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The Phoenix Suns have a free-throw problem. It’s certainly not new, but it’s never hogged this much of the spotlight before either. And as the losses pile up for a team struggling to maintain their playoff positioning, it will continue to be a hot-button issue.
After a 2-5 stretch, the natural impulse is to look for someone to blame. Missing your best player in Kevin Durant for the last seven games, as well as Deandre Ayton for the last two? That’s too obvious. Apparently, so is acknowledging the uneven contributions from an inconsistent bench.
The real culprit has to be Monty Williams’ rotations and rigged officiating, right?
Let’s be clear: There is no league-wide cabal working to prevent the Suns from winning. But even if you’re not a full-blown conspiracy theorist, it’s become impossible to discuss this team without mentioning their jaw-dropping free-throw discrepancy. We literally just did a whole show about it on PHNX Suns for that very reason.
Over the last seven games, Phoenix’s opponents have taken 87 more attempts from the charity stripe, an average of 12.4 extra times per game. The Suns were beat pretty handily on that front in the three glorious games Durant played, but at least they went 3-0 over that stretch and were only out-shot by 8.7 attempts per game.
According to ESPN, the Suns have played six games this season where their opponent has taken at least 20 more free throws. In the last decade, that’s only happened more times to the 2015-16 Orlando Magic (seven times), the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks (seven times) and the 2014-15 New York Knicks (eight times).
The question is, what is the root cause of Phoenix’s season-long free-throw problem that’s only gotten worse? Do the Suns have a legitimate gripe about the whistle they’re getting, or is it a byproduct of their playing style? It’s time to get to the bottom of an aggravating trend that probably isn’t going away any time soon.
The FT problem is nothing new
The Suns rank 28th in free-throw rate and 30th in opponent free-throw rate this season, per NBA.com. They’ve been one of the worst teams in the association at getting to the charity stripe for three years, while consistently ranking in the league’s bottom half when it comes to keeping their opponent off the line:
- 2022-23: 28th in FTAs (30th in OPP FTAs)
- 2021-22: 29th in FTAs (22nd in OPP FTAs)
- 2020-21: 29th in FTAs (15th in OPP FTAs)
For all the consternation over their recent free-throw discrepancies, this disparity is nothing new. Sure, it’s reached new peaks over the last two weeks, but the truth is, this problem becomes more glaring without a Kevin Durant (or even Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson) to help save the day.
As much as the Suns want to gripe about being out-shot 37-16 by the Milwaukee Bucks, 37-22 by the Sacramento Kings or 46-20 in their most recent loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, after going back through the tape for every single foul they’ve committed over these last seven games, the majority have been defensible calls.
Looking strictly at the Lakers footage to save our readers time, of the 31 fouls called on the Suns, 23 of them were correct or at least understandable:
The other eight were weaker or blatantly incorrect calls, but as much as Wednesday’s game turned into an insufferable free-throw parade, it wasn’t because of some secret agenda against Booker and the Suns.
The ugly truth is, this is a league-wide epidemic that rewards foul-baiting and punishes those who question it.
Watch these “fouls” below. They all feature minimal physicality, with the offensive player initiating the contact before jerking their head back, hollering like they got sniped in the back, and flinging up a wild shot to further emphasize just how severely they’ve been afflicted:
Unfortunately, this is a standard occurrence in the NBA now, and the Suns haven’t been able to adjust. Coach Monty Williams and his players have all iterated they’re not going to start flopping just to game the system.
It’s a noble stance in theory, but one that ignores the state of the league…as well as the inherent personnel flaws and general offensive system that will always hurt them in this category.
This problem is a byproduct of the Suns’ system
There’s a reason we wrote about the Suns needing to modernize their shot profile after last year’s premature playoff exit. We knew these Midrange Assassuns would be a jump-shooting team, but the numbers help explain why they don’t earn more fouls.
