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Midrange Assassuns: How the Phoenix Suns will zag as the NBA zigs

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 23, 2023

In a league increasingly driven by analytics and shot-tracking data, the NBA’s best shot profiles usually feature a higher concentration of shots at the rim and beyond the 3-point line. The Phoenix Suns, however, have been defying that prototypical contour for a few years now.

One of the common misconceptions about “analytics” is that they stress layups, dunks and 3s alone, but in truth, they analyze where players are most efficient from and emphasize shooting from those spots. Midrange looks are typically outliers, but only because taking a few steps toward the basket increases the efficiency of a 2-point shot, and taking a few steps backward beyond the 3-point line increases the shot’s point value by 50 percent.

It’s a numbers game, but the Suns roster has been uniquely constructed over the past few years to zag while the rest of the league zigs. After the blockbuster acquisition of Kevin Durant, the return of T.J. Warren and the addition of Terrence Ross, it’s not a stretch to wonder if Phoenix is the greatest midrange team of all time — or at least, of the modern pace-and-space era.

Adding those three to a core that already included Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton makes them a team of deadly Midrange Assassuns.

“Oh, it’s tough,” Cam Payne said. “Normally in the playoffs, you always got a guy you can probably help off, but the way our team’s set up, it’s gonna be kind of tough to do that.”

The formation of the Suns middy committee

Back in 2019-20, Monty Williams’ first season on the job, the Suns coach had a conversation with backup point guard Jevon Carter on the subject of midrange jumpers. Phoenix’s new arrival almost didn’t even bring it up.

“When we first got him, he was the first one to ask me about the midrange shot, and he was almost terrified to ask me,” Williams laughed. “And I was like, ‘If you can shoot it and make it, like, why not?'”

In Williams’ first season at the helm, the Suns ranked 12th in the NBA in their frequency of shots from the midrange (31.4 percent), per Cleaning The Glass. Their main culprit was Devin Booker, who has ranked in the 80th percentile or better in terms of midrange frequency at his position in every single season of his career so far.

The arrival of Chris Paul — a player who has now taken more than 50 percent of his shots from the midrange in 15 of his 18 seasons — bumped the Suns up to sixth place in midrange frequency the following season (36.1 percent). Last year, the advent of more efficient middies from Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges bumped the Suns up to first place, with a whopping 41.7 percent of their shots coming from the midrange.

Phoenix has finally come back down to earth a bit this season, but with Bridges dominating the “Mikal-bow” and the Suns still sporting four starters who thrive from that area of the floor, the Suns still rank second, with 38.9 percent of their shots coming from the midrange.

“That’s how we’ve operated here,” Williams said. “We want guys to flow in their strengths, if you will. And if guys can make that shot, it allows you to set your defense.”

The foundation was already in place for the Suns to be one of the most midrange-dominant teams in recent memory. But the additions of Durant, Warren and even T-Ross push them over the edge:

The Phoenix Suns are masters of the midrange after adding Kevin Durant, T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross to Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.

That’s right folks: KD, Booker, CP3, DA, Tony Buckets and T-Ross all rank in the 91st percentile or higher in midrange shot frequency. All six of them rank in the 65th percentile or higher in terms of midrange accuracy, and four of the six rank in the 85th percentile or better.

That feels fairly unprecedented!

Show me your middies

Among many other things, Mikal Bridges will be fondly remembered for his growth as a scorer over the last few seasons, with most of that development coming in the midrange. But upgrading from Bridges to Kevin-Freaking-Durant comes with certain benefits, not the least of which is his elite touch on middies.

According to Cleaning The Glass, KD has never ranked worse than the 76th percentile at his position in terms of midrange shot frequency, and he hasn’t placed worse than the 73rd percentile in midrange accuracy since his second year in the league.

At his introductory press conference, Durant summed up the adaptability of his game that has allowed him to thrive at every new stop in his Hall-of-Fame career.

“I think I built my game around being efficient, taking good shots, making good plays on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I think my defense feeds my offense. I like to take shots in the midrange, I like to cut to the basket, I like to do the little things throughout the offense, and I think that’s what makes you a versatile player and be able to adapt to any offense, just being able to space the floor and use my skill to help other players. So I’ve been doing that my whole career.”

Whether it’s in isolation, out of post-ups on the extended baseline, in pick-and-roll, or flying around in the Suns’ elbow sets, Durant can get to his spots at any time.

“He’s been the best player in every environment and been able to adapt in every situation,” Williams said. “Certainly when you have a guy you can give the ball to and he’s that long and can get a shot off at any time, it certainly helps your offense. So we’re gonna try to do our best to make him comfortable and try to streamline what we do so we don’t inundate him with too many plays.”

One of the best things about this partnership? Durant already sees a kinship with Booker, not only in their shared hooper’s mentality and work ethic, but even in their skill-sets. KD said he’s looking forward to playing with someone like Book, since they like to use the same spots on the floor and get to them quickly and efficiently.


