One of the most intricate aspects of the Phoenix Suns system, the one affectionately known as "Seven Seconds or Less" for a time, is that it requires the athletes to be in elite athletic and basketball shape. Conditioning, effort, and stamina are musts for anyone who laces them up for the Purple and Orange these days.
The system the Suns run requires players to be in not only good, but elite basketball shape.
"I still think, as a team, we need to get in better basketball shape," stated head coach Alvin Gentry after practice. "What I mean by that is we are jogging and not running. We need to get in a position where we are running and sprinting."
Therein lies a fundamental principle in how the team puts together a roster each season. Being in great "physical shape" is not the same as being in great "basketball shape." Outside of the outlier transaction that brought Shaquille O'Neal to the valley, all of the moves made in recent years were to keep the offense moving up-and-down the court, including drafting Robin Lopez, Earl Clark, Markieff Morris and Kendall Marshall over the past four years.
All of those players were brought in to fit this specific system.
In college, Marshall played at a pace of 74.5 possessions per 40 minutes, which, adjusted to the NBA model of 48 minutes, would be 89.4 possessions per game. He is coming into the system used to running in college, but not as much as he will be here.
Even at their lowest and slowest pace, the Suns were in the Top 10 in the NBA in pace (96.5) and possessions (94) per game under Gentry, according to 82 Games data. Last year, the team took a step back, slowing the game down to try and win in a different way based on personnel. It worked to an extent, but resulted in missing the playoffs for the third time in four years. All off-season, the team has preached two things: that this is a "New Era in Suns Basketball" and that the system is not going to change.
Enter in the faces that will define, at the very least, the beginning of this new era. They all come in from very different systems outside of Dragic, who has played in this system at its pinnacle.
According to Gentry, the key is patience. "I think for us as coaches, we have to be patient," he said. "This is not only something we are trying to teach the group, but they are trying to find each other."
During the past three seasons, the pace has gradually slowed going from first in points per game, to fourth, and, last year, to nearly a decade-low eighth overall. In that same time window, Dragic, Luis Scola, Wesley Johnson, and Michael Beasley all played in a style or system that was equal to or more fast-paced than that of the Suns, believe it or not.
Johnson (pace: 97.9) and Beasley (pace: 95.8) were a part of one of the most up-tempo teams in the league last year, that, when at full health, was battling for the playoffs. For Johnson, he has only known the fast-paced style while playing at Syracuse and during his two-year stint in Minnesota. Beasley played slower and more methodical in Miami to start his career, but switched to the fast pace in Minnesota, as well. Those two saw major drops in their productivity last season with that offense, but should come into this season in the proper basketball shape to thrive.
Surprisingly enough, the slower, older, and consensus outlier of the newcomers is more equipped for this style than meets the eye. Scola is very good at getting up and down the floor as a fluid athlete and he played the last three seasons at a pace of 95.9 -- only a shade under the average pace of the Suns during that same span.
"Being in shape is one thing, but being in basketball shape is very important," said Scola about the system. "We are getting that rhythm and getting better and better everyday."
A major part of the decrease in pace for the Suns has been the new-found emphasis and improvement on defense. They jumped eight spots last year, from 29th to 21st, giving up 7.3 fewer points per game. It is not a style change. Ask any of the coaches and they are adamant on continuing to run and score as much as possible. But stylistically, they are doing new things that force the pace to slow down just a bit to become better in other areas. They are becoming a more well-rounded basketball team.
Having a full training camp and preseason, in contrast to last season's lockout-shortened training period, helps that according to Scola, "Last year was tough. I hated it."
So therein lies the unavoidable question of whether the Suns are prepared to adjust their pace for the new pieces or if they brought in the right pieces to maintain their historical pace?