© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
There are many hallmarks by which to judge an NBA head coach. Championships are the most basic, followed by the win-loss column. But one thing typically holds true: Great coaches are known for having an effective system, while elite coaches are able to adapt their preferred playing style to fit personnel.
Consider Year 4 of Monty Williams’ tenure with the Phoenix Suns his biggest test yet in regards to pushing that envelope.
That’s not to say that Williams is an average coach, or that the Suns’ traumatic Game 7 meltdown against the Dallas Mavericks should be pinned squarely on him. Everybody deserves their fair share of the blame for such a historic collapse.
In fact, that’s not even to say Phoenix’s offense let them down. The Suns, who ranked fifth in offensive rating, actually increased that figure from 114.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season to 114.9 during their underwhelming playoff run. The defense, meanwhile, ballooned from a stingy 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions during the season (third) to 114.9 in the postseason (11th among 16 playoff squads).
In other words, the chief culprit of this 64-win team’s demise was not the offense.
However, as much as the soft switches on Luka Doncic were their biggest tactical problem, the Suns were also fighting a constant uphill battle against simple math. It became evident later in the series as Chris Paul dealt with his secret quad injury, but it was downright unavoidable when Phoenix managed a measly 27 points in the first half of Game 7: Phoenix needs to prepare for the future with a more modernized shot profile.
The unfortunate thing is, the writing was on the wall all year — not because anyone expected Mikal Bridges’ production to shrivel up, Deandre Ayton to play a mere 17 minutes in an elimination game or the Suns’ entire bench to disappear, but because three is still worth more than two…especially when the 2s are so hard-earned.
In the regular season, Phoenix’s fifth-ranked offense averaged 31.9 3-point attempts per game (26th in the NBA), while the Mavs took 37.4 per game. Both of those numbers jumped in the wrong direction in their playoff matchup, with the Suns only taking 27.1 long-range attempts to Dallas’ 39.0 per game. Both teams basically shot 40 percent from deep, but those 12 extra attempts helped the Mavs outscore Phoenix by an average of 14 points per game from distance.
“I think we can do some things to get more 3s,” Williams said after Game 5 of the series. “We’re not in that 40 range where some teams are, but we’ve been pretty efficient with our 3s, because we’ve gotten the highest shot quality….Yeah, we’d love to get more 3s, but I don’t want to just jack up 3s just to do it. We’ve been pretty good as far as balance. For us, when we can get stops, it allows for us to play in transition and get the 2s and 3s.”
The Suns got stops all season long, but when the defense failed them in the postseason, the offensive symmetry fell apart. And despite touting a “let it fly” mentality all season, that balance proved to be more precarious than expected.
The warning signs were there all along, lurking beneath the surface of Phoenix’s top-five offense. In an early November game (against the Mavs, ironically enough), Williams noted how opponents were trying to take away Phoenix’s shooters by running them off the 3-point line. At the time, it sounded like a simple fix.
“When we looked at the film, we turned down a lot of 3s,” Williams said. “Our 3-point attempts are not even close to where they need to be, especially in relation to the league. And when we look at the film, we’re turning down shots, so we’re pushing our guys to take those shots.”
Less than two weeks later against the Golden State Warriors, with the Suns’ 3-point attempts still floundering near the bottom of the league, his tune slightly changed, even as he and the rest of the team continued to tout that “let it fly” mentality.
“Up to 20 games, I guess you can make the assessment that we are what we are, kinda,” Williams said. “But as it relates to this team, it’s difficult because they’re one of the teams that will shoot it off the dribble more than most with Steph [Curry] and [Jordan] Poole, and we have guys that can do it, but we’re not as proficient. We’re more catch-shot than we are off the dribble.”
The numbers backed those sentiments up. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Suns finished the regular season taking:
- 41.7 percent of their shots from the midrange (1st in the NBA)
- 27.6 percent of their shots from the short midrange (1st)
- 14.1 percent of their shots from the long midrange (3rd)
Out of all 30 teams, they ranked either first or second in field goal percentage from each one of those areas, so the Suns were clearly capable of zagging while the rest of the league zigged. Even though the ball sometimes got stagnant in the hands of Paul or Devin Booker, they were both still capable of getting to their spots at any time.
