Vol. 2 , Iss. 1: How The Bubble Shaped The Suns

The Suns Front Office said they would re-evaluate the 8-0 run in the Bubble, before considering their off-season plans. My guess is they liked what they saw and built accordingly.

Time To Turn The Page…..

New league year, new volume. If you’ve been with me since Volume. 1, Issue. 1 - thank you SO much. If you’re new here, please hit the subscribe button below and help me reach my goal before the season starts. We are really close! It’s an exciting time to be a Phoenix Suns fan, so I am excited to continue to talk about our team in 20/21.

The Excitement Is Bubbling Over……

The Phoenix Suns look like they’ve quickly taken care of the majority of their off-season business, with training camp just a few days away.

First, the Suns traded for Chris Paul (and Abdel Nader) before drafting Jalen Smith (and signing the undrafted Ty-Shon Alexander). Next up, Phoenix prioritized Jae Crowder in Free Agency and then signed the guard duo of E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway (plus Damian Jones and BJ Johnson) to fill out the depth chart. Finally, after going the ‘Over The Cap’ route they were able to bring back Dario Saric and Jevon Carter.

Not a bad off-season, hey?

It’s almost as if it was too easy compared to what us Suns tragics are used to. What I am here to propose, is that it was made much easier by Phoenix’s play in the Bubble.

“We’ll reevaluate it once the bubble is complete. But what it will force us to do is to reevaluate the success that we’ve had and try to determine how much of it was us and how much of it was circumstance.” - James Jones on Bickley & Marotta.

My guess is James Jones & Co. took another look at the film and really liked what they saw. Not only that, it was the last bit of evidence they needed to take a leap of faith with their young core. Scared money don’t make money, after all.

After what I would categorize as an A-Grade off-season for the Suns, I want to go through how the undefeated run in Orlando set the course of how this team is going to look and feel for Season 20/21.

Let’s Start With The Head Of The Snake

When you cut off the head of the snake, the rest of the body dies. By trading for Chris Paul, the Suns have made it significantly harder for opposition teams to cut off the supply of the Phoenix offense.

The Suns were the hottest shooting team in the Bubble, with a True Shooting Percentage of 61.2% (up from 7th overall at 57.6%). A big reason for that was Ricky Rubio hitting one of his hot streaks at the perfect time. And while I wrote in Issue 12 that Rubio might continue to improve next season, there was a more surefire way to guarantee the hot shooting continues rather than just hope for the best.

Replacing Rubio with Paul is fairly simple. We were really good in the Bubble with an in form Ricky. Paul can replicate everything Ricky does well, while being elite at the one facet of the game that really holds Rubio back. Putting the ball in the hoop.

  • Bubble Rubio - 12.9 PPG on 41% FG / 36% 3P / 86 % FT

  • Career Rubio - 11.3 PPG on 39% FG / 33% 3P / 84 % FT

  • Thunder Paul - 17.6 PPG on 49% FG / 36% 3P / 90% FT

  • Career Paul - 18.5 PPG on 47% FG / 37% 3P / 87% FT

The Suns now have a legitimate dual threat backcourt. One that compliments each other but that also shares a lot of similarities in how they like to score. That’s going to be extremely tough to guard.

They may often get to their spot in different ways. But when Devin Booker and Paul get into the teeth of the defense, the mid-range becomes the best available shot as defenses worry about what else they might do……

The Suns made drastic improvements in three categories when comparing the Regular Season to the last 8 games. Turnover Percentage went from 14.5% (16th in NBA) to 11.9% (3rd), Opposition Points Off Turnover’s decreased from 16.6 (12th) to 12.8 (2nd) and they also went from 19th in Clutch Play (16-21 record) to 1st (3-0).

If that’s something you want to keep into next season, then it’s probably not a bad idea to add a guy who has matched Rubio’s assist numbers his whole career but with even less turnovers. Again, zero sacrifice for further gains.

I’ll also go out on a limb here and say it’s also a fairly good switch when you add the most clutch player in the entire NBA last season. Chris Paul led the league with a record of 29-14 in clutch minutes, while shooting 52% from the field and 37% from three. I think that’s good.

In Paul, Phoenix now have a guy who can be relied upon to call his own number or find the many other dangerous weapons sharing the court with him. He ranked 92nd %ile in the Pick & Roll last season, compared to Rubio’s 35th %ile. Although Rubio is a passing wizard, that difference all comes down to Paul’s threat to not only find guys open but also his own willingness to score.