Correlation is not causation, but there’s a pretty strong link between teams who attack the basket and teams who get to the foul line. The Suns, who rank 28th in free-throw attempts per game, also rank dead last in field goal attempts per game in the restricted area. That last bit has been the case for three years running:
- 2022-23: 21.0 FGAs in restricted area (30th)
- 2021-22: 20.7 FGAs in restricted area (30th)
- 2020-21: 21.7 FGAs in restricted area (30th)
Ironically enough, the Suns actually rank seventh in paint touches per game, which echoes Williams’ “paint to great” philosophy. So how do they only rank 17th in points per paint touch?
The first factor is that “paint to great” refers to getting into the lane and kicking back out for an even better shot, which usually means a 3-pointer on the weak side. Outside of Booker, the Suns don’t have anyone who can drive, put pressure on the basket and score efficiently at the rim. So it’s not surprising that they pass out on 28 percent of their paint touches, which is the third-highest mark in the NBA.
The second issue is that not all paint touches are created equal. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Suns have ranked 30th in frequency of shots at the rim in each of the last three seasons, but when it comes to their frequency of “short midrange” shots that are 4-14 feet away from the hoop, they’ve ranked second this season, first last season and 10th the season prior.
Basically, the Suns are getting into the paint, but rather than take the extra dribble to get to the basket and seek out contact, they’re lofting floaters and push shots over the trees instead.
If you want FTs, start benching any player not named Booker/Paul/KD who attempts a floater or push shot. Nobody wants to hear that but it's the truth.
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) March 23, 2023
Finally, we can’t ignore that the Suns’ system is predicated around jump shots. They’re only 18th in 3-point attempts per game, but they lead the league in midrange shot frequency and rank sixth in pull-up attempts per game.
To better explain, Cleaning The Glass has a stat called “location effective field goal percentage,” which evaluates a team’s shot profile by asking the question: If every team shot the league-average percentage from each spot on the floor, what would their effective field goal percentage be, based on their shot distribution?
No one should be surprised the Suns have ranked 30th, 30th and 27th in this statistic over the last three years.
To be clear, Williams tailored his system to fit his roster, and it’s paid dividends. Not only did the Suns reach the NBA Finals in 2021 and win 64 games last season, but they’ve sported an elite offense during his tenure. In 2020-21, they were the league’s seventh-best offense. Last year, they were fifth in offensive rating. Even this year, they were third in offensive rating before Booker’s groin injury, and between the time he returned and the time Durant got hurt, they had climbed back up to ninth.
However, none of that will help Phoenix on its quest to close the free-throw gap, which is as much a personnel deficiency as it is a mindset problem. Cam Payne has a downhill mentality, but his poor finishing ability around the basket has forced him to adapt by becoming more reliant on his running floater.
In a similar vein, Josh Okogie has the mindset of a running back, barreling through the paint with a slow-motion Euro-step that magnetizes contact. But if he doesn’t get the whistle, Okogie struggles to finish, rocketing the ball off the backboard with reckless abandon.
Chris Paul no longer has the speed or athleticism to compensate for his lack of size, which means his forays into the paint only result in layups if his path is completely uncontested. And on a team of pull-up specialists, even Booker is sometimes guilty of stopping his drives short and settling:
While Deandre Ayton should hardly be the scapegoat here, he is the microcosm for this team-wide tendency. It’s just more noticeable when your 7-foot, max contract, No. 1 overall pick starts settling for jumpers. Despite leading the NBA in paint touches per game, Ayton’s meager 3.0 free-throw attempts per game rank 26th among all centers.
Sometimes it’s a matter of skill-set: When opponents are in a drop and DA catches the ball in the short roll, he doesn’t have the confidence or ball-handling ability to make a move off the bounce and close the distance. It’s been an obvious area for improvement for a while now, and because he’s got such great touch from the midrange, he shows no hesitation in taking what the defense gives him.
