How the Phoenix Suns’ pick and roll should differ with Goran Dragic

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.

Tags: Goran Dragic Steve Nash

  • Ty-Sun

    Very nice and informative article! But I think the gist of it is something most of us already knew. Dragic is not Nash and trying to make him be Nash is the worst thing Gentry could do. And in a way having so many new players on the Suns this year could help in the transition. Only Dudley and Frye have played with Nash more than a year and a half so the adjustment to Dragic running the offense won’t be too difficult. And both of them played with Dragic before so I don’t think either of them will have a difficult adjustment period either.

    If Gentry can adjust his offense to fit Dragic’s skill set, Dragic could have a career year this season. He won’t lead the NBA in assists as Nash often did but he could be the scoring threat that Nash only reluctantly tried to be. And please don’t take what I said wrongly. Nash could have scored much more than he did during his career but he didn’t by choice.

  • Robert

    The best article since post Nash era in Phoenix ! It answered the questions i had on the way this Phoenix Suns team would differ, Goran Dragic for as good as he is, and this is not a knock on Dragic but he does not have the court vision that Nash possesses. Thank you for this very informative article.

  • DBreezy

    Excellent stuff! I’m being greedy, but I’d also love to see some stuff on how things could fit off this action with Beasley and Scola.

  • Scott

    I think at this point in his career – having struggled for minutes behind Nash and Lowry – Dragic is still trying to establish himself as a reliable scorer. The big game against the Spurs has helped his reputation in this regard, but it’s as he increases his profile as a scorer and draws the extra coverage that his opportunities are going to open up to play the passing game.

    IIRC, when Nash came onto the court for the Suns as a rookie, it was to score, not to pass. While I did not keep track of him as a Maverick, I gather that’s when he made his transition from dependable scorer to creator of team offense. Playing with such capable scorers as Finley and Nowitzki must have been a big help in learning the passing game.

    Marshall seems like such a different player, but he’s really got the same process ahead of him. He’s already got the passing game, but in order to improve his ability to run the team offense he’s going to have to become an increasingly dependable scorer, and he’s going to have to develop the ability to penetrate. Dragic is ahead of him on scoring and penetration.

    Dragic is also the best athlete and defender of the three players.

  • Scott

    I guess basically what I was saying is that if you pair Dragic with two budding star talents like Nash had with Finley and Nowitzki he’ll be more likely to evolve into a playmaker more like Nash or Rondo.

    The closest Dragic will get to having star scoring talent on this team will probably be Scola, Beasley, and Dudley, as nobody else on the team can create for themselves. (Not sure about O’Neal.)

  • DBreezy

    As always, I think that supposition would depend on the type of talent around Goran. Steve has pretty much always been surrounded with strong S/r talents like Dirk, Amar’e and now Gasol and Howard plus Gortat to a lesser degree. This site has shown that Beas is actually a strong S/R player, but as the ball handler not the screener so that’s not the same kind of fit.

    The Nash/Gortat S/R I believe has resulted in exactly .500 ball over the last season and a half or so. Goran may look for different things than Nash on the play, but I suppose what matters most is if the result is equal to or more efficient than the Nash /Gortat s/r. Then we’ll have to see if that’s more efficient than a Beas/Gortat or Beas/Scola S/r.

    I don’t want to give Beas’ personality/off court issues short thrift, but when I read a lot of the local and national comments about the Suns personnel, it seems like they ignore the elephant in the room. To me there really isn’t any question as to who is the best offensive player the Suns have, there’s only a question of how he’ll handle it. While he hasn’t lived up to his potential/draft selection, his numbers and consistency are better than Goran’s so far IMO. That’s not a knock on Goran to me, who I personally ‘like’ more, just calling it what it is. Gortat is far from proving that he’s as efficient as Stat was let alone being in Beas or Goran’s category offensively.

    My point here is as a team coming off two lottery seasons, do you plan your O around your best offensive player or around those who you consider most reliable? I think that’s an interesting question that doesn’t have a clear answer off the bat. Or do u hope for a nice pick and get the S/R partner that makes both Goran and Beas’ games blow up? Everyone , including the front office thinks they need a strong 2 to put things together, but what if the answer ultimately is something different?

  • Scott

    FWIW, Alando Tucker is still looking for a job. He’s trying out for the Bucks this year.

  • Scott

    BTW, the Blazers finally get the ‘Stache. He was a fan favorite in the draft, and now, after wandering the NBA, winning two championships, and playing overseas, he arrives in Portland on a 1 year contract for the veteran minimum.

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