Suns made ‘small’ strides in free agency

At least two of the Suns three point guards, Goran Dragic (from left), Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, is expected to be on the floor at the same time next season.

PHOENIX — They entered the month thinking big. But the Suns must feel pretty small as the march through July comes to an end.

In this predicament, however, "feeling" can be interpreted as "embracing."

After making overtures aimed at landing LeBron James and another free-agent playmate of his choosing (thinking big in a philosophical sense), the Suns went all in on being small in stature.

The evidence was presented during this week’s introduction 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas and 6-8 stretch power forward Anthony Tolliver.  

Tolliver, it should be noted, was hired because his deep shooting range will be needed to help minimize the loss of 6-11 Channing Frye. Frye’s departure had nothing to do with his height and everything to do with the size of the contract bestowed him by the Orlando Magic.

But the marquee addition was Thomas, whose acquisition in a sign-and-trade signaled clearly that rather than attempting to look more conventional (by physical standards), the Suns are doubling down on last seasons’ double-point-guard attack. (They also used a first-round draft pick on Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis).

"We feel like the strength of our team is the backcourt," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. "We feel like this move has made us even stronger in the backcourt. We were very good when Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were on the court, and we think Isaiah Thomas is the caliber of player where if you can have one or two of those players on the court at all times, you really don’t have any drop off, scoring-wise."

There seems to be little size-related concern as well from coach Jeff Hornacek, who’s a big proponent of having his team go fast.

"Maybe we got the three-headed monster in the guards," Hornacek said. "There’s going to be two of those guys on the court most of the time. Teams are going to have to play for that and really focus."

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For perspective from the opposition, we consulted an assistant coach employed by another Western Conference team.

"They were really tough to prepare for last year," this coach, referencing Dragic and Bledsoe, said. "It looks like they’re just taking what they were doing before and turning it up a couple of notches with Thomas.

"The best way to try to deal with that speed is to use you size against them on the other end."

That’s a reference to posting up the Suns guard assigned to check the other team’s designated two-guard. But how many two-guards are proficient at posting up? With Dragic frequently defending off the ball last year, the size differential wasn’t much of a small-ball deterrent.

For bottom-line interests, we have to buy into the concept that scoring — and doing so efficiently — trumps how this scoring is accomplished, right? As long as the defense is reasonably combative, converting possessions into points at a high rate should lead to frequent victories.

The Suns, who rang up a league-stunning 48 victories last season, were eighth among NBA teams in points per 100 possessions. Had Bledsoe and Dragic been able to start more than 34 games together (they won 23), the ranking and win total would have climbed.

But can the Suns become an elite team by playing small ball at greater speeds? Please note they were first in fast-break points last season (second in fast-break efficiency), but only eighth in pace.

Hornacek, the tactical maestro behind this return to a fast tempo in Phoenix, never really seemed satisfied with his team’s sense of offensive urgency. Even after an opponent scored, Hornacek insisted on getting the ball hustled into the frontcourt, enabling his team to have more shot-clock-related options if the initial half-court salvo didn’t yield a good look.

Scoring becomes easier when you’re not required to beat the shot clock as well as the defender. But is fast the way to go?

Checking the last 10 seasons, we find the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors heading up the other nine fast-break-scoring charts. And that commitment to haste didn’t take either team to elite status.

If championships are the measuring stick, a low percentage of teams have seized the O’Brien trophy with point guards as dominant ball handlers. Since 1990, 11 of these teams were coached by Phil Jackson, whose triangle offense isn’t built around drive-and-kick PGs.

Two titles were won with LeBron James as the primary ball handler. The Dallas Mavericks scored a title working Jason Kidd as more of a traffic cop for Dirk Nowitzki, and J.J. Barea coming off the pine to score in pick-and-roll alignments. The Houston Rockets thrived while Michael Jordan was playing baseball, and did so without a star-caliber PG.

The San Antonio Spurs have been prominent with Tony Parker slicing through defenses for layups or hockey assists eventually completed by a 3-point sniper. But until 2014, most of San Antonio’s offensive success should have been credited to working through and around 7-foot post monster Tim Duncan.

Most of the champagne in recent years has been sprayed on superstar post players or Hall-of-Fame-caliber wing players.

Does this mean the Suns’ current style dooms Phoenix fans to another parade-free era?

Not necessarily, but it should be noted that very few teams have reached ultimate glory without a Hall-of-Fame-level player.

We first should acknowledge the Suns have attempted to get their mitts on an elite below-the-free-throw-line superstar, but — as this summer has demonstrated — that’s not easy.

We also should point out there are quite a few ways to arrive at a desired destination.

If a team scores efficiently, makes enough stops — and does both when games are on the line — it shouldn’t matter how this is accomplished. While it’s true that scoring clutch fourth-quarter buckets against locked-in team defense is easier with an elite one-on-one option, any hard-to-guard system with players who can make it work will serve.

Suns fans know this.

During the halcyon days of Mike D’Antoni, the Suns were within a Robert Horry tackle of holding off the San Antonio Spurs and taking on LeBron’s undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Had that controversy not occurred, the Suns could have won a championship and even more teams would have copied D’Antoni’s style.

That style, by the way, often found 6-7 Shawn Marion at power forward and Amar’e Stoudemire (listed at 6-10) as the center. Marion was able to rebound and defend the position, allowing D’Antonio to get away with this speed lineup.

Even though the Suns defended well enough to make some timely, game-saving stops (points per possession is the key, not points per game), D’Antonio didn’t go deep enough into his bench to use pressure defense as a method of generating even greater tempo. It didn’t help that the point of Phoenix’s defensive front was Steve Nash.

Depth for the current Suns shouldn’t be a problem — if minutes and roles are accepted with as much team-oriented concerns as they were last year.

Thomas, who averaged 20 points and six assists for the Sacramento Kings last season, already bought it.

"It is important to me," he said of starting. "But when it comes down to winning, I’ll do whatever it takes to win. I want to be on a winning team. I know I have a role. It’s a big part of what’s going on here. I’m all for it. At the end of the day, we’re going to play with each other no matter who starts and who comes of the bench. It’s about winning."

And attitude like that is big.

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