“The league went through this season of, like, ‘Don’t take that shot!'” Williams said. “And we find value in it, because most teams are trying to take away your 3 and they’re trying to take away the rim. We want to score so we can set our defense.”
Phoenix didn’t mind letting their starting five and Cam Payne hoist those middies. Those six took a high number of attempts from that area of the floor:
- Devin Booker: 53 percent of his shots from midrange (100th percentile at his position)
- Chris Paul: 69 percent of his shots from midrange (100th percentile)
- Deandre Ayton: 55 percent of his shots from midrange (99th percentile)
- Mikal Bridges: 36 percent of his shots from midrange (85th percentile)
- Cam Payne: 41 percent of his shots from midrange (81st percentile)
- Jae Crowder: 26 percent of his shots from midrange (66th percentile)
And aside from Payne, who had a down year overall, they were pretty damn effective at hitting them too:
- Chris Paul: 55 percent shooting (100th percentile at his position)
- Mikal Bridges: 51 percent shooting (96th percentile)
- Deandre Ayton: 56 percent shooting (94th percentile)
- Devin Booker: 46 percent shooting (83rd percentile)
- Jae Crowder: 47 percent shooting (83rd percentile)
- Cam Payne: 41 percent shooting (50th percentile)
In a system where Chris Paul and Devin Booker dominated the touches (and rightfully so, given that they were both All-NBA selections leading a 64-win team), a heavy dose of midrange jumpers comes with the territory. At age 36, still standing at 6-foot-1, Paul has made a Hall-of-Fame career out of taking what the defense gives him and being able to get to his shot near the elbows.
“Analytics say that’s the shot you want a team to shoot every time,” Cam Johnson explained. “Analytics say that is not the shot you want Chris Paul shooting, and he just kind of finds a way to get to that spot. And it’s not like he’s dead-set on getting to that spot and shooting a jumper. If they overplay him, he’s gonna hit the big, he’s going to hit the weak-side corner. So it makes it really hard for the defense to adjust to that.”
At multiple points throughout the season, Williams seemed to agree with Johnson’s assessment of how that weapon opened things up for the rest of the offense.
“I think the efficiency of his midrange game is the thing that sets everything up,” he said. “When you have the ball in your hands and you’re playing in pick-and-roll, rarely are you gonna get a 3. When bigs are in drop or in coverage, it’s hard for you to get to the basket. So his ability to knock down that, 12-15 footer, I think it gives balance to the rest of his game — the passing, the lobs, the ability to get to the free-throw line, but then you add that midrange, I think that’s the safety blanket for him and us.”
Unfortunately, all of that operated under the assumption that both Paul and Booker would remain healthy. When Booker missed three and a half games in the New Orleans Pelicans series with a hamstring injury, CP3 shouldered a much heavier load. By the second round, once Paul’s quad injury kicked in and the Mavs could double-team Booker relentlessly, the other options dried up.
After Game 2 against Dallas, the Suns’ offensive rating plummeted to 104.1, and it was just 100.8 in the four losses. That all traced back to the Suns’ lack of balance in their shot profile, which was evident all season long but didn’t really stand out because they kept winning.
The lack of long-range attempts was an obvious issue, especially for a team that ranked ninth in 3-point percentage. The Suns only took 33.1 percent of their shots from 3-point range, which ranked 25th in the NBA. In the playoffs, that number dropped to 30.9 percent, which ranked 19th out of all 20 playoff/play-in teams — ahead of only the Pelicans.
That problem was exacerbated by a lack of corner 3s. The Suns only took 7.4 percent of their shots from that vital spot on the floor — a figure nearly doubled by the Mavericks’ playoff-best mark of 14.2 percent.
It’s not just as simple as getting up more 3s, either. The Suns had a real problem attacking the basket, reflected not only in their 29th-ranked free-throw rate, but in their low volume of layups and dunks.
According to Cleaning The Glass, despite shooting the NBA’s seventh-best percentage at the rim, Phoenix took only 25.3 percent of its shots from there during the regular season, which ranked dead-last. They slightly upped that number to 26.9 percent during the playoffs, but even that ranked 15th out of the 20 playoff/play-in teams.