This all means great things for the other Suns on the roster. And maybe none more so than Deandre Ayton. Rubio was able to find Ayton for lobs on occasion, but what happens when Booker is spotting up off-ball and Paul has to be respected as a mid-range sniper……

But what about when his teammates need to call upon Paul?

Well, funny you should ask. The comparison to Rubio is quite staggering, especially if we project forward to how different Paul’s role might look next season compared to his last with the Thunder.

Let’s focus on Catch & Shoot opportunities. Rubio was rated ‘very good’ last season by Synergy, with a respectable 1.162 points per possession. Paul though, was ‘excellent’ at 1.304 ppp. The even crazier gulf though exists in terms of frequency. While Rubio had 142 such possessions last season, Paul had just 56. That’s about to change with Booker.

Paul was also 89th %ile on Spot Up opportunities, compared to Rubio in the 55th %ile. And for jump shots off the dribble, the gap was even larger - 89th %ile versus 38th.

When a Booker-Ayton PnR is stifled by a switch and the defense is shading towards Book (see Crowder below), imagine being able to release to a guy who has all those advantages over Rubio next season……

All of this is to say, I feel very good about the Suns holding their elite Offensive Rating next season with Booker and Paul leading the attack. The Suns took their offense from 12th during the season (111.3 O-Rating) to 2nd in the Bubble (120.3), and it just got a whole lot better with the addition of CP3.

His addition might mean Phoenix become a bit more of a half court team next season, rather than getting out in the open court. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was already trending that way toward the end of the season and it could be a good hallmark of this team pushing towards the Playoffs, where pace notoriously slows down.

Slowing down is sometimes the best way to speed up.

We Need To Talk About Devin

I want to talk about Usage Percentage in relation to Devin Booker.

After a 28.9% Usage Rate pre-Bubble, Booker ramped it all the way up to 33.9% for the last 8 games and the results spoke for themselves. Hint: you can’t do better than 8-0. There were indicators all season, such as pass to assist ratio where Devin led the league, that he needed the ball more.

Essentially Booker went from a Usage Rate good enough for around 20th in the league among some All-Stars, to one that placed him in the company of the NBA’s superstars. More than Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Identical to James Harden and Luka Doncic. Really only behind MVP Giannis.

A big factor in this was the absence of Kelly Oubre in Orlando. Oubre was 3rd on the team in usage at 21.9% before Covid hit, meaning there were lots of touches to go around all of a sudden.

I’ll save you from all the numbers, here’s what the Suns did with their usage in simple terms. Rubio went from fourth in the starting lineup to second. Ayton went from second to third. Bridges and Johnson stayed fairly close to their regular season usage and slotted in as the 4th and 5th options.

A conscious decision was made by Phoenix to not only put the ball in it’s franchise players hands more, but also keep it with the guys running the offense. And before you get too concerned about the addition of Paul and everything we spoke about above, just know that Paul’s usage last season was 22.8%. Only slightly ahead of Bubble Rubio at 21.7%.

Let’s look into the crystal ball of next season quickly. You have two elite scorers/playmakers running the offense and a dive man who looks to have more value to the team right now with the gravity he possesses rather than putting the ball in his hands. So, what else do you need?

The Bubble run showed us. Good role players who don’t need the ball, are happy to move it on and can knock down open looks when it’s their turn.

Let’s start with Jae Crowder.

Crowder sported a 14.8 usage with Miami last season. He averaged slightly more assists than Oubre, but with half the turnovers. He ranks 95th %ile in Spot Up shooting, 88th %ile on Catch & Shoot and was still surprisngly good in transition.

It’s fair to be concerned that Crowder’s shooting splits may regress to the mean a little but if he starts at the four, then the attention that Booker draws will continue to give him wide open (where Crowder shot 43%) looks like this……

Now onto E’Twaun Moore. And I also want to quickly celebrate the Jevon Carter re-signing too.

Moore’s usage last year was the highest of all the new role player signings, at 19.6%. However, he is going to be scrapping for minutes with bulldogs like Carter and the brief is simple - come in, hustle on defense and hit open shots. Carter had a team low 8.6% usage in the Bubble and I doubt he cared one bit.

Oh, would you look at that. E’Twaun also ranked 90th %ile on Spot Ups and 91st %ile off the catch. The added bonus with him, is he ranks ‘good’ to ‘very good’ on Runners and around the basket. So when defenders close out hard, Moore has a few other little tricks up his sleeve.