The problem is, the defense is giving him and the Suns those looks for a reason: Ayton is far deadlier around the basket. Unfortunately, ESPN’s Zach Lowe put it best when he wrote, “Ayton’s default direction in traffic is backward.” Whether it’s on post-ups, pick-and-rolls, deep seals or offensive rebounds, the vast majority of his paint touches end with a jump hook after gathering and spinning away from the basket:
According to Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time, Ayton has been fouled on 9.8 percent of his shot attempts, which ranks in the 28th percentile at his position. He’s never had a season where he’s averaged more than 3.0 free-throw attempts. And there seems to be a disconnect between DA and the level of physicality he’s actually playing with at times.
“I ain’t gonna sit here and talk about no calls,” Ayton said after Giannis Antetokounmpo singlehandedly out-shot the Suns from the foul line. “I play physical as it gets. Maybe I am playing too hard, maybe I am fouling. But at the same time, I love to compete, and I love games like that where it’s high intensity, and maybe I have to turn it down a notch and even get my hands out of there or turn the physicality down a little bit to where it’s a legal limit.”
On the rare occasions where Ayton has stuck his shoulder into the defender and enforced his will, he’s gotten whistled for offensive fouls. It’s a frustrating trend that negatively reinforces the type of physicality DA needs to bring every night, but until he and the rest of his teammates do it consistently and change their league-wide perception, that’s the type of whistle the Suns will receive.
Do the Suns have any cause for complaint?
The numbers don’t back up the Suns’ belief that they deserve more foul calls, but as always, statistics can be skewed to fit any argument if they’re not paired properly with the eye test.
Over the last seven games, the film confirms Phoenix has gotten a more foul-happy than usual. Maybe they’re too close to the situation to be objective, and maybe without KD and Ayton, the uphill battle they’ve waged all season feels exacerbated. It’s harder to ignore gaping discrepancies like the ones they’ve seen lately when you’re losing.
Against the Bucks, Williams got dangerously close to earning a fine from the league for his postgame comments, but didn’t lean in fully.
In 11 matchups with Giannis playing over the last 3 years (including Finals), the Bucks have out-shot the Suns 280-196 in FTAs. Giannis has taken nearly as many (160) as Phoenix by himself. Here's Monty Williams' full rant on the officiating last night: pic.twitter.com/F1aRUFhqz4
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 15, 2023
Booker and CP3 expressed their frustration, even going as far as genuinely asking officials — and media after the game — what exactly they were supposed to do. They clearly haven’t gotten the clarity they needed.
So after months of tip-toeing around the issue with half-hearted complaints and dialed-back criticism, it was a welcome change of pace to see Williams say his piece and storm out of his Lakers postgame press conference. The 90-second rant earned him a $20,000 fine from the league, which was announced on Friday.
"46 to 20. That's it. That's all I got to say."
Phoenix lost 122-111. pic.twitter.com/KKUvGMHwqN
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 23, 2023
Based on what we know about these two teams, a disparity was to be expected. The Lakers lead the league in free-throw differential, at a staggering +387 in attempts. The next-closest team is the Miami Heat, at +184.
The Suns, meanwhile, rank 29th in that category, sporting a -316 differential compared to their opponents at the charity stripe. The only team that’s worse is the Golden State Warriors at -392, and much like Phoenix, they rarely attack the basket, ranking 29th in frequency of shots at the rim.
With all of that being said, as much as the Suns have gotten sloppy on the defensive end lately, this is still a top-10 defense we’re talking about. Their lack of size at the 4-spot (pre-Durant) has contributed to the foul count over the years, but when the calls start stacking up, egregious no-calls or misses like these become difficult mental hurdles to overcome:
Referees are bound to make mistakes, and as we mentioned earlier, it’s a league-wide problem. Booker also rubs officials the wrong way by constantly barking at them, but when he does drive and can’t get a whistle on blatant fouls, the lack of consistency is demoralizing.
“Our star guy don’t get no calls,” Cam Payne said. “Just how it be. It’s been like, what, three years? So it ain’t nothing new. Just gotta figure it out, navigate, find a way to win.”
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