Booker, Ayton, Bridges, Johnson and even Paul all shot 65 percent or better at the rim, ranking in the 72nd percentile or better among their respective positions. But they simply didn’t get there enough:
- Mikal Bridges: 30 percent of his shots at the rim (67th percentile at his position)
- Deandre Ayton: 42 percent of his shots at the rim (32nd percentile)
- Devin Booker: 15 percent of his shots at the rim (23rd percentile)
- Cam Johnson: 19 percent of his shots at the rim (17th percentile)
- Chris Paul: 5 percent of his shots at the rim (0th percentile)
No one should be expecting Paul to turn back the clock and start attacking the rim, but he ranked second-to-last in Cleaning The Glass’ entire database, ahead of only Matt Thomas. That alarming little factoid is indicative of why Phoenix needs to be less reliant on the Point God moving forward. Tweaking the team’s shot profile is the first step.
Perhaps the most striking case to be made lies in Phoenix’s “location effective field goal percentage.” Normal effective field goal percentage takes into account the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than 2s. Location effective field goal percentage takes it a step further, getting a sense of each team’s shot profile by operating under the assumption that they all shot a league-average percentage from every spot on the floor.
The Suns’ effective field goal percentage was 55.5 percent during the season (third) and 55.6 percent (third) during the playoffs. Their location effective field goal percentage, however, was only 51.9 percent in the regular season (30th) and 52.6 percent in the playoffs (18th out of 20 teams).
This team is full of midrange artisans (arti-Suns, if you will), but those figures show they need a more modernized offensive diet, especially given the capable shooters on the roster. They don’t need to become the James Harden-era Houston Rockets, but they could certainly use more 3s and shots at the rim.
So how do they do it? Aside from shifting so much of the offensive burden away from Paul’s midrange prowess, the Suns could use one or two more players capable of pulling up from 3 off the dribble. Whether that involves making a trade for such a player, or guys like Bridges, Johnson and/or Payne working on that element of their game over the summer, remains to be seen.
Booker cutting down on long midrange 2s, where he took 26 percent of his shots this season, could be useful. He’ll get the most attention from opposing defenses, but finding a way to attack the rim off the dribble and get back to the free-throw line 7-8 times a game like he did before Paul’s arrival would help.
But the biggest boon would be the secondary options — Ayton, Bridges, Johnson and the other guys — forcing the issue by putting more pressure on the rim, shooting more 3s, or both.
The Twins both ranked in the 93rd percentile or better in rim efficiency, but they didn’t get there enough. The Suns’ shouldn’t completely veer away from Bridges’ ability to put the ball down and get to his unblockable midrange pull-up, but the next step in his evolution is using his craftiness to close that distance on his drives and finish at the basket.
That goes double for Ayton, whose screen-setting, gravity and finishing ability around the rim already makes him a key component of Phoenix’s offense. This topic deserves its own Bourguet Breakdown soon, but adding a reliable handle and a little self-creation would go a long way in proving he’s capable of being a secondary option on a winning team. As of right now, 81 percent of his baskets were assisted, which has relegated him to layups, dunks, lobs, hook shots and midrange jumpers as a release valve — shots he’s proficient with, but all of which require spoon-feeding.
“I’m realizing teams have adjusted and locked down the paint — I won’t say completely, but when it comes to rolling and trying to look for that dump down, I won’t say it’s not there, but teams are making it difficult,” Ayton said. “So I’m just playing in the short roll now, taking what they give me. Obviously there’s gonna be times where I have to just put my head down and post up or try to draw a foul, but right now, that’s what’s going for me. That’s where I can work my game and that’s all college again, to be honest: pump-faking jabbing, all that stuff.”
As the Suns regroup from a calamitous playoff failure and look themselves in the mirror, the offense needs tweaking. Phoenix’s personnel certainly lends to a more midrange-heavy approach than the average team, and those skills can come in handy in a playoff series.
But if Paul’s body fails him again at 37 years old, the Suns’ 2022 playoff run proved how important it is to have versatility, multiple bucket-getters and a balanced shot profile. After zagging for the last two years, it might be time to throw in a few more zigs.
“When I first came in the league, it was straight midrange,” Paul said. “It was a few 3s here and there, but it was a lot of good post players. It was Zach Randolph, Shaq was still in league, Chris Kaman was on the block. You know what I mean? The game has changed, and you gotta be able to change with it.”