PHOENIX — It became fatal the one team that gave Jeff Hornacek’s Suns the most trouble in 2013-14 also was the one team Phoenix needed to beat to make the postseason. It was cruel that the schedule-makers made it that way, but it was nobody’s fault that those Memphis Grizzlies were the anti-Suns in most every way.
The Suns led the NBA by averaging 18.7 fastbreak points per game, a number that was more a necessity and an indicator of the small roster Hornacek had to work with. Hornacek had preached that running would be key, but scoring on a break with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe didn’t need to be schemed for — it would come organically.
What the Suns didn’t do well despite their ability to fastbreak their way past opponents was get into early offense. Off opponent makes, early in games and late in them, Phoenix struggled just to get into sets.
That happened especially against the Grizzlies.
“As a team, we’re not quite at that point where we can play in the halfcourt and make plays over and over,” Hornacek said after losing a must-win game to Memphis on April 14, cementing a 0-4 record against the Grizzlies in 2013-14.
According to the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective, the Suns finished in the bottom third of NBA teams in both ball and player movement. They ranked 22nd in the study’s pass score statistic and 21st in its run score statistic — the stat considered rate by time, not by possession, which equalized the number for teams that had longer possessions and thus passed more during each one.
Phoenix averaged the second-fewest assists per game in the NBA this past season, and Hornacek pointed out context had a lot to do with that statistic. He was right in saying that when the two best scorers are also the two best passers and isolation threats, assists aren’t going to pile up.
But there’s another part of the offense that concerns when considering Phoenix’s ability in the halfcourt.
Without a lowpost threat outside of Markieff Morris, who led the team with 3.1 elbow touches per game, the Suns were forced to throw the ball inside to Miles Plumlee. Even when the big man was struggling through what essentially was a rookie wall as teams adjusted to defend him, Phoenix kept feeding the learning big man, and he finished the year averaging 4.6 close touches per game, well above Morris’ 2.9. Many times the Suns would even post up P.J. Tucker to make defenses sink in — Tucker’s post touches became the most commented upon head-scratcher for those on press row this year.
For that reasoning, and because Phoenix is arguably in the best position to make a trade for a All-Star caliber player, Kevin Love’s name of course pops up. That’s not to say there’s any reason for Minnesota to consider a trade like that at this moment, but the point here is that the Suns certainly would love that low-post dynamic.
The inside-out action this past season was forced, but it was perhaps another explanation for the low passing rate — though Morris surprised with an assist percentage of 10.9 percent (for context, Dragic assisted on 28.1 percent of his teammates’ shots, while Plumlee was at just 3.3 percent, according to Basketball-Reference).
Where a team like the Grizzlies passes so well and gets so much movement out of the post, the Suns simply used post-ups as a keep-‘em-honest type of play to bring defenders off the three-point line. In football terms it was the occasional rush up the middle for a pass-heavy spread offense.
It said a bit that Hornacek made sure to point out Memphis was one of the best teams in the league when Gasol was healthy.
“Those good passing teams, they see everything happen, they look around, if they see two guys go to one guy, boom! Right away that pass is to the other guy and he’s got an open shot,” Hornacek said after the Memphis game.
And it said a bit that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough at least had a thought or two about acquiring Marc’s brother, Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol.
The next step for the Suns is improving the halfcourt offense.
If it’s Kevin Love in a trade or waiting out the development of Alex Len, they would like to find a big man capable of adding that inside-out dynamic.