets that don't necessarily make the best use of the weapons at their disposal. Plus, it sounds as though some other players on the Phoenix roster are inclined to support this experiment. 

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

"I love it," P.J. Tucker explained to Paul Coro of AZCentral.com. "That's the best lineup to me. What is anybody going to do? We've got three of the best point guards in the league at the same time. The spacing on the floor is amazing. On the other end, we're small but feisty. These guys are dogs."

Tucker typically lines up at the 2 or 3 for the Suns but was playing power forward in this undersized lineup. Fortunately, players like Tucker, Gerald Green and Marcus and Markieff Morris have enough size, athleticism and/or physicality to make these groupings work, as long as they're next to a traditional center who can steer away some penetration to the rim. 

"Pace picked up something crazy," said Marcus Morris to ArizonaSports.com's Craig Grialou after he and Miles Plumlee played next to the three 1-guards against San Antonio. "I think that's going to be special for us. There's no other team in the league that can do that, that has like three dynamic point guards like that. It was great to experience it, and you just see how the game changed. That's going to be great for us, I think."

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 24:  Goran Dragic #1 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against the Utah Jazz during the game at EnergySolutions Arena on October 24, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

While it's a remarkably small unit, there are two things that make it work: novelty and speed. 

As for the latter, it helps to have three smaller players who can zip around the court and wreak havoc. On the offensive end, they're capable of running bigger players to death and creating mismatches galore. All three can shoot and handle the rock capably, which allows the point of attack to come from virtually anywhere on the court. 

Plus, as Morris noted, the pace has the potential to be off the charts. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Suns used 95.8 possessions per 48 minutes during the 2013-14 season, which left them trailing only seven teams in the Association. They might normally hover around that number once more in 2014-15, but the three-guard lineup will surely push things even more. With three players who can up the pace with the ball in their hands and plenty of dynamic offensive creators in the half-court set, there's no reason to avoid playing fast. 

"I thought we were small, but everybody got in (and) rebounded and we pushed the tempo and the lead just went up," Bledsoe told Grialou. "We were definitely having fun out there. Everybody was sharing the ball. I thought Isaiah did a great job of kicking it ahead, and I think everybody did a great job of running and we were just getting layups. It worked out perfect."

And speed helps on defense, too. 

Oct 16, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Isaiah Thomas (3) congratulates center Miles Plumlee (22) in the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at US Airways Center. The Suns won 121-90. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Sure, the Suns are going to be remarkably overmatched in the size department, but there are now three thieves operating on the court at all times. They can use quick hands to gamble a bit more, and the amount of switches is sure to be frightening. 

As Scott Howard-Cooper posits at NBA.com, it might take some unorthodox strategies, but it's possible for these three to work defensively: 

The appeals and drawbacks are obvious: The Suns could force the tempo they like, but would risk getting turned into little more than speed bumps on defense by going 6-foot-3 (Dragic), 6-foot-1 (Bledsoe) and 5-foot-9 (Thomas), not to mention risking injury from getting stepped on. They would have to counter by staying in scramble mode the entire time, trying to force turnovers or get the opponent horribly out of rhythm since playing straight up wouldn’t be much of an option.

That's basically how two of the three already operate.

Thomas has always been at a size disadvantage, and while he's a horrific one-on-one defender, the involvement in off-ball work with the Sacramento Kings actually mitigated some of the negative results. Bledsoe is a tenacious defender at all times, and Dragic has a bit of size that he can use to his advantage. 

If Dragic is covering a 3 on one possession and there's a screen set, why not just switch Bledsoe over? The same goes for plays that involve Thomas, though he's significantly shorter than either of the two incumbent point guards. Soon, it would be this troika earning the "havoc" nickname for its defense, not Shaka Smart's VCU Rams.

The versatility of the lineup on the defensive end helps make up for the lack of size, especially because the Suns wouldn't have to worry as much about the disparity between defensive rebounding and transition play. 

Typically, there's a tradeoff between ending a possession by cleaning the glass and getting out into the open floor, because players can only be in one spot at one time. But if the Suns are this fast and have so many outlet options, they don't have to worry about consciously pushing the pace, allowing more players to focus on the boards. 

Is defense going to be a piece of cake, a walk in the park or whatever colloquialism you want to use? Absolutely not. 

But does it matter? 

If the Suns come close to hemorrhaging points when three floor generals are all on the court, that only matters if they can't outscore them. In 10 minutes on the court, scoring 20 and giving up 10 yields the same result as putting up 10 points and holding the opposition without a single bucket. All that matters is the differential, which is plus-10 in both of those hypothetical situations, which is why the offensive potential of this lineup is so ridiculously exciting. 

This isn't something that we've seen before, and it's inevitably going to throw opposing coaches for a major loop when it becomes a reality. 

After all, no one has any clue exactly how Thomas, Dragic and Bledsoe will fare when they're essentially playing the 3: 

Percentage of Career Minutes
PGSGSF
Eric Bledsoe9371
Goran Dragic75250
Isaiah Thomas10000
Basketball-Reference.com

Bledsoe played 7 percent of his minutes at small forward during his penultimate season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Then again, he wasn't the same player he is today, nor was he tasked with too much responsibility given the presence of Chris Paul. Dragic spent 1 percent of his time on the court this past season at the 3, but that's a remarkably small sample. 

As for Thomas, only 1 percent of his minutes during the 2012-13 campaign came at shooting guard. Other than that minuscule portion, he's always been at the point. Having him serve as a small forward, even if only due to a one-possession switch, has never even been a thought. 

Matt Petersen @TheMattPetersen

Thomas said last night was 1st time he/Dragic/Bledsoe played on same squad, incl. practice 9-0 run. "I had a lot of fun, personally."

This is completely novel, and much like new-look teams often find success during their first game against an opponent by thriving before the scouting report is out, it'll take a while for the opposition to figure this set out. And that's if they figure out how to slow down a three-headed machine on the offensive end. 

"You saw that it could work," Hornacek succinctly explained to Grialou after the preseason outing against the Jazz. 

We've seen exactly that during the slate of exhibition games, and we'll surely get a chance to witness more of the same during the regular season. But if the Suns actually integrate this set into their plans on a regular basis, there's an even greater chance we could see three point guards play on one five-man unit during the postseason. 

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