2023-24 Kia Season Preview

Film Study: No point guard, no problem in Phoenix?

The Suns have a star-studded trio for 2023-24, but the lack of a true point guard will require creativity on offense.

Bradley Beal will have the ball in his hands often in 2023-24, but will he thrive as a playmaker for the Suns?

Before the 2020 trade deadline, the Houston Rockets traded Clint Capela to Atlanta, signaling that they would play the rest of the season without a traditional center. The Rockets won a playoff series starting P.J. Tucker at the five, but that was, essentially, the end of the James Harden era in Houston. Harden was traded early the following season and the no-center strategy was short-lived.

Three years later, the Phoenix Suns are set to play without a point guard. In late June, they traded Chris Paul for Bradley Beal. Then, rather than keep their other point guard (Cameron Payne), they salary-dumped him in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs.

There were 69 players who were on the floor for at least 3,000 offensive trips last season and recorded assists on at least 20 percent of their individual possessions. As rosters currently stand, the Suns are the only team that doesn’t have at least one of those 69 players.

Jordan Goodwin, who was also acquired in the Beal trade, had an assist ratio of 27.6% for the Wizards last season. But he was undrafted two years ago, has played just 1,111 career minutes and was on the floor for less than 2,400 possessions last season. He’ll certainly get some backup minutes for the Suns this year, but might not be a part of an eight or nine-man rotation in the playoffs.

Either way, while the Suns have three of the best scorers in the league*, they’ll mostly be playing without a true point guard. While there’s no denying the talent of the trio that’s set to make more than $444 million over the next three years, there is certainly some curiosity about how they’ll play together offensively.

* Among 285 players who’ve played at least 200 games over the last five years, Kevin Durant (27.8), Beal (27.0) and Devin Booker (26.6) rank sixth, ninth and 10th in points per game. No other team has three guys in the top 25.

Here are some notes, numbers and film on the Suns’ new big three.

1. Pick-and-roll guards

Indications are that Beal will be the nominal point guard in a starting lineup that also includes Booker, Durant, Deandre Ayton and one of the 11 Suns that are making less than $3 million.

Beal played less than 10% of his minutes at point guard (with none of Goodwin, Monte Morris or Delon Wright on the floor) last season. But the last two seasons have come with the two highest assist ratios of his career: 21.1% in 2021-22 and 19.6% last season.

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Beal had 38.2 ball-screens per 100 possessions set for him last season. That rate ranked 27th among 109 players who used at least 500 screens. He can make plays out of the pick-and-roll when he draws the attention of the defense …

Bradley Beal lob to Daniel Gafford

Booker had almost as many ball-screens per 100 possessions (36.8) set for him. He’s a scorer first and foremost, and he’ll force things at times. But he’s generally willing to get off the ball when the situation calls for it …

Devin Booker assist to Deandre Ayton

2. Durant in the post

The offense doesn’t have to run from the top of the floor. Over the last three seasons, Durant has shot an efficient 112-for-193 (58%) on post-ups, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That’s not a huge sample size, partly because he doesn’t post up a ton and partly because he’s going to see double-teams a lot …

Kevin Durant post-up

Whether he’s shooting or passing, Durant in the post is generally good offense that doesn’t require a traditional point guard.

3. One-on-one

The play above began with a Booker-Durant, empty-corner pick-and-roll, which the Nuggets switched …

Kevin Durant screen for Devin Booker

Opponents may want to switch actions between the Suns’ three stars in an effort to stay in front of them. But few teams are going to have three capable defenders, and even fewer (none?) are going to have three capable defenders with size.

More switching leads to more isolations. Over the last three seasons, Durant’s teams have scored an efficient 1.11 points per *direct possession when he has isolated, according to Second Spectrum. That mark ranks seventh among 61 players with at least 500 direct isolations over the last three years (including playoffs). The marks of Booker (0.98, 42nd) and Beal (0.97, 45th), however, are both in the bottom half of the list.

* Direct possession = When the player or the teammate he passes to (within one dribble of the pass) shoots, gets fouled or turns the ball over.

4. Shooters make the best screeners

If defenses aren’t switching, the Suns’ big three will create some havoc if they’re willing to set screens. Beal has set more screens (both on and off the ball) per 100 possessions than Booker over the last few seasons, and the Wizards had an after-timeout play using him as a screener last season.

He’d first set a pin-down screen for a shooter (Corey Kispert), then pivot and set a back-screen for Kristaps Porzingis …

Bradley Beal back-screen

Beal’s defender doesn’t help on the back-screen because he doesn’t want to become detached from Beal. If he does and if Porzingis isn’t open on the cut, Kispert then screens for Beal, who flows into a handoff from the big at the high post.

You could see the Suns running that action with Durant in Porzingis’ place. And another secondary option could be Durant getting good post position at the right block if he isn’t open initially.

5. Will they run?

One area where the lack of a real point guard could hurt is transition. The Suns ranked last in the percentage of their possessions (13.4%) that were in transition last season, and they played slowest (97.8 possessions per 48 minutes) when Paul was on the floor.

But Paul would, at least, look up the floor for transition opportunities. According to Second Spectrum, he averaged 5.4 pass-ahead passes per game, a rate that ranked eighth in the league. Beal (2.1), Booker (1.6) and Durant (3.0) all averaged fewer than Payne (3.2), who played only 20 minutes a night.

So the Suns should be favored to rank last in transition percentage for a second straight season. And that will make them a little less efficient than they could be.

6. 2 is greater than 3?

Beal, Booker and Durant are all capable off-the-dribble shooters. But all three are much more capable inside the arc than they are beyond it. There were 85 players who attempted at least 75 pull-up 2-pointers and at least 75 pull-up 3-pointers last season. Among those 85, Durant (59.6% vs. 37.0%), Booker (51.5% vs. 30.9%) and Beal (49.0% vs. 33.0%) had the third, sixth and 13th biggest differentials, respectively, between how well they shot on pull-up 2s and how well they should on pull-up 3s.

Those differentials are more about how good they shot inside the arc than how poorly they shot beyond it, though Booker and Beal were both below the league average (33.8%) on pull-up 3s. The greater point is that all three are 2-point shooters. Overall, they each took less than 30% of their shots from 3-point range, with the league average 3-point rate being 38.7%.

Over the last three seasons, Durant has taken three times as many pull-up 2s (1,316) as catch-and-shoot 3s (445). He’s much more likely to put the ball on the floor than shoot when he catches beyond the arc …

Kevin Durant pull-up 2-pointer

Eric Gordon could be the fifth player in the Suns’ closing (and/or starting) lineup and has taken 61% of his shots from 3-point range over the last seven seasons. But if the ratios of the Suns’ big three stay well below the league average, they’ll be fighting the math.

And they still might have the best offense in the league.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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