The Phoenix Suns have made a massive course correction here at the halfway point of the season. Alvin Gentry is sitting at home, and Lindsey Hunter is now in charge. In the coming weeks, the team is going to explore new options on offense and defense. The coaching staff will look back at the first half of the season to see what went wrong and what, if anything, went right. Over the second half of the year, I expect Phoenix to try new things on both ends of the floor to attempt to squeeze the most out of this roster.
In speaking to Paul Coro, Hunter gave no specifics about his intended rotations other than to say they would involve, “a lot of Luis Scola.” In this same conversation, Hunter stated he wanted to get the ball to the Suns’ big men in transition and and the post more often. These comments lead me to believe that Phoenix will try running their offense through Luis Scola at the high post moving forward.
Scola has the most versatile offensive skill set of any player on Phoenix’s roster. According to HoopData.com, Luis is hitting 44% of his jumpers from 16-23 feet. He trails only Kevin Garnett and LaMarcus Aldridge in shots made from that range among power forwards. It’s worth noting that he’s assisted on more than 96% of those attempts. Scola is also a crafty scorer in the paint. He is currently 16th in the league in post-up scoring at 0.94 points per play. While he is not the most athletic player, Luis always finds a way – through shot fakes, pivots, or productive dribbles – to get his shot off in the lane. Aside from his ability to score in a variety of ways, Scola is also a great passer. He ranks seventh in the league among power forwards in assists per game, and of the six players ahead of him, only David Lee, Blake Griffin, and Paul Millsap have higher assist rates (# of possessions ending in an assist.) When given the opportunity, Scola has been able to find players cutting to the basket and hit open shooters spotting up on the perimeter. I believe the only reason he hasn’t been more productive this year is that he’s been underused up to this point. I expect that to change as Lindsey Hunter shakes things up.
Below, I’ve broken down some plays from the past few games which illustrate the different ways Luis can be effective. The first play is from Phoenix’s win in Chicago on January 12th.
As you can see, the Suns overloaded the left hand (as it appears in the chart) side of the floor, which gives Scola and Dragic plenty of room to operate on the right. Initiating the offense at the high post makes Phoenix more effective and aggressive than starting out three feet beyond the arc.
The Bulls defend the pick and roll well in this instance. Gibson keeps Dragic out of the paint and ushers him toward the corner where Chicago can trap him. Instead of rolling toward the hoop and Chicago’s help defenders, Scola stays put at the elbow. Once Robinson leaves Scola to trap in Dragic in the corner, Noah is supposed to rotate to Scola. But Joakim can’t leave the paint because Jermaine O’Neal has smartly flashed to the front of the hoop. Dragic passes over Robinson’s head easily, and Scola hits the shot. This play is an example of the Suns using two of their strengths – Dragic’s ability to penetrate and Scola’s ability to knock down long jumpers – to counter solid defense.
The next play is also from the Chicago game. It demonstrates how Scola’s passing and shooting ability can be used to get easy baskets for his teammates.
The double-high post is one of Phoenix’s most recognizable and most-used offensive sets. Often it starts, as it did in this instance, with an entry pass to Scola at the high post.
The Suns run a very basic “screen the screener” play. The Bulls assume that Shannon Brown is going to curl off his screen into the paint, just like Rip Hamilton does every day in practice. This misdirection catches Hamilton and Taj Gibson sleeping. Dragic sets a great screen on the much larger Gibson, freeing Gortat for an easy bucket.
This play doesn’t work if the initial entry pass at the high post goes to Gortat instead of Scola. Because Scola is such a consistent jump shooter, Noah is forced to guard him tightly. If it were Gortat at the high post, his defender could sag into the paint and clog up the action. This play shows how effective the Suns can be on offense with just a little bit of motion inside the paint. How many times this season have we seen the Suns get a layup with only two passes in a half court set? The answer: not nearly enough.
The third and final play, from the Thunder game, is another demonstration of Scola’s underrated and underused passing ability.
This play starts from the familiar double-high post set, but instead of initiating with a simple entry pass, the Suns run a pick and roll with Dragic and Gortat. All the motion in the middle of the floor forces Westbrook, Thabeet, and Ibaka to rotate and communicate even though the ball is still 20+ feet from the hoop.
Once Scola received the pass, he had several options. 1) Hit Gortat rolling toward the hoop. 2) Hit Brown on the wing. 3) Hand the ball off to Dragic with Westbrook still trailing behind. 4) Face up and create a shot for himself. The Thunder covered the first option by sliding Sefalosha in front of Gortat. That left Brown wide open to hit the trey.
Even if Scola didn’t dish out to Brown, however, the Suns were going to get a good look at the hoop. If Phoenix instead had a non-shooter in Brown’s position, then the handoff to Goran would have worked as Westbrook was loafing at the top of the key instead of recovering to Dragic. If Scola had decided to face the basket, he would have found Gortat with good post position on the smaller Sefalosha. Like I said, options. At this point, any play that gives Phoenix multiple scoring options is one the Suns should call more often.
Full disclaimer: I am not a professional or even amateur basketball coach. I’m just an observer with some X’s and O’s knowledge. The point of this piece isn’t to insinuate that the Suns would be better off listening to me or anything of the sort. The point is to illustrate that for as bad as the Suns’ offense has looked this year, it has had a few bright spots. Most of those bright spots have come with the ball in Luis Scola’s hands. He may not have been the most high-profile signing of the offseason, but for this team as it is currently assembled, he is the most important. He makes good decisions with the ball, can score in a variety of ways, and commands the attention of the defense. His versatility is something Phoenix can and should exploit to their advantage as the season wears on.