Vol.2, Iss.8: The People's Elbow
Taking a long look at Monty Williams' playbook, with a focus on his love affair for elbows.
This Might Be My Favorite Issue Yet…..
To be fair, I have that thought after just about every New Issue. But I guess that means I’m still having fun pumping out Suns content. And it looks like you’re back, so I must be doing something right. If this is your first visit though, please consider hitting that little button below. If not now, maybe you’ll change your mind when you get to the end. Hint: there’s another button there too!
Can You Smell What The Suns Rock Is Cooking…..
Monty Williams loves elbows. It’s not quite a fetish, but it’s close.
At the time of writing this sentence, the Phoenix Suns own the 8th best offense in the NBA with an O-Rating of 114.6. Within that offense, Monty’s men also rank 8th for total elbow touches per game. As I said, it’s not an obsession but rather a healthy infatuation with the two pieces of real estate situated at the corners of the key on the court.
Last season, I started to become aware of the many actions Williams was drawing up that started out with movement through the high-post. In fact, I even talked about some of it in the very first Issue of this Newsletter. So as the 20/21 NBA season tipped off, I set about clipping several plays from each game with the idea of eventually sharing them with you all.
Now just felt like the right time.
Half of me wants to believe it’s because the new Chris Paul-led Suns are really starting to click and I wanted you all to start looking out for some of the plays below. The other half of me thinks it’s far more likely due to the mountain of clips starting to get unmanageable. The real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
Speaking of the middle though, that’s where everything begins. Right in the heart of the half court offense, situated along the FT line. Where the Suns Head Coach is having his players run a variety of plays, that on the surface look repetitive and even uninspired. But underneath it all, the simple beginnings just set a platform. From that base, Williams tasks his fleet of followers to read and react to what the defense gives them.
It’s really quite beautiful. To me at least, anyway. Don’t take my word for it though, let’s get to the tape. I present to you…… The People’s Elbow.
Sorry, I shot a fraction too quickly in the shot-clock there. Before we jump into the clips, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these…..
*Disclaimer* - I am not a basketball coach and never have been. I also stopped playing organized competitive basketball before most common basketball terms are used. Basically everything I know is self taught & from watching far too many Suns games on the other side of the world. I will define some terms in the below sections, based on my own observations & research. Not everything will be 100% accurate and there might be some errors. I am always open to receiving feedback and/or answering questions, so feel free to politely get in touch if you have either.
Let’s Lead With The Elbow
What Is ‘Elbow’? - This is a term used by the Suns to setup a particular action at the top of the key. You may hear Monty or the PG yell ‘Elbow!’, as well as signal it by tapping the point on their arm. Generally speaking - you will then see the C set a cross screen for the SF across the FT line & the PG pass the ball to the cutting player.
As I referenced up top - the beauty of this simple set is whilst it will always begin in the same way, the conclusions vary wildly. There very well may be individual play-calls and signals in addition to ‘Elbow’, that I just haven’t picked up yet. But from where I sit currently, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Instead, it’s up to CP3 to conduct the orchestra and for all the individual players to take their cues. It all comes down to the subtleties. Often using the gravity of the Suns star players, to get open looks for others. The headline acts will always get their solos, but they also understand how important the full band will be in the long run.
Speaking of solos for the stars…..
What About ‘Fist’? - A term and signal used to call out a play for the C & SG. The C will set a screen down low and parallel to the baseline, which the SG will curl around to receive the ball from the PG and look to find his shot.
Now it’s time to digest our first set of examples.
Jae Crowder starts as the least threatening Sun here but that changes quickly…..
Then we get to one of the many ways the Suns can help Paul get off his patented J…..
Cam Johnson’s jumper is just as sweet in this well designed play out of ‘Elbow’…..
Setting up in ‘Elbow’ can even be used to distract from what’s about to happen…..
Horns For The Traditionalists
Defining ‘Horns’ - Typically, ‘Horns Action’ starts with a teams C & PF stationing themselves on either corner at the top of the key. The two Bigs can act as screeners for the ball-handler or other cutting teammates, as well as look to operate with the ball in the high post.
This is the type of old-school basketball set Monty had a reputation for, during his last NBA coaching stint in New Orleans. Two traditional Bigs being used as the hub of the offense, setting crunching screens for their Guards and looking for each other out of the post.
If ‘Elbow’ is the jazz genre of high post action, then ‘Horns’ is far more likely to be enjoyed by those partial to classical. Or at least it was. Although, I am on the record as being anti Frank Kaminsky starting (or even anti the Antichrist starting - that’s a deep Suns cut), I do enjoy some of the advantages Phoenix are creating from playing two Bigs out of ‘Horns’ action.
Still, it has its limitations. It tends to get to the point far quicker than ‘Elbow’, with less opportunity for improv. But that doesn’t automatically make it unappealing, rather instead a great go-to with certain combinations on the court. Think of it as the play with limitations, for the players with limitations. Take ‘Double Stagger’ for example.
