The Phoenix Suns Do Not Have a "Math Problem" -- On Lazy Thinking about 3-Point Shooting

by Hollywood Sports

Wednesday, May 18, 2022
As the eulogies for the demise of the Phoenix Suns continue, a common refrain is that this team was destined to experience trouble in the postseason because they are too reliant on shooting inside the arc. This notion is both lazy and wrong — and it had nothing to do with why they lost their Game Seven showdown at home to the Dallas Mavericks by a whopping 123-90 score. 

Just a gentle reminder for those not old enough to remember the 2020-21 season: the Suns won the Western Conference and played in the NBA Finals. Granted, they lost that series to the Milwaukee Bucks in Six Games, but that does challenge the notion that Phoenix’s style of play was only built for regular-season success (and granted, it was a year ago at this time when many of these same critics were convinced they were better head coaches than Mike Budenholzer because of their sophisticated opinions on the best way to execute drop coverages about pick-and-rolls; funny, the “Budenholzer can’t coach” crowd has become silent). Phoenix did go into the fourth quarter of that Game Six on the road with the game tied. Most teams that leap from not even making the playoffs the previous season to being one quarter away from playing in a Game Seven of an NBA Finals would be lauded. Not Phoenix — they have a fundamental “math problem” because they fail to grasp the fact that three points are more than two points. 

The Suns indeed are one of the least reliant teams on 3-point shooting. Last year, they took 39.2% of their shots from the field from behind the arc, ranking 15th in the league. That number actually dropped in the playoffs to a 35.6% clip, ranking 13th of the 16 teams in the postseason. Phoenix’s Offensive Efficiency ranked 7th in the NBA in the regular season -- and it did drop to 10th in the postseason. But before you started screaming “Evidence!” — keep in mind that Milwaukee was crowned champion ranking 11th in the postseason in Offensive Efficiency despite taking 38.4% of their shots from 3-point range. 

Here’s the thing about math: making 34% of your 3-point shots does not produce more points than making, say, 52% of your 2-point shots. If a team takes 100 shots — all from 3-point land — and hits 34% of them, that results in 102 points.  If their opponent takes 100 shots — all 2-pointers inside the arc — and hist 52% of these shots, they generate 104 points. Losing by two points, 104-102, presents a “math problem” for the team relying on 3-pointers. 

This season, Phoenix saw their 3-point attempts actually drop to a 35.4% clip of all the shots they took from the field, ranking 27th in the NBA. But not only did they then earn the top record in the regular season, but they also raised their Offensive Rating to fifth in the league. In the playoffs, their 3-point shooting actually lowered to representing just 32.8% of their shots, ranking 15th of 16 teams. Yet their Offensive Efficiency ranked 4th of all playoff teams. 

But, wait! The problem for the Suns is they ran into a Dallas team that simply understood how math works. The Mavericks top all postseason teams by attempting 49.8% of their shots from 3-point range. They get it! Three is more than two, idiots! Yet Dallas ranked just 14th in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency in the regular season, they enter the Western Conference Finals ranking 5th in Offensive Efficiency — just behind the Suns' team they just dispatched. 

Yeah, but, Phoenix sure could have used some 3-point shooting in their humiliating loss to Dallas in Game Seven! The Mavericks set the tone by nailing 19 of their 39 shots from downtown for a 49% clip. Well, you will get no argument from me that it is tough to beat a team that makes nearly 50% of their shots from behind the arc — especially when they take half their shots from 3-point land. But the Suns did attempt 34 shots from 3-point range themselves — and their 35% field goal percentage from their 12 made 3s was around their average. 

What buried Phoenix in Game Seven was that they could not make their shots inside the arc. They missed 32 of their 53 shots that count for 2-points for a 39.6% percentage. The Suns had a 55.2% field goal percentage inside the arc in the regular season. If they meet that expectation in Game Seven, they make eight more baskets and score 16 more points. Admittedly, that only cuts the Dallas lead in half — but going into halftime trailing by 15 points is much different than going into halftime down an incredible 30 points. If Phoenix hits their 2s, the game script changes, and the Mavericks feel more pressure on the road — and perhaps they don’t continue their torrid 56.8% shooting clip. It’s a lot easier to make shots up 30 points. 

The Suns have problems. The effort in that Game Seven was not simply the result of bad luck outliers given the math problem inherent in the chaos of shooting a round ball into a round hole. But this was a team that began the playoffs with eight straight games where they made at least 50% of their shots (twice eclipsing 60%) and posted an Offensive Rating of 114.8 (which would be third best if applied to the regular season). 

Furthermore, the case can be made that Phoenix’s consistency with their shooting inside the arc helped them win close games during the regular season. In clutch situations where the game was still within five points with five minutes left to go, the Suns enjoyed an Offensive Efficiency Rating of 131.6. That helped them post a 33-9 record in games that were within five minutes with five minutes to go. The football analytics folks would argue that those results are completely a function of luck. The basketball analytics folks are more open to the idea that perhaps success like that is a function of skill. 

Of course, Phoenix was touchdowns away from being within five points of the Mavericks with five minutes left to go in their Game Seven. But to suggest that the problem with the Suns is that their offense would be better if they simply took more 3-point shots because “3 is more than 2!” is monumentally lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I do think Phoenix could use another reliable outside shooter. But the system deployed by head coach Monty Williams is not fundamentally flawed. The Suns got embarrassed in Game Seven because they are broken elsewhere. 

Best of luck — Frank.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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