Most pundits have been surprised by the Sun’s success this year. These are the same pundits that picked the Lakers to finish 8th or out of the playoffs in 07/08. Of course the Lakers made it to the NBA finals. I’ve watched most of the Suns games this year and their success is not a shock to me. This is the best Suns team since Nash has been in Phoenix.
Last year, they had the wrong or new personnel playing in the wrong system for the wrong coach. Yet, they barely missed the playoffs. This year the wrong personnel (Shaq) is gone, the new are now familiar, and the right coach who is Mike D’Antoni 2 , except this one also coaches defense.
The most successful Suns team is the 06/07 team that made it to the WCSF and lost to the Spurs. The team won 61 games in the regular season and started Nash, Bell, Diaw, Marion, and Stoudemire. The bench consisted of Kurt Thomas and Barbosa. No other player got any meaningful minutes.
This team is an upgrade at every position except perhaps PF. New Amare is better (especially on defense) than the old Amare. Hill looks like the one that played in Detroit and is significant upgrade to Diaw. Nash is still Nash – except this one seems to have a healthier back. Jason Richardson is playing like Andrew Toney. Marion is better than Fry. But Fry might be a better fit.
It is the bench that is the most drastic difference. Whereas D’Antoni didn’t trust his bench and played 7 deep the entire season. Gentry’s bench is deep and productive. Barbosa might now be the 7th or 8th man behind Amundson and Dudley (one of my new “Favourite Players not on the Lakers”). Dragic is the best Slovenian PG in the NBA and Robin Lopez has yet to play who brings their only size off the bench. Amundson is like David Lee who plays Defense. Barbosa might have lost something but is still very dangerous.
On offense this team has versatility missing on previous teams. Not a single player on the old team had a reliable post game. (Diaw was the closest; but whereas he had the skills, he lacked the will). That team was exclusively based on high screen-roll. Stoudemire picks for Nash, rolls to the hoop or pops. Nash passes to Stoudemire, or dribbles closer either for his own shot or a kick out to a shooter. Deadly efficient at the pace they played but still predictable; and in a playoff series, ultimately stoppable.
Now, this team runs a variant of the triangle/Princeton sets and posts up Richardson (and less frequently Hill) on the left block. They are good enough from the post to draw doubles and are very good at kicking it out for open 3’s.
There is some truth to the statement that some of the Sun’s success is due to the unfamiliarity of most teams to playing against a team with such pace. But of course, if pace alone were the determining factor, the Warriors would also be successful.
Let’s examine the few things the Suns do extremely well.
They shoot the 3 at 48%. Unheard of. Such efficiency is a product of good shooters getting open looks from their favourite spots in rhythm. Disrupt any of these factors and the percentage drops. These open looks in rhythm come in 3 primary ways.
1. Nash penetration. Usually to his left. Swing out with his left hand to the right corner 3. Or a further swing from the corner to the key and wing for open 3’s
2. Kick out from left block by Richardson or Hill after a double. Usually to the right wing to Frye/other shooter for open 3
3. PUJIT – no need to say more
Unlike most right handed players, Nash tends to penetrate going left. This is function of two factors,
– Amare tends to pick to Nash’s left – this naturally leads to his rolling from the right side or popping for a shot on the right and Amare is a strong right-handed player.
– Nash has a deadly jumpshot off the dribble to the right. He is not nearly as comfortable shooting over his right shoulder.
So force Nash to the right to discourage penetration and live with the jump shots.
Do not double the post player. Force Richardson and Hill to make the turnaround J. They can make this shot but perhaps not as well against Kobe and Artest. A contested turn around from the block has a much lower EFG% than an open 3 (76% for the Suns – crazy!), and much easier to rebound.
The Lakers can minimize the PUJIT by being disciplined on offense; limiting turnovers and trying to have the Suns begin their break by taking the ball out of bounds each and every possession.
The Suns also are very good at swarming the post causing turnovers. Bynum and Kobe will have to be mindful of this when they get the ball. As a side note, in Jared Dudley the Suns have possibly the best or second best post defender at the guard position. Kobe will have to work harder to establish position and get the ball. Dudley is extremely good at fronting his player and denying the pass. The huge advantage Kobe has with other teams who have guards that treat the paint like alien territory is not there against Phoenix.
The Nash/Amare screen roll is probably the most devastating single play in the NBA. You have to try to get Amare to pick to Nash’s right than left. Much like Denver tried to disrupt the Kobe/Gasol screen roll by severely shading to Kobe’s right forcing Gasol to pick to Kobe’s left, the Lakers have to do the opposite. Shade Nash severely to the left to force Amare to pick to Nash’s right. This impedes Nash’s penetration, and forces Amare to begin rolling or shoot from a less comfortable position of the left side of the lane. If Frye is screening, I’d go under the screen so that Frye’s man can stay with him. Frye doesn’t roll and will drift to the three point line looking for the drop off from Nash. Of course you leave an open 3 to Nash – but you always give up something to take away something.
What a terrific game so early in the season. This game will test the Laker’s weaknesses this year. They will have to control the defensive boards (the Lakers are the worst in the league), not turn the ball over, make the proper rotations to cover the weak side three point shooter, and run a disciplined offense to control the tempo. All doable but challenging.