Speed, persistent pace fuel Suns' 2-headed dragon

Christian Petersen

Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have the speed to put defenses on their heels, but Phoenix needs one more piece to make a playoff run.

As the 2013-14 season neared, two teams seemed to be engaged in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom. One traded its All-Star point guard for a draft pick; the other sent away a proud veteran for an unproven point guard. One refused to sign any noteworthy free agents despite massive amounts of cap room; the other dealt its starting center four days before the season began.

Yet when the season began, both shined. After the first week of the season, the teams were a combined 5-1, with the one loss coming on the road against the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder. Were they really not as bad as everyone thought?

Over time, the Philadelphia 76ers faded. Over the same amount of time, the Phoenix Suns have done anything but.

Phoenix is 17-10 on the season after routing the Lakers on Monday, their eighth win in nine games. They're sixth in the West and approaching the Houston Rockets for fifth. Eric Bledsoe is flashing star potential, Goran Dragic has been great and many surprises (Miles Plumlee, the Morris twins, P.J. Tucker) have emerged. The team's play has so thoroughly affected management's plans that they now are reportedly considering moving some of their treasure chest of draft picks for immediate help.

The key has been an up-tempo style that's often discussed by teams, but rarely executed properly. There are several reasons it works in Phoenix. Bledsoe has been great pushing the ball, for one. The team's shooting alongside him, particularly at the forward positions, has been significant.

But the biggest key has been Dragic, the one holdover that had a track record of success. It's not easy playing with another ball-handler like Bledsoe, but Dragic has found a way by using his best asset: his speed. As a point guard, Dragic was fast. As an off guard, he has no peer. Take a look at all these fast breaks that happen because Dragic zips out on the wing.


Attacking up the wings is what makes the Suns' fast break better than most. NBA defenses are very good at preparing for the speedy ball-handler that loves to push the ball in transition, but are less proficient when dealing with fast wing runners. Wing runners provide the numbers and ultimately tilt the defense and create openings. Much like the threat of a proficient shooter creates openings for others in half-court situations, so to does the thread of players going full speed towards the basket. Consider this play against the Lakers two weeks ago.


This also applies when the Suns don't immediately find a shot on the fast break. Because both Bledsoe and Dragic can handle the ball, each can get Phoenix into some early offense. Here, Dragic rushes the ball up the wing and runs an immediate pick and roll with Frye, forcing a Mavericks switch. Amid Dallas' confusion, which stemmed from both the switch and trying to frantically set up their half-court defense so soon after a made shot, Dragic found Tucker for an open corner three.


Dragic isn't the only wing that runs, of course. P.J. Tucker is great, and Gerald Green is a threat as well. It helps that Bledsoe is fast with the ball as well. But the difference between Tucker's speed and the average small forward's is much smaller than the difference between Dragic's speed and the average shooting guard's. And thanks to Dragic's wingspan and the presence of shooting elsewhere on the floor, the drawbacks of playing two point guards -- size mismatches, spacing -- are minimized while the advantage is enhanced.

That spacing, of course, is also key. Phoenix always plays with a shooter at power forward, whether it's Channing Frye or Markieff Morris. That opens up the lane for Bledsoe drives, Miles Plumlee rolls and all the running Dragic does. We talked about the impact of Frye's shooting before the season, and after a slow start, he's starting to show the form he displayed before his heart problems. Morris, meanwhile, has made huge strides this year and is among the top sixth men in the game.

The Suns' half-court offense isn't especially complicated. New coach Jeff Hornacek comes from the Jazz's coaching staff, but he has yet to incorporate much of Jerry Sloan's Flex offense. When Phoenix cannot score on the fast break, it usually runs basic high pick and rolls for Bledsoe and Dragic and straight post-ups or isolations for Plumlee or either Morris twin. There's a nice balance in the team's skills that allows the offense to thrive despite this simplicity. Bledsoe and Dragic love to get to the rim, Plumlee rolls hard into open space, Tucker has mastered the corner three (49 percent from there, per NBA.com), Frye is proficient above the break (44 percent, per NBA.com) and the Morris twins can score from pretty much anywhere, allowing them to serve as second-unit initiators. The Suns also relentlessly send extra players to attack the offensive glass, and while they are just 13th in offensive rebound percentage this season, this helps keep games scrambled even when they don't get the rebound.

