November 9, 2019, 7:03 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to the spot where our International Spotlight weekly feature usually goes. This week we will change it up a little and take a look at the story behind the strong start of the Phoenix Suns, who are rostering five international players this year.
It was this time of the season last year when I took the initiative to write about the Toronto Raptors and how their dominance at the beginning of the year didn’t seem to be a pure coincidence.
Sure, I couldn’t imagine the Raptors having the best season in their history, winning their first NBA championship, but all the ingredients were there, and the new chef in town (Nick Nurse) had the recipe for a delicious main course, with Kawhi Leonard of course adding the right amount of sauce when needed.
So, what if I told you that the Suns might be this year’s overachiever?
Rising From the Ashes
Until the past decade, Phoenix had been one of the most successful small market teams in NBA history. From 1975 to 2010, the Suns made the playoffs in all but six seasons, and many of those teams were adored by fans all over the league.
The last few years have been a disaster, with owner Robert Sarver refusing to surrender control of day-to-day operations to basketball people and the fanbase experiencing an interventionist owner with more authority than expertise that often confronted coaches either during games or immediately after, a front office marred by instability, an undermanned scouting department and goats (!) defecating in the office of former GM Ryan McDonough.
The franchise now has its seventh head coach in the last eight seasons and, unsurprisingly, the Suns have not made the playoffs during that time period. Last season was more of the same as Phoenix lost a franchise-record 17 consecutive games, had a slew of injuries and fell way short of their preseason playoff aspirations.
Igor Kokoskov, who became the first European-born NBA head coach after 18 years as an assistant in the league, struggled leading what became a very young team without a point guard, and former NBA player James Jones served as an interim general manager in place of Ryan McDonough, whom team owner Robert Sarver fired two weeks before the season opener.
In Ancient Greek Mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates, obtaining new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Even though the bottom of the barrel is still far away, I assume that Sarver didn’t actually buy into the myth, believing that he has to actually burn his franchise to the ground before it rises back to relevance, and he was, surprisingly, able to persuade Monty Williams (who was heavily recruited by the Lakers as well) to become the team’s next head coach.
New Sheriff in Town
The Suns were expected to have growing pains this season as a young squad with a new coach, but they have been one of the early surprises with a 5-3 record and impressive wins over the Clippers and the then-undefeated Sixers. Scouts and coaches who have watched the team so far don’t expect Phoenix to stay near the top for long and it’s still way too early to tell whether the team can sustain the level of success they had so far.
Still, they seem to pass the eye test as the numbers support their efficiency (11th in net rating, 8th in offense and 11th in defense), while the organizational restructure in the offseason has started to have an impact on what matters the most, winning on the court.
Basketball really isn’t rocket science and the success clearly points to Monty Williams’ addition on the bench, as well as the acquisition of capable veterans like Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric and Aron Baynes to a team with good young players like Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Kelly Oubre Jr. The Suns are off to their best start since 2015 and much of it has to do with the players buying in to the philosophies of a coach who was viewed as one of the top candidates on the NBA job market this offseason.
The Pillars of Success
Monty Williams Setting the Ground Rules
Igor Kokoskov was an exceptional X’s and O’s coach but he found his future hanging up in the air when the GM that hired him was fired just before season’s start. He also lacked the resume to command respect from young players, and without a capable point guard to help him transfer his philosophy on the court he was destined to fail.
Monty Williams is more of a traditional coach who emphasizes the fundamentals of the game, but he is known around the league as an exceptional personality that can help players and franchises to develop an identity. When you walk into the Suns’ locker room this year, each of the following words and phrases have been hung up in bold letters, directly facing the players’ lockers.
Culture – Show Up On Time – Defend – Compete – Share The Ball – Gratitude.
Williams and General Manager James Jones broke down what they expect out of the team each and every day and they have been working to develop these core values into the season. And while the phrases may seem simple, the repetition of each action can be linked directly to the success the team has seen so far this season.
The Suns seem to have an identity (Culture) as the “Valley Boyz,” they look prepared entering each game (Show up on time), they are slowly becoming a top defensive team (Defense), they fight for loose balls and they refuse to lose (other than the Heat blowout, their two loses have each been each by only one point, one being in overtime), they rank second in the NBA in assists with 27.0 per game (Share the ball) and they remain humble, enjoying the victories but getting back to work with the same mentality (Gratitude).
“You can feel the vibe here. It’s different,” Devin Booker said recently in an interview with The Undefeated. “Our team is in a different state than we have been in the previous years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. … But the culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty.”
The ‘0.5’ rule
The Suns spent this year’s training camp scrimmaging with a new set of rules where, at the urging of Williams, their central philosophy on offense is quick-trigger decision-making in 0.5 seconds or less. A shot, pass or drive should happen in that time — anything but holding onto the ball. The difference with last year of course is also the personnel as there is a plan in place to get the most out of high IQ players on the court like Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric, as opposed to trigger-happy forwards likes Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren, to whom the Suns attached assets in order to get rid of this past offseason.
Here is an example of how the offense worked last year, with Booker running out the clock before launching tough, contested shots.
And here is the new-look offense this year with more ball movement and a faster pace. Suns quickly rotate the ball and Saric finds Booker in the low post for an easy bucket.
