Editor’s Note: TrueHoop Network contributor Brett Koremenos is a guest writer for ValleyoftheSuns. Follow him on Twitter @BKoremenos.
As Phoenix moves forward in the post-Steve Nash era, there will no doubt be changes to the on-court product. Nash, whose passing wizardry propelled Suns teams to topflight offenses for nearly a decade, will be replaced by his former understudy, Goran Dragic.
The young Slovenian likely chose to return to Phoenix in part because of his familiarity with the spread pick-and-roll offense used by head coach Alvin Gentry during Dragic’s first go-round with the Suns. Although the basic system — pick-and-rolls surrounded by wings that stretch the floor — that Nash ran with aplomb will remain the same, certain concepts need to be changed in order for Phoenix to successfully adjust to its new offensive focal point.
These tweaks must come as a result of the fundamental differences in how Dragic and Nash use pick-and-rolls. For Nash, they were a vehicle to transform every player — from the roll man to the wing in the weakside corner — into a threat to score. Dragic, meanwhile, uses them to make himself the threat. In the following clips, both players run the same action — a step up pick-and-roll — but do so in ways that perfectly illustrate their respective approaches.
In the first video, Dragic bursts past the screener at nearly top speed looking to get to the rim. When a player comes off so aggressively, it signals that his first and second options are to score with a distant third option being a simple, one-pass assist that often results out of forced necessity rather than anticipation.
Nash’s primary goal, meanwhile, is to find a pace that always allows him to read the shifting defense. Accelerating to full speed in order to get to the rim is about the last thing on his mind, especially given his age. In the following clip, Nash nearly comes to a dead stop as he patiently waits for the moment to slip a clever pocket pass into Marcin Gortat as he rolls toward the rim.
This sole example does a good job of summarizing the two players’ vastly different styles. It perhaps goes without saying then that putting Dragic in the same exact spots as his predecessor could easily lead to a scenario that kills his confidence and, eventually, his game.
Nash’s passing was so absurdly brilliant that it influenced the Phoenix playbook in a unique way that that could be particularly problematic for Dragic. One of the main principles the Suns used out of their pick-and-rolls was their “strongside flood” action. This concept had players cut from the weakside of the floor into Nash’s driving lane as he was coming off a ball screen.
Don’t be alarmed if it seems counterintuitive to intentionally move someone into the ballhandler’s path to the basket because it most certainly is. For Dragic, this maneuver would be a death knell. But Nash, ever the anomaly, was perfectly suited by it.
In the following clip, Channing Frye showcases how effective this was for Phoenix. He ducks in (posts up) on Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets. With Faried tied up with Frye, Nash exploits a two on one situation (the roller and the shooter versus the lone help defender) on the weakside with a lob to Gortat.
As you can see, this type of action puts a lot of pressure on the ball handler to make great decisions. Nash is constantly forced to read whether the weakside defender stays with the roller or sticks to the shooter “lifting” behind. But because Nash is Nash, he was routinely able to make smart, accurate passes from this spot that led to numerous open looks for his teammates. That is precisely why Gentry tried to put his point guard in as many of those situations as possible.
Dragic, for all his good attributes, just simply isn’t the passing savant Nash was. Here is a look at Dragic dealing with a similar read (without the strongside flood) in Houston.
As you can see from this example, Dragic just doesn’t have the vision or mindset to scan behind the play and identify where the open man is. Instead, he chooses to attempt (and convert) a very tough layup. Needless to say, implanting concepts to create passing lanes over driving gaps for him would be an exercise in futility.
But there are plenty of pick-and-roll alignments that suit Dragic well. Perhaps the best is a spread ball screen situation with a “weak two” alignment (where two players are located opposite where the screen frees the ball handler). With only one perimeter player on the strong side of the floor, Dragic’s reads are rather straightforward.
If the strongside shooter’s defender sticks tight to the shooter, Dragic continues to the basket. If the defender steps into Dragic’s driving lane, it’s an easy one pass shot to the corner for a 3. But as devastatingly simple as that sounds, there is a downside to this alignment (highlighted in the freeze frame).
Dragic was able to create an “And 1” in this particular circumstance, but it’s quite clear how much easier it is to defend the action behind the play. The opponent’s help defenders were able to effectively guard both the roll man and weakside shooters without issue (as evidenced by the three opponents surrounding the roll man). That means if Dragic’s defender defeats the screen — thus preventing him from getting into the paint — the play is essentially dead and precious time ticks off the shot clock.
But despite being less taxing on opposing defenses, this concept is still perfect for a player like Dragic. His reads remain uncomplicated and allow him to do what he does best — attack to score.
Now given how beloved — and successful — Nash was during his tenure, it’s easy to view the dissimilarities in Dragic’s game as a flaw he needs to address. But the reality is that Nash was a rare breed skilled enough to uplifting his offense solely through the pass. There are maybe three other players (Chris Paul, LeBron James and Rajon Rondo come to mind) capable of doing the same.
The vast majority of NBA guards have much more in common with Dragic — they are noticeably more effective when utilizing pick-and-rolls in search of their own offense. So while Phoenix’s offense likely won’t reach the same heights it did during Nash’s tenure, Dragic can still be very successful in it.
It’s just a matter of understanding that the wizard is gone and in his stead is a mere mortal.