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All that is a recipe for great individual success and player development, and it's resulted in a lot of winning this season. But looking ahead, there are concerns.

Chief among them is the defense. Phoenix was fifth in the NBA in defensive rating through the first three weeks of the season, but has fallen back and now sits at 16th. Plumlee has been way better than advertised and has flashed the ability to perfect the rule of verticality like his former Indiana teammate Roy Hibbert, but teams aren't exactly scared to drive the lane against him. Teams attempt an average of 10.4 shots at the rim with him as the primary defender in the 28 minutes per game that he plays, according to SportVU data. Plumlee also tends to jump for rebounds instead of boxing out his man, which helps explain why the Suns are fourth-worst in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage. Here's an example of Plumlee's poor attention to detail.

Screenshot_2013-12-23_17

The Suns' pick and roll coverages can get easily picked apart, especially by teams that also possess shooters and play small. Phoenix does a decent job preventing easy three-point attempts, but surrender the third-most shots in the restricted area and the seventh-fewest from 16-23 feet, per NBA.com. The Spurs in particular picked the Suns apart with pretty basic pick and roll action.

This makes you wonder if the Suns might be a good landing spot for Omer Asik. Asik had his most success as the rim protector for a similar club in the 2012-13 Rockets, and he directly addresses one of Phoenix's biggest weaknesses. Asik is more expensive and has more experience than Plumlee, but he's only two years older. If Phoenix wants to make a push now, this might make sense.

Finally, as good as Bledsoe has been this year, he's still at the point where he needs Dragic's speed to help his game. Lineups with Bledsoe and without Dragic have been outscored by 7.7 points per 100 possessions this year, according to the NBA's media-only stats page. All this despite Bledsoe himself thriving when playing as the team's only ball-handler -- he's shooting over 57 percent from the floor when Dragic sits, according to the same page. This should give the Suns pause when fielding offers on Dragic.

All this is why I'm skeptical that the playoffs are in the cards without another move. Nevertheless, the Suns are way ahead of schedule, and we're well past the point of their up-tempo style being a gimmick. As long as they have their pieces, they will run anyone ragged. In an NBA that's increasingly becoming faster, the new-look Suns are well ahead of the curve.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.

It says a lot about Andre Drummond that he's a candidate to be an All-Star in his second season at age 20. It also says a lot that he's at that point with so, so, so much room for growth.

Armed with the responsibility of being a starting center, Drummond has continued to flash his limitless potential. He's already the game's best offensive rebounder, with anticipation and athleticism that nobody can match. Great offensive rebounders all have that "second jump" ability, which allows them to get off the floor to go get balls when their opponent is still gathering himself. Look at how many times Drummond gets off the ground before his opponent on this play.

Drummond_jumps

He's also becoming better at reading the ball off the rim and eluding defenders trying to box him out. Here, he loops around David West, reading the ball off the rim and putting himself in the perfect position for a putback.

Drummondslam

He's still not getting many chances to post up, but that'll come in time. More importantly, he has soft hands and quick feet, making him the perfect finisher on cuts and pick and rolls. He has become excellent at readying his hands whenever he's around the rim, ensuring that no pass deflects off him. Some examples:

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But despite all this, Drummond has a ways to go. This is especially true defensively, where his natural gifts have yet to make a major impact. Drummond has incredible potential to be the pre-eminent rim protector of this era. He blocks shots left-handed -- 45 of his 48 swats were with this hand -- which allows him to get perfect angles on right-handed players finishing with their strong hand. Notice how easily he sends this Dwight Howard hook shot back, for example.

Howarddenied

But the process of learning proper defensive fundamentals is taking lots of time. For one thing, Drummond surrenders leverage way too easily in the post. Howard put on a clinic on Saturday simply because he got deep initially and kept pushing Drummond down with simple back-ins.


For another, he continues to stick to his own man instead of prioritizing help defense like other great defensive anchors, even if his man is a non-threat. There's absolutely no reason for him to be floating so far from the rim against a non-threat like Cody Zeller here.

Screenshot_2013-12-23_17

Worse, after going after shots with reckless abandon last year, he's letting a lot go this year. It makes sense that Drummond would be wary of foul trouble, but he's gone too far in the other direction. There's no reason that he can't at least make an effort to block or alter this shot.

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These weaknesses are reflected in the numbers. Detroit is 5.7 points worse per 100 possessions defensively when Drummond is in the game, per NBA.com. While some of that is the awkward fit between him, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, a lot of that is Drummond's own inexperience for all the reasons stated above. It's that inexperience that causes a lot more of Detroit's defensive breakdowns than one would think. Perhaps instead of only blaming Smith, Monroe or the fit between the three bigs, we should acknowledge that it's tough to build an elite defense around a rim protector as raw as Drummond. Time is the best antidote to Detroit's woes.

In time, Drummond should correct these problems. If he does, the sky really is the limit.

More Pistons coverage: Detroit Bad Boys

SACRIFICE OF THE WEEK

There are so many pieces to a play's puzzle that don't show up in the box score. We'll highlight one such piece each week in this section.

One of my favorite new developments in the NBA is when a big man subtly shifts positions to catch a guard with a screen they didn't expect. Few in the NBA are better at doing this and avoiding the moving screen foul than Boris Diaw. Watch how he catches the Suns by switching sides on a pick and roll, thereby saving a lost possession.

Diawscreen

LEFTOVERS

10 other observations from the week that was.

  1. Even in defeat, the Pacers should feel pretty good with what they accomplished offensively against the Heat. Indy has figured out how to slip their big men past Miami's traps, and with David West and Roy Hibbert's passing ability, that's leading to tons of open shots. This wasn't the cleanest pass from West, but it shows how opportunities open up when the slip happens.
  2. You saw the same exact thing with Al Horford when the Heat played the Hawks on Monday night. Here's just one example that resulted in an open drive for Paul Millsap. Miami's default adjustment has been to pressure the passer even more when they trap, but will that be enough this year?
  3. Why are the Wizards so much better with Nene than without him? This screenshot, which shows Nene calling out the Nets' set before anticipating and intercepting a pass, provides a clue.
  4. The Mavericks' defense really fell apart this weekend and is going to cost them as the season keeps going. It's the combination of bad defenders and poor awareness. Watch how Kyle Lowry simply goes to the corner to isolate against Jose Calderon and gets no resistance going to the basket.
  5. Reggie Jackson has added a completely new dimension to the Thunder's attack. When he's able to attack like he did off the dribble like he did against the Spurs, the Thunder become even more dangerous offensively. Oklahoma City kept killing the Spurs on Saturday with basic ball screen action, which is a huge concern for San Antonio going forward. (Yes, the absence of Kawhi Leonard hurts, but the biggest issue was the defense on Westbrook and Jackson. Who does San Antonio have that can guard both guys?).
  6. The Clippers have played much better defense recently, but I still don't trust DeAndre Jordan against a top front line in a playoff series. He still lets guys sneak behind him for offensive rebounds far too often. Kevin Love does a great job here, but Jordan could at least make a token effort to put a body on him.
  7. I've highlighted Amir Johnson's vicious screen-setting before, but he's been at his best since Rudy Gay was traded because he's been given a larger role in the offense. This is textbook dribble-handoff action.
  8. Brandon Knight had a big scoring week and is making strides, but I still notice times where he misses passes or delivers them a beat late. Here, a slip of indecisiveness causes him to throw a pick and roll pass behind Miroslav Raduljia, which messes up the rhythm of the play. It would behoove the Bucks to find better ways to get him attacking on the move instead of having to read a defense from a stationary position. 12-20 5:39 1Q
  9. It's just demoralizing when you're defending a player that hits shots like these. Unfair, Damian Lillard.
  10. On the other hand, this is not the ideal shot to yield in a pick and roll situation.

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