The Booker-Ayton High PnR will likely become even more of a feature of the offense next season. A big indicator as to why GM Jones wanted to give Coach Williams more options who can create a little, but more importantly hit the open shot. Watch as Booker evades the double, Ayton draws two further bodies on the roll and Moore is left wide open in the corner……

Finally, Langston Galloway.

You know the drill by now, so I’ll cut to the chase. Galloway had a 14.9% usage with the Pistons in 19/20. Surprise surprise - he ranks 91st %ile in Spot Up shooting and 76th %ile on Catch and Shoot situations. His little bonus compared to the other two, is that he’s also 82nd %ile off screens. So watch out for that next season.

But for now, watch this instead. Booker and Ayton can also use their dual gravity in ways outside of the PnR. Booker catching on an Ayton off-ball screen, places the floor in an eerily similar manner to their screen-and-roll game. And Booker can now punish every opening an Ayton move down the middle creates……

I think you get the point by now on why the Suns prioritized the players they did in Free Agency and how they want to mimic the style in the Bubble. But just in case you are worried about how Monty is going to find them all minutes (especially with Bridges, Johnson, Payne and Carter all returning), I’ll end this section with 2 things.

  1. Competition for minutes is good. We may not be used to it in Arizona but that’s what Playoff teams look like.

  2. Booker-Payne-Carter played 53 minutes together in Orlando. They had a net rating of +41. Get ready for a lot more 3 guard lineups next season.

Fortifying The Defense

Don’t overlook the defensive leap the Suns made in the Bubble.

Phoenix took their overall Defensive Rating from 110.8 (17th in NBA) to 107.4 (4th in Bubble). For anyone who watched the 8-0 run, you would know it wasn’t achieved on the back of flashy athleticism or highlight plays. Instead, through good communication and effort. The Suns appeared tethered to one another on the defensive end.

That sums up Jae Crowder and why he was just about the perfect main signing.

What Jae lacks in overall athleticism, he makes up for with experience and defensive nous. This is where I have to watch my words to avoid a target on my back, but Crowder is a MUCH better defender than Kelly Oubre.

While he’s significantly over-matched when it comes to the measureables against Kelly, defense is so much more than that. Crowder understands what just got him paid and that’s two thirds of the battle. Give me the commitment and discipline he showed against Giannis in the Playoffs, versus flashy highlight plays any day.

That’s defense. No need to get defensive about it.

Despite his 6’6 stature, I have no concerns with Crowder starting at PF. Not only do the Suns have Mikal Bridges to throw at some unfavorable match-ups, but Crowder can also bang with most of the opponents the modern NBA will throw at him. He can use his 235lbs frame to slow guys down and funnel them to the help……

Team defense and rotations are where you will begin to notice the true beauty of a guy like Crowder over Oubre. Not only can he make the odd impact play on that end, he also understands where to be at all times.

For the Suns to make a significant leap next season, they need to show the Bubble defense isn’t easy to pop. Good NBA teams tend to be elite on one end and league average or below on the other. Great NBA teams are Top 10 in both.

I believe the Suns Front Office understood to maintain that good defensive edge, they needed to add another veteran to bring along the likes of Bridges and Ayton on that end. To tie everything together. All of a sudden, Phoenix has potentially 4 plus defenders surrounding Booker in the starting 5. That was always the goal. Things are happening, I don’t know what to do with my hands.

They also have guys chomping at the bit (let’s make that two Jevon Carter shout-outs for this issue) to come in off the bench and maintain that edge.

Crowder isn’t exactly an offensive playmaker. But he can make an impact on this young team with timely defensive rotations that can catapult the Suns in the other direction, both on and off the court……

So what’s the case for Crowder to start?

You mean, everything you just read wasn’t enough? Or the fact that the Suns had competition to sign him and likely made some assurances, doesn’t convince you either?

Ok well, look no further than his most recent stint in Miami.

After just one start in his first 13 appearances post trade from Memphis, Crowder forced his way into the first unit and never looked back. He went on to start the next 21 games straight, including averaging 31.4 MPG in the Playoffs for an eventual NBA Finals team.

Yeah, he’s starting. And if for some strange reason he doesn’t start Game 1, I’ve got $20 that says he’ll definitely be starting Game 1 of the First Round ;)

The Odd Couple

I remain skeptical of the long-term fit for the youngest new addition in the purple and orange - Jalen Smith.

