Chris Paul and Monty Williams have figured out on the fly how to blend their philosophies into a top-10 NBA offense.
Chris Paul has changed the Suns in many ways. We hear all the time about the effect his leadership, poise and work ethic have had in the Suns’ locker room, but equally important is the difference in offensive style of the Suns from 2019 to 2020. The macro numbers depict a similar scheme, the melding of Monty Williams’ Spursian “point-five” offense and trust in an efficient go-to scorer like Devin Booker. But under the surface, we can see how both parties have adjusted to put a CP3 imprint on the point-five scheme.
Start with how this year’s Suns team gets its buckets. A typical Suns possession with Ricky Rubio initiating the offense would involve a quick pick-and-roll, with weak-side action designed to free up a shooter or cutter. But because defenses didn’t have to respect Rubio as a pull-up threat, they could sag off him and clog the paint, or focus more on the off-ball action. Defenses this season have to worry that Paul will look to score, which rearranges the shape and timing of the Suns’ offense.
Phoenix under Paul has broken into the top ten in offensive efficiency after finishing 12th last season. Much of that comes from the way the Suns now create threes at a higher level. The team’s split between halfcourt offense and transition scoring is about the same this season as it was with Rubio leading the way (84% halfcourt and 16% transition, per Synergy Sports), but Paul is serving up triples way more than Rubio did (and getting to his signature mid-range shot). As a result, the Suns as a whole have sacrificed many layups and dunks for jumpers.
Last season, a healthy 35.3 percent of the Suns’ field goal attempts came at the rim, due to the presence of Kelly Oubre Jr., a larger role for Deandre Ayton, and the fact Rubio wasn’t really a threat anywhere than at the basket or wide open from deep. This year, less than 29 percent of their shots are layups or dunks, placing them third-to-last in the entire NBA. Typically, that is a recipe for a worse offense, but because of Paul and Booker’s efficiency from mid and all those threes, the Suns have bucked that trend.
Possessions start the same way as they did when Rubio was dribbling up the floor, but with Paul, the ball is far more likely to get tossed up on a jumper than to be dribbled all the way to the hoop. Nearly 34 percent of the Suns’ shots are coming from mid-range, and 38 percent are from deep. Both proportions are substantially higher than last year.
That also means the Suns aren’t cutting as often. Nearly 10 percent of the Suns’ shots last season came off cuts, but that’s down to 7.4 percent in 2021. Especially during certain stretches of January when Williams was forced to roll out lineups without any of Paul, Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky on the floor, we saw the struggle to score off ball and player movement. In recent games, Saric, the Suns’ beloved connector, has rejuvenated the pass-and-move beauty of Williams’ system and given the Suns’ offense an extra element.
The Suns’ offense is an incredible 8.8 points better per 100 possessions with Saric on the floor, and they generate more at-rim looks and threes when he plays, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s a walking efficiency boost. But as with most of the Suns’ offense, much of it comes back to Paul.
Since Saric has finally gotten healthy, he and Paul have discovered a picture-perfect two-man game that has made a great Suns second unit even better. In 250 possessions this season with both Paul and Saric on the floor, the Suns have a 124.4 offensive rating and are outscoring opponents by 27.6 points per 100 possessions.
They make sweet music together:
CP3 + Saric forever pic.twitter.com/9PhIRcbkR9
— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) March 11, 2021
This duo’s success is perhaps the best example of how old and new have meshed for the Suns. Paul is learning over time how he can give the ball up and still make an impact, while Williams gets that overall passing and assist numbers may not always be as high.
It’s no surprise all these new wrinkles, rudimentary as they might seem or as predictable as they were for anyone who’s watched Paul during his prolific career, have meant more effective fourth quarter execution for the Suns. As Michael Pina noted at SI this week, despite the on/off numbers being murky overall, Booker and Paul have been incredible together late in games. Often, simplicity can be the best quality by which clutch offense is measured, and the Suns have found it. That’s a far cry from the brick wall the Suns ran up against when defenses solved the Rubio-led scheme last year.
A simple two-man game, a routine lob to Ayton, or a spaced-out isolation for Booker is good offense, even if it’s not complex. At the very least, it adds extra dimensions when the Suns just need a bucket.
Remember this? No Booker, so Rubio is forced to do way too much, and the Suns lose a tight game they eventually regretted come Bubble time.
Even with Booker healthy, there were times when Rubio’s unwillingness to look for his shot or inability to make it completely crumpled the Suns’ offense. This year, space, timing and chemistry are giving the Suns real momentum on offense heading into the second half of the season.
The Suns have been remade in Paul’s image, but not fully. They are a more traditional pick-and-roll offense than before, but pieces and philosophies from Williams’ first season are still ingrained in the Suns’ role players in a way that makes for a delightful interplay. Those who worried Paul’s presence would make the Suns something wholly different than they were before have had their concerns quieted, and there’s even more room to grow.
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