The Phoenix Suns have come a long way since the heyday of the mid-2000s—back when two-time MVP Steve Nash still had his sights set on winning a championship, Mike D’Antoni was Coach of the Year material, and Boris Diaw was thin. If you ask the average NBA fan today, very few would even be able to name more than two of the Suns’ current starting five. With many referring to the Suns’ Ryan McDonough as the “accidental NBA Executive of the Year,” it is safe to say that no one expected this current roster to even have a shot at making the playoffs this season. The odds were even slimmer with Eric Bledsoe out of the lineup due to injury since December 30th.
So, why are they winning?
Using a similar approach to my previous analysis on the Golden State Warriors, I decided to investigate which aspect(s) of the Suns’ game best dictate the team’s win-loss record. This time, I added some more holistic features (related to opponent performance) to the decision-tree classification model, including opponent shooting efficiency, assists, steals, and rebounds. Even with these additions (and more complicated efficiency statistics), the only statistically significant features were points and rebounds, foundational box score stats. Based on the model, scoring at least 100 points and grabbing at least 33 defensive rebounds were strong indicators of a win. This output indirectly gives us a glimpse of how the Phoenix Suns play ball. Let me translate into basketball talk…
1. Live and Die by the 3.
The Suns are very dependent on the three-point shot. In fact, only the Lakers, Hawks, and Knicks rely on long range more for scoring:
As you would expect, they are also fairly efficient, averaging 37.6% for the season. Goran Dragic leads the way with a three-point shooting percentage of 41.7%. (In case you are wondering, they are particularly good at the left corner three.) This style of play has put the Suns in the mix with some of the best teams in the league, in terms of scoring. They rank eighth in Offensive Rating, behind the Heat, Clippers, Mavericks, Blazers, Rockets, Thunder, and Spurs—all solid playoff-bound teams.
This is not that surprising to those who have watched the Suns play, but when the shots are dropping it is sometimes hard to tell just how poor they can be at moving the ball around as a team to score. In fact, the Suns average the second fewest assists per game (only the Kings are worse), at 19.4. It follows that they have the highest percentage of unassisted field goals made at 49.9%. I originally expected the low assists to be due to Bledsoe’s injury, but this does not seem to be the case. The Suns averaged 19.1 assists through the end of December, and actually saw an increase in assists to 19.6 post-injury. For what it is worth, Dragic is doing his part; he actually averages more passes per game than Stephen Curry does! However, on the whole, the Suns could use some more playmakers:
Hopefully, this will be a key focus this month as they continue to compete for a playoff spot in the West. Otherwise, the Suns might find themselves in big trouble when they cannot hit the 100-point mark, usually due to poor performance from long range. In fact, during losses the Suns’ 3FG% drops to just 33.6% versus 40.7% in games won. On the bright side, in the 5 games the Suns have played so far in March, they have averaged 23.0 assists. When Bledsoe returns to the lineup later this week, perhaps he can pitch in.
2. Weak on the Boards and in the Paint.
The Suns are among the worst in the league when it comes to points in the paint allowed, averaging 46.3 per game:
They are particularly bad 10-14 feet away from the basket, allowing opponents to shoot a staggering 42.9%, second worst in the league after the Jazz. Luckily for the Suns, opponents have not been actively exploiting this deficiency on the whole. Only 7.5% of opponent shot attempts have been within this range, in-line with the league average of 8.1%. As a consequence of the Suns’ weak interior defense, they are also fourth worst in the league at opponent second chance points, giving up 14.4 points per game, on average. Thus, though simple, defensive rebounds can actually be a very useful indirect metric for keeping tabs on this Suns team’s defensive performance. Obviously, the more defensive boards they can track down, the less the risk of opponents scoring from second chance opportunities. Based on my model (described above), 33 is the magic number for the Suns. That is, if they can grab at least 33 defensive boards, then that is a good sign for their defense.
However, what they may lack in the interior game, the Suns try to make up for from beyond the arc. They are the second best team in the league at guarding the three, holding opponents to just 33.8% shooting, on average, this season!
The bottom line is that the Suns will always have a shot at winning as long as they can light up the scoreboard from long range. But we have a leaky bucket analogy on our hands due to their poor interior defense and lack of strong rebounding. As good as the Suns are at making volume threes, they cannot beat strong offenses consistently without holding their own on the defensive end. By winning against teams like the Thunder and Blazers, the Suns have been able to show us all what they are capable of, but their vulnerabilities are starting to become clear.
And while the Suns may make the playoffs this year, let’s not forget that they are still a long ways away from the run-and-gun style of the Steve Nash era:
In case I sound like a Debbie Downer, I would like to add that the Suns are playing unbelievably well, especially for a team without any official All-Stars. They even lead the league in fast break points, averaging 19.0 points per game. And, of course, we cannot forget Channing Frye, their big man who can shoot the three. Sound familiar?