In a series headlined by Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns center Channing Frye would appear to be just another face in the crowd. But somewhere hidden in all of the big names and star power Frye holds the key to a successful series for the Suns.
With so much talk about the length and size of the Lakers’ giant front-line trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, Frye is naturally a hot topic. Even with the expected return of Robin Lopez, he will still be called upon to try his hand at defending the seven-footers.
But where Frye can make or break the Suns isn’t in the paint on the defensive side, but rather 23 feet from the basket on the offensive end. The Lakers defended the three better than any other team during the regular season (32.8 percent) and the Suns, who led the league in three-point percentage, struggled from distance against LA during the regular season (33.3 percent).
But no matter how good you are at defending the three, it’s nearly impossible to keep tabs on a 6-foot-11, 245-pound center roaming the three-point arc. And if he gets it going, it opens everything up for the Suns offensively. Not only are the three points he scores every time he connects huge, but the spacing he creates is even more valuable, especially against a long team like the Lakers.
When Channing is feeling it from outside the Lakers can only pack one of their big men in the paint, which gives Amare Stoudemire the opportunity to go one-on-one. That spacing is huge for STAT, as his aggressiveness and ability to attack the basket is how he gets going and racks up points. But the spacing is equally important for Steve Nash, who struggles mightily when there isn’t room to operate.
To further analyze the importance of Frye and how he opens things up for the Suns, I re-watched some plays from the first three (Frye was suspended for the fourth) Suns-Lakers regular season matchups, thanks to Synergy Sports Technology.
In their first meeting this is the next offensive play after the Lakers lost track of Frye, who was a starter at the time, on a pick-and-pop in which he buried a three:
Frye is out of the picture, but look at how far out Andrew Bynum is trying to defend the three. Bynum’s absence allowed Amare to cut through the lane and receive a pass about six feet from the hoop. From here STAT can either go up strong, which he did and missed, or because of the potential collapse on him inside he can also kick it out to a wide open Jason Richardson in the corner.
Because the Lakers need to pay attention to Frye’s three-point shooting when he’s dialed in, everything else opens up. One seven-footer is out of the equation and STAT has his defender exactly where he wants him.
Here Frye misses an open three, but you can see the spacing that he creates:
Nash came off of a pick and roll, which the Lakers doubled high. After a pass to Grant Hill the Lakers are forced to pick their poison — either leave Frye open for three or leave Stoudemire open down low. Odom ended up leaving Amare to contest, and Frye easily could have dumped it down to him for a layup. He shot the three instead and missed, but the options that his shooting ability opens up are clearly evident.
Frye wasn’t much of a threat in Game 1, so the Lakers were able to hold Amare to 2-of-15 shooting, cut down the passing lanes to yield only 12 Suns assists and win by 19. He couldn’t get it going in Game 2 either (1-of-5 from three), and the Suns lost by 20. He had a bunch of open looks early, but couldn’t knock them down, which took him out of the game offensively and allowed Gasol or Odom to help defensively rather than wander the three-point line.
But Channing did knock down his first three of the game, which led to this layup from Hill the next time down the floor:
You can see that Gasol is paying a little closer attention to Frye since he drilled a three last time down the court. So while Gasol would usually be the guy to step over and alter Hill’s shot, because of the three-point prowess of Frye he stayed home and Hill finished with an easy layup.
In Game 3, although he shot 5-of-16 from the field and 2-of-10 from three, Frye boasted the second-highest plus-minus of the game (plus-17) and the Suns won their only matchup of the regular-season series. He served more as a decoy in this game, as Los Angeles bigs had to respect his jumper, which led to a host of Suns And 1s and layups.
Here you can see the Lakers crowded Amare, leaving Channing open for three:
This spreads the floor and forces the Lakers to adjust. They adjusted accordingly later in the quarter, but it resulted in the Amare And 1 dunk that you see developing below:
Here you can see STAT barreling down the lane after a pick-and-roll with Nash. Bynum is late to recover after the pick and Odom is staying close to Frye, which left a helpless Adam Morrison alone under the hoop — a situation the Suns would take every day of the week.
Here is another similar situation below:
Goran Dragic makes a simple left-handed drive to the middle of the lane, but because Gasol is left in no-man’s land because of Frye’s shooting, Dragic drives all the way to the hoop for a score. It isn’t exactly Gasol’s job to cut off Dragic because he is only one pass away, but the simple fact that it’s a big man like Gasol out there rather than a guard really hurts the Lakers’ interior defense.
Here is a final snapshot of the effect that Frye has on Phoenix’s offensive spacing:
Because of the spacing that Frye provided Nash was able to feed a streaking Amare on the pick-and-roll, where he ultimately got fouled and earned two at the charity stripe. Most teams have their other big man on the left block in this situation, so when STAT would make his move the help would be there. But because of how Frye spreads the floor, Gasol is completely taken out of the play defensively.
With all of that said, Frye has the ability to change the complexion of this series. It is no secret that he will most likely struggle mightily against the Lakers’ bigs defensively. But hopefully for the Suns, Lopez can make an impact on that end.
If Gasol, Bynum or Odom can be pulled away from the basket because of Frye’s three-point shooting, everything opens up offensively for the Suns. So while all of the attention is on Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Nash, Amare and the return of Lopez, it is Frye who can shake things up against the lanky Lakers.