When Jeff Hornacek was hired as the Suns Head Coach, he made it very clear what the team’s identity on offense would be.
"I want these guys to get up and down the court," he said.
Coaches usually know what their preferred style of offense is, but it becomes a lot easier to make that idea a reality when the player personnel matches that style. Hornacek got a big assist in that regard when Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough netted guard Eric Bledsoe in a three-way trade during the offseason.
Many outsiders viewed the move as a redundancy of talent at point guard with Goran Dragic already in tow. Hornacek, however, was tickled at the idea of mimicking the lineup schemes used during his early days with the Suns, when he ran alongside point guard Kevin Johnson.
Hornacek had manned the point guard position off the bench his rookie season and started half of his sophomore year. And yes, he was good at it, averaging 8.3 assists per 36 minutes in his first year. That number went up to 8.7 in 1987-88. Johnson was traded to Phoenix halfway through that season, giving the Suns a double dose of playmaking ability in the backcourt.
When Hornacek visualized the recently acquired Bledsoe running with Dragic, he felt he was seeing the past repeat itself.
“I look at it again like the Cotton days when Kevin and I were here playing,” Hornacek said. “Goran’s about the same size I was. He’s faster than I was. Eric and Kevin are pretty similar players in the way they can get the ball up the court. They’re strong. They can jump. Hopefully they can really turn up the heat. There’s going to be a mismatch somewhere.”
That mismatch occurs most frequently in the open floor, when opposing defenses have to account for both guards initiating the fast break.
Now here’s the reverse scenario, with Dragic starting the break as opposed to finishing it:
The Suns’ fast break game is most devastating when both point guards are on the floor at the same time. After an opponent’s missed shot, the Phoenix player who corrals the rebound knows he can simply get the ball to the nearest ball-handler, instead of waiting for a single playmaker to make himself available.
“We just say, get it out to the first guy,” Hornacek explained. “ I’ve always been of the belief you can’t always just look at the point guard…you just throw it up to the first guy and now instead of a three-on-two, a lot of times you can get a two-on one.”
These kinds of sequences make Hornacek’s comparisons to the late 80s more than a nostalgic attempt. Phoenix wreaked havoc thanks to the versatility of KJ and Hornacek as initiators and finishers of the break, as seen in this clip from the 1990 playoff series between the Suns and the Lakers:
Again, personnel matters. Phoenix’s fast break game works because they happen to have two of the faster players in the league. Of the top 40 players in minutes per game in the NBA, Dragic averages the third-highest average speed per game (4.3 mph). That means despite playing a heavy load of minutes, the Slovenian guard is still able to maintain his break-neck pace, ensuring the transition game doesn’t fizzle toward the end of games.
That constant threat in transition becomes a lethal asset as games wear on. Most teams see transition points dip dramatically in the fourth quarter of tight games, when fatigue and/or caution set in.
The Suns however, still average a league-high 4.6 fast break points per fourth quarter, refusing to shy from their hectic style of play even with the game on the line (see 1:38 mark of video below).
Phoenix is always a threat to pull off those plays, since Hornacek prefers to have at least one of the Dragic-Bledsoe duo on the court at all times. It’s a smart move for obvious reasons, but perhaps none more important than this: the two guards average a combined 10.1 fast break points per game, which is more than the per-game team totals of Portland, Toronto, Brooklyn or New York.
It’s a dream come true for Dragic, who spearheaded a similarly frenetic style for the Slovenian national team and played on the 2010 Suns team that made it to the conference finals.
“This summer, our national team, we were playing like that,” Dragic said. “It was like Suns basketball almost. Even Suns in the past, they play like that. Jeff told us he wants us to get back on those old tracks when the Suns played like that. It’s really fun. Everybody getting involved, everyone’s happy.”
Especially the people who get to watch.