Booker was recently asked how that style can help him and it’s clear that he has bought into it. “It’ll make me more efficient. Scoring without the ball, playing without the ball and everybody playing with each other,” he said. “You look at the successful teams in the playoffs, the Warriors, Spurs — teams that have been generally successful — the way they move without the ball and the way the ball snaps and everybody shares it, it works out well.”
The presence of Saric and Baynes, who are both able to stretch the floor, has also helped Booker to get easier buckets closer to the rim. Look at how Rudy Gobert has to keep an eye on Baynes and leaves the paint open, where Booker is able to take advantage of the miscommunication between Donovan Mitchell and Royce O’Neale:
Ricky Rubio as the On-Court Leader
Ricky Rubio certainly comes with his flaws but having a point guard like him in place has made it easier for Williams to ensure that guys are keeping the ball moving and playing within the system. The Suns have displayed a level of maturity and poise that we haven’t seen from them in quite some time and Rubio is clearly the engine of the offense.
In this kind of offense, an early ball screen will give the playmaker space heading downhill while cutters climb to the arc and players find their open teammates as the bigs set some hard screens. This results in, usually, a pretty organic open shot, which is why the Suns rank 7th in Effective Field Goal Percentage as opposed to 24th last year. Here is the play with Rubio surrendering the ball after a ball screen and Booker nailing the open triple after Baynes has easily taken poor Grayson Allen out of the equation.
Another key aspect of Rubio’s game is 3-point shooting and even though the Spaniard is averaging a career high .350 behind the arc, the difference is his confidence and willingness to shoot, something that opens up the offense for the rest of his teammates.
On the other hand, despite his overall field goal percentage being at just .370, he is making an impact in so many other ways. Creating open shots for Rubio is not the focus of the offense, but what’s important is how the point guard has complemented his teammates within the system.
Rubio has looked rejuvenated as a cutter and finisher, making plays rarely seen during his stops in Minnesota and Utah. Look at this quick and smart give-and-go that proves how the Rubio-Booker backcourt has been working better that what many people believed.
Rubio was never able to fit in with the equal opportunity offense that Quin Snyder has established in Utah and it’s well known that he needs to have the ball in his hands rather than being a spot-up shooter and launching 3-point shots. Rubio attempted a career-high 3.5 and 3.7 triples per game in his two seasons in Utah, which was obviously an anomaly, and it’s good to see him back to normal levels, averaging 2.9 with the Suns.
The Veteran Presence of Baynes & Saric
While there have been plenty of voices expressing their concern about the sustainability of many advanced metrics, the truth of the matter is that the Suns simply can’t really do worse than last season when they ranked second to last in Defensive Rating, allowing 116.8 points per game, and dead last in Defensive Rebound Percentage. Williams has helped transform this team and the Suns are currently performing like a borderline top-10 defensive team, allowing 108.6 points (compared to 116.8 last year) and grabbing 35.1 rebounds per game (as opposed to a league-worst 31.3 last year).
The unfortunate suspension of Deandre Ayton has empowered Aron Baynes, who is averaging career-highs in rebounds (5.6), blocks (0.9) and assists (3.3), becoming another excellent piece at Williams’ disposal. Baynes’ contribution to the team is not always seen in the box score but the numbers also validate his importance.
The Australian big is obviously a known commodity in the league and the Suns were lucky to get him in a salary dump move on draft night, effectively replacing another high-energy guy and Hoop Ball favorite Richaun Holmes. Look at how Damion Lee clearly opts to go under the screen and avoid the contact with Baynes as Booker gets wide open for the long triple.
The Suns are defending smartly, allowing a ton of drives to the rim – they are fourth best in the league in defending shots inside the paint even though they don’t have a dominant shot blocker.
They are also forcing 18.6 turnovers per game, good for fifth in the league. Look at Dario Saric on this possession as he forces the ball out of D’Angelo Russell’s hands and then sprints back to the paint to box out so that Baynes grabs the easy rebound.
The Suns have struck gold with the hiring of Monty Williams and the numbers validate the progress of this team, but setting aside the excitement of the new beginning it’s always good to apply a reality test and examine the longevity of the current success.
Ricky Rubio currently ranks 52nd in 9-cat leagues and while I expected his assists to go up, after the career-lows in both of his two seasons in Utah, the rebounds (7.1) are way up and this has mainly to do with Ayton’s absence and the exceptional boxing out by Baynes and Saric that allows for easy defensive rebounds by the rest of the guys that hit the glass.
Baynes, meanwhile, is in the middle of a career year, averaging career-highs in a few categories and returning top-30 value for the season while becoming a must-add in standard formats. The return of Ayton will most likely send him back to the bench but I believe he has been an integral part of the Suns’ success and Monty Williams will play him enough to guarantee borderline standard-league value. After an exceptional FIBA World Cup this summer, my biggest question was whether Baynes could carry his effectiveness behind the 3-point line into the NBA season and the results have been promising as he is launching 4.3 triples per game and hitting an astonishing .471 percent of those (obviously not sustainable).
Dario Saric, meanwhile, is ranked 138th for the season, mainly due to his poor shooting and low scoring numbers but his assists (2.1) and rebounds (6.1) are up (definitely not a surprise) while he is averaging a career-high 1.4 steals per game. He has been getting off to slow starts in his entire NBA career and it’s not hard to see his numbers on the offensive side of the ball improving as he develops more chemistry with his teammates.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and keep an eye on The Valley Boyz as they make a push for a potential playoff birth in a tough Western Conference. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of November 8