Suns’ lack of foul drawing is personnel driven

Nov 15, 2022, 10:34 AM | Updated: 10:42 am

The Phoenix Suns on Monday became the first team since May 2021 to take four or fewer free throws in a full game.

Losing free-throw points 22-2 and getting to the foul stripe 21 fewer times in a 113-112 loss to the Miami Heat was one of a few problems for the Suns. They let Miami’s aggressive on-ball defense knock their Devin Booker-centric offense out of rhythm in the final quarter, and that was highlighted by Jimmy Butler’s one-on-one possession to keep Booker from playing hero on the final play.

Afterward, Monty Williams keyed back on the free throw margin that went against Phoenix.

“That is hard to swallow … a physical game like that, where everybody’s bumpin’, we only get four free throws,” Williams told reporters. “This is becoming really hard to swallow. You feel like you can’t even talk about it because you’re going to be fined.”

Williams is speaking on a real, years-long trend now. It’s not the first complaint from him — as is his job to make the league office consider how to officiate his team.

But it’s also true that the Suns don’t get to the foul line often because of their personnel and style. Did I mention that Phoenix was also the team that took just four foul shots in that May 2021 game?

The Suns this season take the third-fewest free throws per game and the seventh-fewest per 100 possessions (21.1).

It’s actually a few ticks up from last season when they drew fouls at the third-lowest rate per 100 possessions at 19.9. And that was up from a year before that (19.0).

You can easily point to a few reasons for this.

For one, the mid-range happy team by nature does not get to the foul line. Phoenix’s efficiency on pull-ups and floaters zigged to the basic math of NBA defenses, that guard the three-point line and the rim as priorities. More opponents living with that means fewer fouls drawn.

Attached to that scheme is the personnel. Put frankly, the Suns tend to be more adverse to contact than other teams, especially those like the Heat.

Booker’s foul hunting has pulled back from 2018-19 and 2019-20, when he was pushing close to 10 free-throws per 100 possessions by himself.

This year, Booker (8.2 free throws per 100 possessions) has had few foul-drawing masters beside him.

Backup center Jock Landale (6.2) is second on the team, while Chris Paul (5.6) is third despite operating completely away from the rim.

The next rotation guy is three-point shooter Landry Shamet (4.5), then Mikal Bridges (3.7), Bismack Biyombo (3.5) and Deandre Ayton (3.2).

Damion Lee (2.8), Cam Johnson (2.7) and Cam Payne (2.5) are way down the board.

Why can’t the Suns draw fouls?

We know where you, dear reader, are going in your head with this.

Ayton, in theory, should garner way more foul attempts. If you haven’t been around, asking him to attack off faceups more often, increase the frequency of bullying undersized defenders and pushing him for harder rim-rolling while searching for arm contact doesn’t appear to be in his wheelhouse five years into his pro career.

But it’s not just him.

Payne, the best off-the-dribble guy with pop on the team, went 2-for-9 in the paint with more than a handful of missed pull-up floaters against Miami on Monday.

He also missed two layups at the rim, leaning away from bodies instead of in them.

The below clip is a double-dose of a Payne example followed by Ayton catching the loose rebound with two guards on his back only to panic dribble into a turnover rather than search for arms with a putback attempt.

The ensuing transition possession from the Heat, seen below, was a nice example of why Miami got to the stripe 25 times.

Bam Adebayo, who contributed 14 free throws himself, put a shoulder down to attack Booker. It’s a bang-bang attempt by the Suns guard to draw a charge, but this is what controlled aggression — Adebayo gets the benefit by sidestepping Booker — gets you in the NBA.

In fact, a ton of Adebayo and Butler fouls drawn in the game came on basic faceup dribble attacks.

Those types of plays aren’t frequent coming out of the Suns’ 0.5-playbook.

They were more frequent — and more often resulted in rim attempts over mid-range shots — when guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. or even Abdel Nader (off the catch-and-drive) were on the team.

By the way, in 2019-20 when Oubre was nabbing 6.0 free throws per 100 possessions and Frank Kaminsky was at a sneaky 5.5 for the 39 games he played, the Suns were in the top third of the league.

Nader was at 5.1 per 100 in the team’s run to the NBA Finals in 2020-21, third behind Dario Saric’s 5.6. That’s at least one reason why Williams had such an affinity for getting the slashing wing on the court despite the Nader Haters’ objections.

Looking ahead instead of backward, perhaps the most room for internal growth in the foul-drawing department is Bridges.

His added offensive responsibilities have his per-100-possessions average bumped up to 3.7 free throw attempts after sitting at 2.8 the past two seasons. He missed a contested transition layup that could’ve been the first Suns bucket on Monday night and had another whiff later on.

All of that is to say the Suns aren’t exactly built to do a lot of foul drawing. Finding contact isn’t in the nature of most of their rotation players.

But there are also a handful of missed opportunities per game that are being left on the table. At least three of them Monday resulted in missed layups.

When you combine all that, this team is at risk of getting a historically bad whistle twice in the span of a year and a half.

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