“He can score from every area of the floor with efficiency,” Durant said of Booker. “He’s just such a quiet, efficient scorer, and he goes about his business on and off the court in just a mature manner. And I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be a part of his journey and see how good he can get from here. He’s just one of those players that I really admire, and people are gonna be doing classes on him once he’s done playing. You can learn so much from watching his game.”

Durant and Booker are the unmistakable superstars with the gorgeous shot-making who will need to hit those tough shots in the playoffs, but they’re not the only ones who can make defenses pay in a pinch. As we covered last week, Ross has a sneaky-good midrange game, being able to operate in pick-and-roll and knock down pull-up jumpers off the dribble.

As for Warren, Suns fans are well familiar with his exceptional midrange touch.

“T.J., that’s Mr. Midrange,” Ayton said. “He’s a bucket himself. He’s gonna love the offense once he’s really cleared up, and once he really sees how our offense run, he’s gonna understand, like, ‘Yeah. When you get the ball, hey, it’s your turn to score, bro.'”

While Warren hasn’t seen much action in his first two Suns appearances, Williams acknowledged he needs to find more minutes for Tony Buckets as he tries to figure out the rotation. Warren won’t be in the running for the Suns’ fifth starting spot, but he can certainly help as a sixth man who can bail out the offense with his ability to create his own looks.

“The thing that I’ve always saw with him is his ability to just get a bucket,” Williams said. “He can score the ball, and he’s got size. Even in the game we played against him in Brooklyn, when he touched the ball, you just kinda knew you were in trouble.”

Tough middies

History certainly isn’t on the Suns’ side. Cleaning The Glass has a stat called “location effective field goal percentage,” which gives a sense of the efficiency of a team’s shot profile by asking: If the team shoots league-average percentages from each spot on the floor, what would their effective field goal percentage be?

Suffice it to say the Suns’ reliance on midrange buckets hasn’t rated them well in that statistic.

This marks the second year in a row Phoenix ranks dead-last in location effective field goal percentage, largely because they’ve ranked 29th and 30th in their percentage of shots at the rim over the last two years. Being first last year and second this year in midrange frequency at the same time compounds the issue.

Dating back to 2003-04, the first season that location effective field goal percentage data is available, only six of the last 19 NBA champions ranked in the bottom half of the league in this statistic, and only one ranked in the bottom third.

That lone championship squad? The 2017-18 Golden State Warriors, who ranked 25th in that category…and just so happened to sport one Kevin Durant.

Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown, who served as an assistant on the Warriors during Durant’s time there, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to defend a team with so many weapons. He joked that with KD, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala running the offense, he was able to sit back for the first time in his coaching career, cross his legs and watch them create magic.

“These guys are in a similar position,” Brown said of the Suns. “You talk about Chris Paul, talk about KD, talk about D-Book, talk about Ayton, the No. 1 pick, and then I could probably go on and on. And then Monty, with the job he’s done. They’re gonna be a formidable opponent.”

A look at the tape confirms Brown’s assertion: The Suns have a plethora of guys who get buckets.

“I think any team, no matter whether it’s the playoffs or regular season, your team has more dimensions on that side of the floor when guys are able to create shots or finish shots,” Williams said.

Of course, the manner in which the Suns create or finish shots is slightly different from the rest of the league’s approach, which skews heavily toward shots at the rim and 3s. Those are still the most efficient shots in basketball…unless you’re a team with the personnel to pull off a more unconventional approach.

The Suns have the requisite shooting to open up their midrange onslaught, since they rank fifth in the NBA in 3-point percentage. Helping off KD will be tough when he’s flanked by Booker (37 percent prior to his rusty four-game return) and Paul (37.4 percent), especially with the threat of Ayton rolling. Durant (37.6 percent) and Ross (38.1 percent prior to his Suns debut) have required defenses’ full attention whenever they’ve been on the perimeter, and prior to his extended injury absence, Warren shot better than 40 percent from 3 in back-to-back seasons.

Role players like Damion Lee (43.9 percent), Cam Payne (37.8 percent), Landry Shamet (37.7 percent) and even Torrey Craig (40.3 percent) and Josh Okogie (44.6 percent since the start of 2023) can make opponents pay for giving the “core four” too much attention. That type of floor-spacing keeps defenses honest, opening up the court for some of the game’s deadliest midrange maestros to orchestrate.

The midrange remains one of the more aesthetically pleasing if outdated elements of the NBA game. But the Suns have proven it still has a more robust purpose than simply being pretty to watch.

When playoff defenses tighten up, keying in on 3s and shots at the rim, they become more willing to concede the “least efficient” shots on the floor in the midrange. A team like Phoenix can make them pay for it, punishing drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, overcoming double-teams against Durant, Booker or CP3 with a quick swing pass, or simply knocking down the types of tough, contested 2s you need to be able to make late in games when it comes down to mano a mano.

“I think it just gives our team just more opportunities, more ways to score, more ways to put pressure on the defense,” Ross said. “I know the league’s kind of moving away from that a little bit, but any time you can mix that in with getting inside and out, it’s just a neat dynamic to the game.”

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