Suns’ two most talented players hold blame for struggles
Phoenix Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are the two best and most talented players on the roster.
When the team has success they deserve the credit and when the team fails they’re part of the reason why. The numbers don’t lie:
The statistical difference when Bledsoe and Knight share the court together in wins versus losses is staggering — a +12.4 net rating for victories, the equivalent of the third-best team in the NBA after the Warriors and Spurs — a -13.4 net rating for losses, almost the identical number to the 1-30 76ers -13.4.
“We rely on those two guards a lot,” said head coach Jeff Hornacek. “They’re two of our best guys on the team. When they get neutralized or struggle then it’s tough for us. We need them to play well. We need them to fly up and down the court. That’s who we are.”
With the Suns off to a poor 12-18 start, the bad has been more prevalent than the good. The overlapping flaws in Bledsoe and Knight’s skill sets directly reflect in the reasons the Suns haven’t been able to find consistency. Poor defense, turnovers and an inability to get Tyson Chandler involved on the offensive end highlight the issues surrounding the team.
According to NBA.com, Phoenix is allowing opposing guards to shoot an NBA-best (tied with the Pelicans) 46.6-percent from the field, including the fourth best 3-point percentage at 37.1 percent.
Going by ESPN Defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, Bledsoe is slightly below league average at -0.03, while Knight’s struggles on the defensive end stand out more at -2.93. For context, James Harden, one of the more criticized guard defenders in the league, is a -1.88.
“It’s an emphasis,” said Hornacek. “We’re trying to get those two guys to do it on both ends. They’re not the tallest guys so sometimes they get shot right over the top of, but I think a lot of the time we’re not getting into those guys to make them work. It’s a combination of things we gotta get better at.”
Knight in particular is guilty of allowing opposing guards to end up with easy baskets.
Poor defensive stance, flat footed, and no effort to even move his feet to stay in front of Burke, who did nothing more than a simple change of speed, crossover, straight line drive right to the rim.
Knight offers zero resistance as Kevin Martin backs him down from the 3-point line, and instead of contesting the shot, stops moving his feet, letting Martin get a clean look at the basket.
This is Knight struggling to track Burke through screens. You can see Markieff Morris point to communicate a down screen was coming from Trevor Booker and Knight still runs directly into the pick. From there everything is a mess. Knight spins off to try to recover, Len attempts to help, which allows Jeff Withey to screen not one but both players to create a wide-open jumper for Burke.
With Eric Bledsoe, his mistakes aren’t as obvious if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on away from the ball.
The Jazz opened the game against the Suns on Monday with a specific set to take advantage of Bledsoe’s wandering on the defensive end.
This entire play is designed knowing Bledsoe is going to lose Hayward over helping — it works to perfection. The pick and roll between Raul Neto and Derick Favors is a dummy action to get Bledsoe to sink in off his man, which is exactly what he does. Meanwhile, on the backside, Trey Lyles gets in position for a back screen and Hayward fades off to the corner. Neto drives to the rim with no intention of doing anything besides hitting Hayward for a wide open three that connects.
“We talk about it a lot,” said Hornacek. “Lot of times he’s got a good knack for it, other teams know that. They’re aware of Eric’s hands and his abilities and know that he’s going to come in the lane. The guys he’s guarding, a lot of times will say, I know if I just get to the weak side and he goes to help maybe I get a kick out. He’s got to find that balance, not over do it, not do it against certain guys — Gordon Hayward’s probably not a guy you gamble off of. Just being smarter.”
Here Bledsoe loses track of Rodney Hood the second he gives up the ball. He spends the rest of the possession ball watching having no idea where his man is. Bledsoe neither attacks Lyles aggressively after he tries to drive on the Jon Leuer closeout or finds his man. This leads to him being lost in no man’s land and Hood ending up with a clean look for a three.
While both Bledsoe and Knight have been extremely effective on the offensive end, their penchant for turnovers is detrimental to the offense and defense.
They combine to average 6.9 turnovers per game, and the Suns as a team have the third-highest TO rate in the NBA (16.6 turnovers per 100 possessions).
Lately it’s been worse. During the month of December the Suns are giving the ball away on 20.9-percent of the possessions when Knight and Bledsoe share the court.
What’s most harmful about these mistakes is they’re leading to breakouts for opponents. According to Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus, 62% of Knight and Bledsoe’s turnovers are of the live ball (stay in bounds) variety.
This is a big reason why the Suns allow the fifth most points of turnovers per game (18.1) and the second most fast break points per game (16.1).
In addition to the turnovers, Bledsoe and Knight have struggled to find a comfort level with center Tyson Chandler in the PnR game.
This season Chandler has 21 dunks in 21 games, compared to the last five seasons when he had 688 dunks in 332 games (2.07 per game).
According to SportVU, Chandler is shooting 45 percent on passes from Bledsoe, and 57 percent on passes from Knight.
Over the past two seasons, this is how Chandler has shot when receiving passes from other guards he’s played with.
- Monta Ellis 71-percent
- Rajón Rondo 71-percent
- Devin Haris 81-percent
- Jameer Nelson 83-percent
- Jose Barea 76-percent
- Ray Felton 84-percent
- Pablo Prigioni 58-percent
- J.R. Smith 54-percent
Not good company for the Suns duo, who have struggled mightily connecting on Chandler for lob dunks.
“I’m not sure,” explained Chandler when asked about the struggles. “I think that’s something we gotta work on. I think it’s timing. I think it’s just taking the play that’s given to you. I think right now we’re trying to force a lot whether it’s myself or the guards. I’m not one to blame a particular person, I feel like if you don’t score it’s both of your faults. I take just as much blame as I would give them.
“It’s really about trying to understand what you’re trying to accomplish on the floor. I think it’s different for them playing with me and it’s an adjustment. It’s learning and taking the game to the next level to be honest. Only thing you want to do out there is make the defense pay. It’s not necessarily going to be my shot every time, it’s not necessarily going to be their shot. It’s about making the defense pay, whether that’s weak side or whether that’s corner, whatever the defense gives you that’s what you take. I think that’s what we have to get better at.”
Bledsoe is 26 years old and Knight is 24.
This isn’t the time to give up on the backcourt pairing or call it a failure. They both bring lots to the table, but the problem is the ways each hurt you are similar.
Between last season and this season, the two haven’t even played half of a season together. There’s opportunity for growth and improvement.
It is time to acknowledge, despite the big individual numbers, Bledsoe and Knight have been part of why the Suns have failed to meet the expectations the organization set for itself.
It’s convenient and easy to look in other places for excuses and issues, but that’s overlooking what’s right in front of you. The Suns are 12-18 because of poor defense and passing, turnovers and a lack of ability to execute in crunch time.
This is about the Suns best two players and if it’s going to get turned around it’s on Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted.