How Is the Three-Point-Guard Experiment Going for the Phoenix Suns So Far?
When the Phoenix Suns took part in a three-team trade to acquire Eric Bledsoe in the summer of 2013, it had people scratching their heads. Phoenix already had a perfectly good point guard under contract in Goran Dragic, and Bledsoe had shown, after a couple years of backing up Chris Paul and spot starting whenever CP3 missed time, that he was due a starting gig somewhere. Suns management swore Dragic and Bledsoe would be able to co-exist and even play together, we all just had to wait and see.
Well, year one of the two-point-guard starting lineup was indeed a success, at least whenever the two were healthy and available (Bledsoe missed half the season due to a meniscus tear in his right knee). Over 38 games played, Dragic and Bledsoe accumulated 885 minutes of time on the floor together, and while Phoenix was running this two-guard lineup, the Suns had an offensive rating of 108.4, a defensive rating of 97.4, and a subsequent net rating of 11.0 (compared to 107.1, 103.8, and 3.3 as a team overall). The Suns shocked everyone by finishing the season 48-34 and missed out on the playoffs by one game, despite the fact that pundits largely picked them to finish last in the Western Conference going into the campaign.
This past summer, the Suns took our initial belief that their team couldn't be successful with their two best players playing the same position and figuratively shoved it down our collective throats. They drafted Syracuse phenom, point guard Tyler Ennis, with a first-round pick and pulled off a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings for their starting point guard, Isaiah Thomas, fresh off a breakout season. The Suns clued up their summer by re-signing Bledsoe to a five-year deal worth $70 million.
Now, in 2014-15, the Suns' three highest-paid players and one of their most promising young prospects all play the same position of point guard. Yes, both Dragic and Bledsoe are technically combo guards that can play shooting guard just fine, but they would likely play the one almost exclusively on just about any other squad.
As a result of the logjam, Thomas has to come off the bench, and Ennis has only played 18 minutes so far this season. The Suns have the advantage of being able to have two proficient ballhandlers on the floor at all times, but sometimes the size differential is a disadvantage on the defensive end. Position-less basketball is gaining steam as a viable way to build lineups in the NBA, but Jeff Hornacek's rotations in Phoenix are still falling under scrutiny for being way more point-guard heavy than the norm.
Now that the Suns are a full 15 games into the experiment (for lack of a better word), let's perpetuate said scrutiny by taking a look at how their three-headed point guard monster is faring so far in 2014-15.
On an individual basis, as one could suspect, all three of Dragic, Bledsoe, and Thomas have seen their minutes and production drop this season from last year.
Dragic's numbers were somewhat inflated from having to carry the load for the Suns during the 39 games that Bledsoe missed due to injury last year, so a regression in his stat line was to be at least somewhat expected. Same goes for Thomas, who has had to transition from being a heavily relied upon starter to a sixth man with an 11-minute drop in playing time.
Those are a few ways to explain away the universal sagging production from the trio, but the fact that all three are putting up less flashy box score lines this year is still a notable trend. In the end, this appears to be the consequence of stacking a position when there are only so many minutes to go around, for better or worse.
There have been 527 minutes of the 725 played by the Suns this year where they've had at least two of Dragic, Bledsoe, and Thomas on the court. That means that approximately 73% of the time the Suns have spent on the floor this season, they've done so with at least two point guards in the game.
Here's how the three two-man lineup combinations break down in terms of offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), and net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) (per NBA.com):
|Combo||MIN||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
|Bledsoe & Dragic||350||102.7||104.1||-1.4|
|Bledsoe & Thomas||120||111.5||106.0||+5.6|
|Dragic & Thomas||106||105.0||110.1||-5.1|
As you can see, only the Bledsoe and Thomas combination of point guards has yielded a positive net rating for the Suns to this point. This is particularly interesting, considering the Suns hold a net rating of plus-3.1 as a team on the season as a whole.
Whenever the Suns play two point guards together, their defense is the main thing that suffers (as evidenced by a more bloated defensive rating in each scenario). The Suns currently rank 10th in the NBA with their overall 102.1 defensive rating, but both of the combinations that contain Thomas above would rank in the bottom six of the league, for instance.