What Is ‘Double Stagger?’ - More commonly known as either ‘Double Drag’ or ‘Stagger Screens’, but I like to mesh the two. Two players will set identical screens for the ball-handler, one after the other. As the ball-handler works their way around the screens, one screener will usually roll to the rim while the other pops out as a shooting threat.
Lots of ‘Horns’ sets are designed to feed Deandre Ayton through two passes…..
But having a shooter with Ayton, means PHX can punish teams for swarming DA…..
‘Horns’ also has it’s own decoy options, with 2 bigs and a star SG hard to ignore…..
Or it might just be used to hide a very normal PnR and bend the defense…..
Building The Core Chemistry
How About ‘52’? - Another Suns specific play-call. This is an option within the ‘Elbow’ playbook, but that is left almost exclusively for Booker and Ayton. The 5 & The 2. What occurs from there, very much depends on how the defense reacts.
‘52’ might be the only specific play-call within ‘Elbow’ that I’ve picked up on. Well, there’s no might about it. It is. And this is where we find a perfect example of what is just an educated guess on my part. I know it’s definitely called ‘52’. I also know it always starts with a C & a SG, most of the time being Ayton & Booker. What I don’t know and am merely guessing, is that those two things are linked within the name.
But why do I love ‘52’?
Because it’s a specific action within the ‘Elbow’ playbook, dedicated to its two young stars. Well three young stars, if you also count the fresh new PG tasked with making sure they get the rock where they want it. But seriously, it is a surefire sign that Monty sat down to consider the strengths of his core and adapted to them. I love the symbolism created with it being incorporated within the ‘Elbow’ series too. Why you ask?
It’s Ayton’s elbows sticking out on a pick or Booker digging his elbows into the opposing Big on a back-screen. It’s Booker’s elbow pointing at the rim on a jump shot or defenders dodging Ayton’s elbows as he rolls down the lane with the ball held high.
Because ‘52’ is really just as much for Ayton, as it is for Devin Booker…..
This one is quite new and a great example of how willing Booker is to sacrifice…..
But Booker uses it to get to his spots too and Ayton has a key role to play in that…..
And like before, the Suns use one set play to run directly into another…..
The Trusty Pitch Play
Explaining the ‘Pitch Play’ - This one is my own invention. The name that is, not the play obviously. It is another action from within the ‘Elbow’ series, that I’ve never managed to catch the real name for. That’s if there even is one. The SF will pitch the ball back to the PG, who passes to a player cutting from the corner.
Anyone who has followed me for a second, will know my love for this play. The joy I get when fellow Suns fans tag me on Twitter after spotting one, is exactly why I love breaking down things in this Newsletter. Just writing this, I picture us all as Leonardo DiCaprio drinking a beer and pointing at the TV when we spot something familiar.
But the real reason I love the ‘Pitch Play’ is because it might be the purest form of the ‘read & react’ mantra, that I feel all of these designed sets preach. While it’s up to the Point God to pull the strings, every player has a responsibility to be aware of where they can attack off this action. I could have shared dozens of clips just on this initial setup and how many different ways it can end. But honestly, if you are still with me at this point of the Newsletter, then you deserve just The Greatest Hits. So here’s the ‘Best Of’ Compilation from Monty & The Perfect Pitches.
Let’s start with Mikal Bridges and the original ‘Pitch Play’ in all it’s basic glory…..
I need to be honest, this is the ONLY known example of this play but damn it’s fun…..
Paul plays a key role in initiating which counters the Suns might use off this set…..
And CP3 can even use it to get back to PnR and take the defense to task…..
A Toast To The Homie
‘The Homie’? - A nickname given to Dario Saric by Sixers fans, after Joel Embiid referred to him as such on a trip to watch him play in Spain.
Although the origins of The Homie nickname for Dario Saric came long before he joined the Suns, it still holds a special new meaning for me. Saric is very much at home in his new role within Monty’s system, and whenever he’s on the court I just feel safe. I can’t really explain it but Dario just makes all the right decisions, at all the right times.
The Homie is currently averaging 10.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG & 1.1 APG, while shooting 46% from the field and 36% from deep. He’s doing a little bit of everything and has a legitimate case as the best backup C in the league. CP3 recently described Saric as ‘cerebral’ and it’s hard to argue against when you watch Dario operate off the elbows.
So let’s finish with my little hat-tip to sweet Dario. Let me illustrate his versatility within every action we have run through above.
Starting with Saric as a passer in your standard ‘Elbow’ set…..
Moving on to a fairly typical ‘Horns’ set…..
Back to ‘Elbow’ now but this time looking to score…..
And to finish, a rare glimpse of he and Book together in ‘52’…..
Finally, if you want to watch all those plays again unedited + many more…..
And if you still want more Suns content after reading all that:
My old pod pal Max McCauley joined The Timeline podcast this week.
Kellan Olson wrapped up the NBA reaction to Booker’s All Star snub.
Suns Twitter fave Mike Lisboa joined the VOTS podcast with Gerald Bourguet.
Sam Cooper predicted the future with this Chris Paul All Star video.