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The Phoenix Suns have one of the most potent pick-and-roll attacks in the NBA with multiple options to score. Is there any way for defenses to counter?
Despite a surprising hand injury shelving Chris Paul for several weeks, the Phoenix Suns have the luxury of coasting their way into the playoffs thanks to the cushy 7.5 game lead they hold in the standings.
Their stability within the conference can be credited to many things. Having one of the NBA’s best defenses definitely helps, but in a league that’s becoming increasingly pick-and-roll dependent, the Suns’ death-dealing, two-headed, ball-handling serpent may be their most useful weapon moving forward.
For the second straight season, the Suns are one of two teams to possess two ball-handlers in the top 75th percentile in scoring efficiency as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll (minimum six possessions per game) — Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Unfortunately, when the playoffs rolled around last year, their ball-handlers experienced one of the largest drop-offs in efficiency of the 16 playoff teams.
In response, the Suns have doubled down on the pick-and-roll this season, increasing their frequency from 16th to seventh.
So the question now becomes, will history repeat itself in the playoffs, or is this dose of venom more potent than the last? How can playoff opponents look to neutralize the Suns’ pick-and-roll and will the strategies that worked last postseason trip Phoenix up again?
Drop coverage against the Phoenix Suns pick-and-roll
In theory, drop coverage is a fantastic choice of scheme. The idea is by allowing the big to backpedal into the paint, you are protecting the most sacred zone of live ball action and inviting ball-handlers to take shots in the least efficient area of the court — the midrange. This season players are hitting that shot at a 42 percent clip, which equates to about 0.84 points per possession. Given that the average NBA offense is averging 1.11 points per possession this season, that’s a win for the defense.
It works in practice too. For instance, last season the Utah Jazz ran a defensive scheme centered around drop and finished with the best defense in the league.
With that said, the pitfalls of this tactic rear their ugly head when you come across a team with great mid-range shooters – like Booker and Paul. This season, the tandem ranks in the 81st and 98th percentile in mid-range accuracy, respectively. Their proficiency enables them to eviscerate standard drop coverage and, as a result, forces coaches to deviate from their base set. This is where the Suns’ counters come into play.
In the first clip, the dropping big cheats over towards Paul just enough to give Deandre Ayton a runway to build up steam towards the rim. In the second, Anthony Edwards helps over from the strong side just enough for Paul to whip a bullet over to Ishmail Wainwright, who attacks Edwards’ hard closeout with a drive to the rim. In the third, the Timberwolves load up from the weak side this time, prompting Booker to spray a corner skip pass over to an open Landry Shamet.
Paul’s historically good passing and Booker’s growth in this department enable them to read and react to these situations in a manner that makes playing drop in the playoffs against them untenable.
Hedge/Blitz/Ice coverage against the Phoenix Suns pick-and-roll
Regardless of which of these coverages are in place, the basic premise of all of them is that they involve sending two defenders to the ball in the hopes of seducing the ball-handler into a hasty decision (the Heat are one of the best in the league at this).
These techniques can be highly effective in spots but can be neutralized by teams with level-headed decision-makers and rollers that can competently pass/finish.
As you can see, Paul and Booker more than hold their own in these situations, and their plethora of bigs are adept at catching these passes and ascertaining the correct decision on the short roll.
One wrinkle here that is important to mention is that the Suns tend to keep a good shooter on the strong side of the court. This matters because if the strong side defender rotates towards the roller, the ball handler has an easy release valve.
Switch coverage against the Phoenix Suns pick-and-roll
One of the swing factors in last season’s Finals was the Bucks’ decision to switch a majority of pick-and-rolls. At first, it seemed that they were playing right into Booker and Paul’s hands by giving them free rein to dance with Brook Lopez on an island. However, the pendulum swung when Coach Budenholzer decided (among other things) to unleash more agile defenders onto the backcourt duo.
This adjustment exposed the two-headed machine’s one true Achilles Heel — their lack of breakaway speed. They were fast enough to blow by a slow-footed gentle giant, but putting more athletic defenders on them presented a far more difficult challenge. Add in the fact that they were already fatigued from being picked up at fullcourt, and it appeared the snake had been defanged permanently.
So, the tape is out now. Teams know how to beat the Suns’ pick-and-roll coverage. All you need are high-level, switchable defenders that can frolic with them on the perimeter. Right? Not necessarily.
Even after the Bucks put the Suns’ offense in a chokehold, the team was able to let out a last gasp that could be their pathway to overcoming similar hurdles this postseason. The key to beating the switch is taking advantage of the mismatch created on the other side of the ball screen.
When a big gets switched onto the ball handler, this usually means that the original point of attack defender is now guarding the taller roller man. The Suns capitalized on this by hitting Ayton in a couple of these situations, but they couldn’t fully maximize this game plan because he was constantly in foul trouble. Meanwhile, his backup, Frank Kaminsky, wasn’t exactly a serious threat on the low block.
This season, however, the team has added two more guys (JaVale McGee and Bismack Byimobo) that they can trust to operate around the rim (or at least eat up fouls on Ayton’s behalf). Plus, forwards like Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are also rolling more than they did last season.
This year, the Suns roll men are finishing plays at the fourth-highest frequency and second-highest scoring efficiency in the entire league (compared to the 15th and sixth-place finishes that had last year, respectively), giving the Suns good cause to believe that the Booker/Paul attack will hold up better this Spring.
Now, it’s worth noting that this strategy hasn’t been the only counter the Suns have deployed to remedy their problems with high-level switching defense. The boomerang pass and forty-five-degree cuts to open up shooters on the wing are prevalent in their 2021-22 mixtape. It’s also important to mention that teams like Boston have countered their counters with big-on-big switches or their now-famous triple switch.
Still, even with the weaknesses that persist within their attack, the Suns have proven that they have shed some of the sins that led to them falling short last postseason, which makes it far more likely that they finish the job this time around.