Keep in mind that Thomas - on his own - has one of the better defensive ratings on the team at 100.2. The disparity between that number and the defensive rating of the two lineups that include Thomas above (106.0 and 110.1) seems to suggest that the team does significantly better (at least on the defensive end) when playing Thomas by himself at point guard and letting the other two rest, rather than forcing the two-point-guard idea beyond the starting five. Hornacek conceding to play Thomas as a lone point guard during the majority of his time on the floor, of course, would mean having even fewer minutes to go around between his best and highest-paid players. As you can imagine, that isn't exactly an ideal scenario.
As for the offensive end, which is considered to be the whole reason for having two point guards play together in the first place, it's noteworthy that only the Bledsoe and Thomas combination has resulted in an increased offensive rating. The advantages of the Suns playing two point guards at the same time simply aren't as immediately apparent this season as they were last year.
All Three Together
What about the idea of playing all three together? As NBA scribes and media members questioned how exactly the Suns would make this whole thing work this summer, talk began to emerge that all three point guards could somehow play together. The Suns have played different lineups that contains all three guys in eight different games so far this year, for a total of 23 minutes of action. The results have been - to put it lightly - horrendous:
|Combo||MIN||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
|Bledsoe, Dragic, & Thomas||23||96.2||124.0||-27.8|
Yikes. Sure, it's a small sample size, but there's nothing there to suggest that any lineups including all three guys should be an option for the Suns going forward. There are very few teams in the NBA that you can guard one through three when you have three point guards on the court together on the defensive end and the combination doesn't appear to do anything positive for the Suns' offense either.
Two On, One Off
It should be noted that all the two-man lineup data from NBA.com listed above is negatively skewed by those 23 minutes the trio played together at the same time. That is because the lineup data on the website shows how the team did with any and all lineups that include the given players, but it doesn't exclude anyone.
In order to compare how the various point guard combinations did when two were on the floor and the other was not, we can look to nbawowy.com - a very useful tool for such inquiries. Here's how those same combinations did when two of the players were on the floor and the other one was on the bench exclusively, compared to the Suns' performance overall this season.
|Bledsoe & Dragic||323||632||1.078||1.119||52.9%||22.5|
|Bledsoe & Thomas||97||187||1.209||1.226||57.1%||25.1|
|Dragic & Thomas||84||181||1.055||1.095||49.0%||21.0|
PPS = points per shot
eFG% = effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes)
AST Ratio = team assists per 100 possessions
As you can see, without the 23 minutes of the trio playing together, things don't look that bad. The Bledsoe and Dragic pairing is more or less on par with the team as a whole, but the difference between Thomas playing with Bledsoe versus playing with Dragic is still worth noting. The Suns are notably more efficient at shooting and passing when Bledsoe and Thomas play together, whereas they're noticeably worse when Thomas is paired with Dragic instead. This will be interesting to monitor moving forward, as we see if Hornacek starts using Thomas more on his own or exclusively with Bledsoe and perhaps fewer Thomas/Dragic pairings.
Just as a reminder and for comparative purposes, here are those 23 minutes of the trio playing together as seen through the nbawowy.com looking glass:
|Bledsoe, Dragic, & Thomas||23||43||0.977||0.901||39.0%||14.0|
What This Means for the Suns Going Forward
Dragic hits unrestricted free agency this summer and has already expressed that he will test the market. If these early-season trends continue, perhaps the Suns letting him walk would be the best option for both sides.
Yes, they're 9-6, and there's not enough evidence to hit the eject button on this experiment just yet, but it won't be long before the fear of losing Dragic for nothing in free agency starts rearing its ugly head and forces Phoenix to evaluate the situation in a hurry - perhaps by the trade deadline if the Suns can't keep up in the West and contenders come knocking for his expiring services.
If Dragic were to leave the Suns this season or during next summer, he would have the chance to re-establish himself elsewhere and build off last year's All-NBA campaign - one that was built mostly during the time Bledsoe missed due to injury. Meanwhile, the Suns could use Thomas and Bledsoe as their two-point-guard pairing going forward, focus more of their attention on Tyler Ennis' development, and use Dragic's money to address one of their more pressing needs, like an effective scoring or rim-protecting big man.