There’s Only One Ball

The Phoenix Suns are a three-headed snake entangled in the playoff mix.

Over the offseason, the Suns upgraded their bench while styling continuity, a renewed NBA buzzword, and Alex Len hasn’t been a disaster!

So then, what’s the Suns’ problem?  Well, there’s only one ball and three point guards.

And with Isaiah Thomas set to return to the Phoenix Suns lineup tomorrow, the issue of their crowded backcourt once again comes to the fore.

It’s a fact that is proving hard to ignore in the Suns’ locker-room.

“It’s hard. That’s sacrifice. If Isaiah’s playing well, he’s going to stay in,” admitted Goran Dragic. “Me and Eric, it depends who is playing better and who is going to be on the court. The other guy is going to be on the bench. It’s the way it is. We need to embrace that.”

Unfortunately, their point guard trio isn’t some mythical hydra swallowing Dwayne Johnson and sprouting two heads when one is dispatched. There are egos and tendencies to address here.

While all three point guards add a different flavour to the court, they still need and expect to dominate the ball.

“It’s not what I expected,” Thomas told reporters in late November. “But coach has a tough job… I mean, coach, is trying to do what he thinks is best for the team to put us in a position to win. But the key word is it’s a tough situation. For all of us.”

Dragic’s usage rate trails both Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe as well as (wait for it…) Gerald Green this season. He’s averaging 16 points and 3.8 assists, which is a shocking drop off from his 20 & 6 All-NBA Third Team numbers of last year. Simply, of the three guards, Dragic needs the ball the most. He is most crafty when he can manipulate defenders with head fakes, hesitation dribbles, crossovers and ridiculous behind-the-back step-backs. The Serbian’s All-NBA year wasn’t a random spike, but nor is his recent form slump a glitch on the career trajectory.

The Suns are premium League Pass viewing for the second year running, and the short bursts of Thomas, Bledsoe and Dragic sharing the floor evokes the same seedy looks on subscribers that Jack Nicholson conjured on The Departed.

Indeed, their offense is mostly gorgeous but they can’t defend anybody, particularly when the three-headed monster roams the court. Phoenix are serial arm choppers and boast an astronomical foul rate, conceding a league worst 28.7 free throw attempts per game. Heck, even the Lakers and the Knicks are more apt at keeping their opponents off the line. When Hornacek’s system is revving along, all five players on the floor are threatening options, but of late, so are the enemy’s five.

There are other reasons for the Suns’ leaking defense and middling performances. Channing Frye’s length and underrated post defense was essential last season. Sure, he was a spacing delight and posted the team’s premier on-court plus-minus, but his absence has been more telling on defense. The Markieff Morris-Miles Plumlee frontcourt poses steady defensive resistance, but Frye was the fuel to the Suns’ fire. After all, Plumlee has regressed and Morris occasionally drifts in-and-out of sound positioning on pick-and-roll defense.

Let’s be clear: Phoenix is a playoff-caliber team and if they lurked in the East, the conversation would be strikingly different. They’d love a game-changing big man and probably a full season from Bledsoe, who is currently the team’s MVP. Again, Bledsoe is a headstrong type with all-star and alpha-dog ambitions. Last season, he thrived as the number two-guy. When we was on the floor without Dragic, the Suns scored 100.7 points per 100 possessions, and when they paired, the Suns offense was very Spursean, posting a net rating of plus-11. Thomas’ arrival this season has complicated things (although the Pizza Guy has inconveniently missed a handful of games). When Thomas or Dragic heats up, Bledsoe is relegated to almost ‘role-player’ status, which is a tough pill to swallow for a silky up-and-coming talent.

Here’s a scary thought for Phoenix fans: What if this three-point guard quandary results in Dragic departing the Valley of the Sun next summer? And what if he turns out to be finest of the lot?

There’s always Zoran, I suppose.

Still, the Suns have reason to remain optimistic despite an awkward start. The season is barely two months old, and Dragic, who boasts a sharp basketball brain, is sure to find consistency at some stage. Bringing Thomas off the bench to keep the offense humming and their two lead guards fresh is a sound philosophy. Of course, speed is the imperative in Jeff Hornacek’s system. The Suns ranked eighth in the league in pace last year and now they sit fourth. Their ferocious speed once again wreaked havoc for the championship contending Clippers on Tuesday (only to be debunked by a ridiculous Blake Griffin step-back game winner).

There’s terrific value in lacing a roster with multiple playmakers. And yet, a few red flags are surfacing around the NBA. Balance is crucial. Charlotte has seemingly employed too many kitchen chefs in Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s Dion Waiters is kind of like one of those inmates on Gordon Behind Bars.

Aligning team goals with player ambition is never an overnight production. But sometimes a storm of sustainable inconveniences can infiltrate a roster.

Playing time hasn’t really been the area for concern, aside from Thomas’ slight drop in minutes, which is expected due to his sixth-man duties. Perhaps the main issue for Phoenix is that they’re not catching anyone off-guard anymore. Combating expectation is trickier than coping with none, and these funky Suns are facing the heat for the first time since the Nash-era.

Should we temper our expectations? Heck, only twelve months ago the Suns were projected for the lottery. Let’s be honest, are they more talented than the Pelicans, who are also jostling for the eighth seed? Except for Dragic and Bledsoe, The Brow, Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson are arguably more valuable NBA players. Of course, a suddenly healthy Oklahoma City Thunder in F-U-Mode are sure to flash past them both. Therefore, does the Suns’ roster warrant criticism? And in the meantime, can we really blame them for rolling out an insanely fun backcourt as they wait for a game-changing big man?

After tripling their projected win total last season, time is on Phoenix’s side. They’ve found a menace in Bledsoe and an elite coach in Hornacek. Unfortunately, however, their best player – Goran Dragic – might just not fit in the Valley of the Sun any longer.


Follow me on Twitter @collo50

Follow Downtown @Downtownball



Article written by

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply