Last season, the surprising upstart Phoenix Suns owned the NBA’s eighth-ranked offense. Given the lineups they often used, that wouldn’t be all that surprising if they weren’t also 13th on the defensive end, despite playing with two-point guard units for 1,646 minutes1, 41.6 percent of the time2.
In general terms, two-point guard lineups are thought to be very effective offensively but at a serious cost on the defensive end. That wasn’t so for Jeff Hornacek’s crew:
Counter-intuitively, the Suns were actually better on offense with just one guard but significantly better on defense with two.
If your instinct was to think of Eric Bledsoe, congratulations, you’re smart and beautiful.
At 6-foot-4 and just 180 pounds, Goran Dragic, the team’s lead guard and best player in 2013-14, is somewhere south of passable when defending other point guards. Like Greivis Vasquez alongside Kyle Lowry in Toronto, though, he’s big enough to handle some shooting guards and can at least frustrate things with length and effort. Bledsoe, meanwhile, is a more compact 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds and is a tenacious and disruptive defensive presence. Bledsoe is very good at that end of the floor, ranking first on the team in D-Rating among those who played 400 minutes and owning appreciable On/Off defensive splits for his career (his teams have been 3.7 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him playing than without).
While the team’s offense opens up with both Bledsoe and Dragic, in part thanks to a tough-to-stop double-motion screen action, it’s their ability to survive and even thrive on defense that stood out (again, the Suns offense lost nothing without Bledsoe despite his 17.7 points and 5.5 assists a game, with strong efficiency metrics).
Of course, what they did isn’t nearly as interesting as what they’re doing.
The Suns executed a sign-and-trade with Sacramento that saw Isaiah Thomas land in the desert on a four-year, $27 million contract. He’ll join Dragic ($7.5 million with a $7.5 million player option he’s unlikely to pick up next year), Goodwin ($1.1 million and team options for the next two seasons), No. 20 overall pick Tyler Ennis ($1.6 million in the first year of a four-year rookie deal, if he signs) and Bledsoe, should the restricted free agent stick around. That’s a lot of point guards, and led to the release of Ish Smith as a result.
Are the Suns crazy? Not necessarily. Hornacek clearly prefers two ball-handlers on the floor at all times, and the deals for Dragic, Thomas, Goodwin and Ennis are all good values. Tying up $17.4 million in four point guards isn’t bad at all if they’re a) good as a stable and b) not mutually exclusive on the floor3.
Bledsoe, however, is said to have rejected a four-year, $48 million deal, which seems close to the upper edge of what he should command given his relative inconsistency and the torn meniscus he suffered this season. If the report that the Suns tabled that offer are true, that means the team was ready to commit nearly $30 million to five point guards or, more appropriately for the system, “guards.” The bet here is that all five guards can play together capably at both ends, because there won’t be anywhere close to enough minutes for all of these bodies unless the team is running two point guards full time.
We know Bledsoe and Dragic work well together, and that Dragic and Goodwin were capable, too.4 As a 6-foot-5 combo-guard, Goodwin shouldn’t be tough to pair with Bledsoe, Dragic, Thomas or Ennis. Ennis, by the way, was a point guard, full stop, with shooting guard Trevor Cooney (6-foot-4, 1.1 assists per game) as the only other Orangeman under 6-foot-7 to average even eight minutes a game.
So, Goodwin can handle the two and Dragic can for the most part, while Ennis would be unfamiliar and Bledsoe is fungible enough to draw the tougher guard check on defense, with a limit on size.
That makes the new man, Thomas, the big question mark. As a rookie, Thomas shared the floor with Tyreke Evans a fair amount, with Thomas as the nominal point guard. We’ve since learned Evans is not a point guard, so it’s hard to draw much from there. In 2012-13, Thomas shared the floor with Jimmer Fredette, Aaron Brooks and Toney Douglas in small amounts, with those lineups outperforming other Kings lineups significantly, but in just 299 minutes. Last season, he spent time with Fredette, Ray McCallum and Vasquez, and while the sample is again small (356 minutes), it appreciably outperformed the Kings’ standard once again.
At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Thomas doesn’t seem a good fit with Bledsoe or Ennis but should be a perfectly capable partner for Dragic or Goodwin, in the same way Bledsoe is (though he’s not in the same class defensively). And that’s strictly based on size, ignoring for any stature-ignorant schemes in Hornacek’s toolbox. This is a somewhat randomly crafted distribution, but the following would see the four veterans get playing time close to their 2013-14 levels, while Ennis gets the short straw with plenty of D-League work. The team would spend 85 percent of their floor time with a Bledsoe-Dragic, Thomas-Dragic or Thomas-Bledsoe pairing, with only the latter (19.4 percent of minutes) a relative risk to not succeed.
So, you can argue with allocating the bulk of financial assets to the point, but the franchise clearly believes that last year’s success with two point guards wasn’t a fluke.5
- And 31 minutes with three point guards. ↩
- That includes Archie Goodwin, who the team identifies as a point guard, but excludes Leandro Barbosa, who can handle either guard spot but is generally deployed as a two. ↩
- or, we concede, c) Chris Paul ↩
- Bledsoe and Goodwin were poor together but in less than 100 minutes. ↩
- There’s also a chance they’re preparing for life after Dragic if he opts out in 2015, or see three point guards on good deals as three big trade chips later on. ↩