Having said that, the theoritical short-term fit within the second unit is something that could be of benefit to the Suns next season. Especially because that unit is bound to include the returning Dario Saric AKA Bubble Dario.

Bubble Dario was different.

  • Season Dario: 10.7PPG on 47% FG & 35% 3P - w/ 1.9FTAs, 6.2RPG, 1.9 APG.

  • Bubble Dario: 14.8PPG on 57% FG & 52% 3P - w/ 4.1FTAs, 7.6RPG, 1.8 APG.

While I’m not sure the hot shooting is totally sustainable, I do think the Suns unlocked something in giving Dario the freedom to operate as a small ball 5. A move that may have also given Saric the confidence to return to The Valley.

In playing him in that role - Saric can do more than just stand on the perimeter, gets more than a phone booth to operate in and can punish second string defenders.

And what’s the best way to not only give Saric that space but keep defenders from rotating to help? Shooting.

Smith should be able to bring that right away. He shot 37% from deep last season at Maryland on 2.8 attempts, while flashing some ability to not only hit spot ups but also knock it down off movement too.

If Smith can be a legitimate threat from deep right away, his appeal as a floor spacer with Saric is quite attractive. Dario can have the freedom to attack from advantage situations at the elbow, without the concern of a crowded key. If the C is waiting for him at the rim, then……

On the other end, Dario’s biggest struggle in the Bubble was guarding the bigger bench 5s.

This is where I can really sell myself on the addition of a guy like Jalen. With the weight Smith has added, not only can he guard some of those tougher match-ups straight up (I see him more as a 5 anyway) but he can also act as a decent help defender.

Saric is very solid fundamentally and battled admirably, despite often being overmatched. Very good defense still resulted in points conceded, purely because of his one fatal flaw - a lack of athleticism and rim protection.

That’s where Smith could come in handy.

Averaging 2.4 blocks per game for the Terrapins, Smith has an intriguing mix of length, athleticism and motor that could result in rim protection being his best early NBA quality.

While Saric’s frame and experience may mean he continues to be tasked with guarding the oppositions biggest threat, Smith could help to make up for his shortcomings. I have no doubt Dario will make life tough on his opponent for as long as he can, but Jalen could provide that last line of defense……

I don’t want to overlook the fact that the Bubble Suns took their Rebound Rate from 16th in the NBA to 1st in the Bubble either. Also limiting Second Chance Points from 12.5 (9th) to 10.6 (3rd). Adding another legitimate big man could also have been to ensure this trend continues into next season. Especially if that big man has great fundamentals on the glass and averaged 10.5 RPG last season.

We will have to wait and see on that but I am keen to find out if I’m onto something here with The Odd Couple.

With such a large financial commitment to Dario and a similar sized investment in Smith by way of draft capital, it sure would make sense for this to be the short term plan next season.

The Key To A Happy Ending

To get through a grueling shortened regular season and still have something to play for, it may come down to one thing for the Suns. Experience.

You may remember that back in Issue 7 we ended with a bit of a study of the playoff teams that the Suns left behind in the Bubble, after missing the play-in game.

Whether you did or didn’t read that one, let me remind you of the important stats:

  • The Top 16 teams averaged 3.9 players with 9+ years experience.

  • The Top 16 teams averaged 2.1 players with 7-8 years experience.

  • In terms of the main 10 man rotation, the Top 16 teams had an average of 4.3 players with over 7 years experience.

Going into the off-season, the Suns projected to have the following:

  • Just 2 players with 9+ years experience, if Rubio and Baynes returned.

  • Zero players with 7-8 years experience, unless additions came.

  • So a maximum of 2 players who could be in the main 10 man rotation, and only if Rubio/Baynes returned and kept their regular minutes.

Not only does this quick study of last season support the notion, but it’s just common sense that any team who has aspirations to make the Post-Season must have experience.

So what did the Suns do? They changed their experience profile dramatically.

All of a sudden, the current roster has; 3 players with 9+ years experience, 1 with between 7-8 years, 4 each from the 5-6 years & 3-4 years categories, and just 2 Rookies or Sophomores.

Looking through last season’s playoffs teams, this version of the Phoenix Suns aligns closely with the Raptors, Celtics and Nuggets in terms of the experience levels likely to wind up in the regular rotation. Not a bad trio of teams to aspire to be.

Now we wait.


Overtime?

Want to soak up more on some of the Suns most recent additions? I’ve got you.

See below for some of my favorite bits of content I’ve consumed over the last week or so of craziness:

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