The game of basketball is continuing to evolve. In particular, the small ball revolution has changed the philosophy of decision-makers within the NBA. The concept of position-less basketball has taken over the league by storm.
The Suns organization has had no clear direction the last three years – no system in place to build around – and have had no identity for a fan-base to take pride in.
This summer the Suns attempted to solve all three problems in one go around, hiring head coach Igor Kokoskov to implement his ball-screen and motion heavy system, trade up in the draft for Mikal Bridges and trade away Brandon Knight.
“We’ve studied the final four teams in the league last year (other than Cleveland), they have a ton interchangeable wing players and a lot times they have three or four of them on the court at the same time.” – former Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough explained after his firing on ESPN’s The Jump when discussing the signing of Trevor Ariza.
It’s clear the Suns were looking to emulate what winning teams around them had done, trying to build the perfect team for the modern NBA. Other than copying the Celtics this off-season, the Suns traded for Ryan Anderson and signed Trevor Ariza away from the Rockets. The plan was there, the Suns were not trying to copy, they were trying to steal.
Picasso once said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” The Suns were betting on this strategy when creating their masterpiece; with the current record many will come to the conclusion it has failed. I would argue the Suns are headed in the right direction.
At the NBA level you pick a system and build around that – find players that fit the system over multiple off-seasons, not the other way around. Now that the Suns have a system in place, it’s about believing in it and finding players that fit the system.
For example, within the system, the 4 man on the floor is a critical component of executing the offense. The Suns started the season with Ryan Anderson playing the position and they soon realized that was not a great fit within the offense.
The insertion of TJ Warren into the starting lineup to play the 4 position has made a difference – fit matters. In the game against the Spurs, Warren’s value in the Kokoskov system was evident.
Recently, the Suns have installed a new wrinkle out of their Oklahoma series. After the initial double-drag action, it flows into a weak side curl action and a pin-down on the strong side, the guard has the option to hit either player with the pass.
This is the action ran with Warren at the 4. A much improved three point shooter this year, Warren has the ability to not only make the right corner three but attack a closeout.
Later in the same game, the Suns come down and run the same set but with Dragan Bender as the 4. Bender would play as a power forward on most NBA teams; however, within the Suns’ system and particularly in this set he just doesn’t fit in.
The other option in this set is the weak side curl if the if strong-side pin-down is not available. In this clip Bender is not an option off the pin-down so Bridges comes off the curl. The Spurs defender does not full top lock Bridges – but Bridges still attempts to go back-door – in the end the action flows back into the curl.
The three spot is also important in terms of having a player that is comfortable coming off curls and having an understanding of the defense. This is a clip from the night before against the Clippers to further illustrate. The Suns had ran this action two minutes before in the game, Harris reads it and top locks Bridges, I think Bridges had a chance to go back-door here.
In the Spurs game the next night the Suns ran the same action with Warren as the 4 coming off the pin-down, Bridges again struggled with his ability to make a play coming off the curl something that has been a weakness for him so far this season.
Forbes does not top lock him this time, Bridges should be able to make that lob pass to Ayton on target and on time.
This is the same set ran with more of a play-maker in Josh Jackson instead of Bridges. You can see the difference when you have the right personnel running the action versus forcing players into uncomfortable positions on the court.
I also think the Suns’ coaching staff has to do a better job of designing this set with better detail as well. In the last clip Jackson comes off a curl from the left wing. In this next clip, Jackson comes off a curl from the right wing and he’s not as comfortable going to his left so he dribbles back to his right and it leads to a miss.
I thought this set would be good to use to illustrate but there are many other examples within the Kokoskov offense where the personnel does not match the system. For the Suns to take that next step as an organization next season, they have to stick with this system and find players that fit.
Winning teams in the NBA find a system and build around that. The Suns need to do the same.