While most NBA observers will be watching as Steve Nash attempts to bring cohesion to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense, some of us will be eyeballing the changes in Phoenix.
And by changes, we’re referring to more than Nash being out and Goran Dragic dribbling back in.
According to reports from the Suns’ scrimmage at the end of training camp in San Diego, coach Alvin Gentry and the guys will be attacking defenses a bit differently. Sure, the Suns will continue pushing the pace and using screen-roll to create opportunities. But, based on the aforementioned reports from San Diego, it certainly seems that Phoenix is incorporating a few tactics borrowed from Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman.
Seems like a natural progression, especially since Gentry has been effusive in his praise of Adelman’s chops as an offensive innovator.
Let’s see … four of this summer’s acquisitions have played for Adelman over the last two seasons. Dragic and slick-passing power forward Luis Scola worked in Adelman’s system as Houston Rockets two seasons back, and Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson played for Adelman in Minnesota last season.
An even more important person familiar with the Adelman concepts is second-year assistant coach Elston Turner. Turner, generally regarded as the Suns’ lead defensive strategist, was a sideline sponge while Adelman coached explosive teams in Sacramento before moving to Houston.
So what is the Adelman system? Well, quite a few watchdogs like to refer to it as a Princeton hybrid inspired by Pete Carrill’s work as an assistant coach with the Kings.
But Carrill’s system at Princeton – which incorporated more dribble hand-offs and ball screens – was predicated on pouncing on a defender’s mistake over the course of a 35-second possession. Things must move more quickly in the NBA, where most coaches are reluctant to run anything close to a continuity offense. In those situations, a team’s top scorer may not be the first player open.
The Suns, we’re all pretty sure, still are waiting for the emergence of a go-to type. With the first open man now qualifying as the go-to player, a move toward a system based on more cuts and overall movement seems like a wise one.
Nash, a dribble-dominant master of ball-screen offense, made it difficult to previously alter the philosophy. Now, much like Adelman’s Kings (with Vlade Divac and Chris Webber), the Suns will use “bigs” such as Scola away from the rim, where they’ll serve as passers to those who make basket cuts or curl off of down screens.
Although Adelman does use sets (that include ball screens) to create shots for particular players the basics of his system are movement and spacing. The Suns’ Mike D’Antoni-inspired system leaned heavily on ball screens that were made difficult to defend by lining up snipers along the perimeter to discourage help defenders from jamming the middle.
With fewer dead-eye shooters on the roster these days, the Suns will attempt to create driving lanes by sending cutters through first. With defenders on the move instead of already set in help positions, dribble penetration will (in theory) be easier. Any overplay will result in cutters going back door to score.
Although it would be tempting to refer to the new style as a motion offense (there is a lot more movement), the Adelman philosophy differs quite a bit from traditional college or high school motion offenses. The shot clock demands more immediate reading of defenders and reacting to create an opportunity much more quickly.
The new Suns figure to bring movement to the strong and weak sides of their base alignment. The strong side can offer cuts, splits off the post or whatever the defense supplies to players working away from the ball. If the three-man game doesn’t produce an opportunity, the offense – through ball reversal – can flow into a two-man game (pick and roll, pass and cut, etc.) on what had been the weak side.
For the record, Adelman’s T-wolves — burdened with an injury to rookie point guard Ricky Rubio — were only 18th in the league in offensive efficiency during his first season in Minnesota. His last team in Houston was fourth.
Even though this concept seems like a good fit for the Suns’ personnel, any system looks genius when the players make plays.
NOW ABOUT THAT DEFENSE …
Although a defense that finished 24th last season in efficiency — and has added Beasley and Scola — can motivate cynics, Turner thinks the Suns have a chance to be much better.
“We’re younger and we move better,” he said after a camp workout last week. “Guys are really competing, we’re bangin’. But we need some of these exhibition games to get a good read.”
The first practice game is Wednesday in Sacramento; the Suns’ home exhibition opener will be Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers at US Airways Center.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS AT KENTUCKY
Well, sure, Nerlens Noel has commanded considerable attention as the replacement for Anthony Davis, who — as a freshman — led the Wildcats to the national championship before being selected as the top pick in the NBA draft.
Similar expectations were about to be lobbed at the 6-foot-10 Noel until scouts took a close look at him during the Adidas Nations tournament in California a couple months ago. Although Noel’s ability to run and block shots will keep him high on the list of draft prospects to watch, another UK freshman has hit the scouting radar.
Enter 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, a now-244-pound prospect from Olathe, Kan.
According to one college scout employed by an NBA team, Willie — a former high school wide receiver — has a chance to be a lottery pick, too.
“In some ways, he’s more intriguing than Noel,” the scout said. “But I need to see more, and besides, I’m not telling anyone too much.”
The kid plays for Kentucky, so he won’t be much of a secret.