The importance of pace for the new-look Phoenix Suns

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are committed to running.

Steve Nash may be in Los Angeles, but the mantra for Alvin Gentry’s crew hasn’t changed a bit. Run, shoot, play a little defense and do it again.

“It’s a pretty simple system really,” Gentry said on Media Day. “There’s not anything complicated about it. The thing about it is you have to be in great shape from a conditioning standpoint. I think our guys will get there and then it’s just the matter to have the freedom to play the basketball that you’ve been playing your whole life.

Jared Dudley came into training camp with a cautious approach. As has been the case the past few seasons, there is no elite scorer on the roster save for Michael Beasley, who could be effective in isolation situations on the elbows if a play breaks down. Meanwhile, Marcin Gortat is still proving he can be a low-post scorer without Steve Nash.

So the Suns have guys to score, but it’s always helpful to get easy buckets. Pace — which is aided by steals, blocks and forced turnovers — can help mitigate any problems in finding just that.

“We have to get easy buckets,” Dudley admitted. “Defensively, we have to grow leaps and bounds.”

So what will the Suns’ offense look like? Even with the personnel known and the theme of playing fast, many questions remain.

How fast will they play?

So the speed at which Phoenix plays is still of utmost importance, even without Nash leading the break. And whether it was a lack of talent or his age the past few seasons, Nash’s Suns have been slowing from an outright sprint to a healthy jog.

Since 2009-10, the tempo has slowed dramatically:

Teams from SSOL era ranked in descending order by pace or possessions per 48 minutes (winning percentage)

1. — 96.7 … 2007-08 (.671)
2. — 96.0 … 2008-09 (.561) – Worst DRtg of SSOL
3. — 95.9 … 2004-05 (.756)
4. — 95.8 … 2005-06 (.659) – Best DRtg of SSOL
5. — 95.6 … 2006-07 (.744)
6. — 95.3 … 2009-10 (.659) – Best ORtg of SSOL
7. — 94.4 … 2010-11 (.488)
8. — 92.6 … 2011-12 (.500) – Worst ORtg of SSOL

Now, Gentry and company must answer the question of whether the system made Nash or whether Nash made the system (though I’d be dumb to bet against the latter). Though the Suns average closer to 26 years old than 28 this year, the younger roster will be challenged to win with a formula that in recent history hasn’t worked out well for most other teams.

Phoenix and its fans have watched uptempo basketball with a unique perspective of late. Of the 50 fastest-paced NBA teams since the Suns’ 2004-05 Seven Seconds Or Less season, only 12 have winning percentages of 60 percent or greater, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Five of those teams are the Nash-led Suns.

Otherwise, success has been rare among uptempo teams. Two NBA Finals appearances by the Lakers lead the way, and only 10 teams in the top 50 uptempo squads since 2004 have made it past the first round of the playoffs. In the past eight years, that means only 10 relatively successful playoff teams of 128 have been of the fast-paced variety.

Teams like Denver, Golden State, Sacramento and Indiana make up the slew of unimpressive resumes that play at a pace comparable to the Suns’ fastest teams in the past decade.

But as the statistics above allude to, Phoenix’s best years were fast, yet still reliant upon having weapons and playing relatively solid defense.

So while pace is important to the system, it is not the end-all, be-all for success.

How point guard-centric will it be?

The system requires a very heavy dosage of point guard.

“I do know that the ball is going to be in Goran’s hand a lot,” Dudley said. “When he was on the bench here, the ball was in his hands a lot. I think the offense will be 50-60 percent the same when he is running the show. He’s dynamic when he has the ball in his hand.”

Of course, there are new tools in the toolbox.

Michael Beasley was assisted on just 48 percent of his shots last year and provides the isolation presence that Phoenix has lacked — only the Suns’ three point guards had lower percentages last year, and that’s obviously because they were running the show. Beasley also gives the Suns the ability to push the ball straight off defensive rebounds, giving the guards the ability to cherry-pick fast breaks.

Gortat and Luis Scola will both be able to score on their own in the post, and it’s the Argentinian who could provide kickouts to three-point shooters when double teams come his way.

But it always comes back to the point guards pushing the envelope.

“Goran Dragic played here and did a great job pushing the basketball when he was here,” Gentry said. “I thought Sebastian Telfair had his best year (last season), and one of the main reasons we drafted Kendall Marshall is simply because he can make those plays on the break, and he throws the basketball ahead.”

Can they operate in the halfcourt?

Gentry is being tested this year. A system he took from Mike D’Antoni has worked well under Nash’s guidance, but he now must teach it. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Gentry has proven to be a very capable coach of a well-executing halfcourt team.

In 2009-10, the Suns’ pace was just beginning to slow. But that team, with a pretty standard NBA lineup unlike the small-ball teams of the D’Antoni era, had the best offensive rating in the SSOL era thanks to a solid halfcourt game that took them deep into the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Lakers.

If Phoenix’s pace doesn’t get back toward the 95 or 96 possessions per 48 minutes range, not all will be lost. Randy Hill of FoxSportsArizona.com took a look at Gentry’s “Corner” offense that is part Princeton, part Triangle.

“I think the thing we’ll have to do is be a halfcourt executing team because we’ll have to rely on that,” Gentry said.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Suns won’t try to fly.

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