The Phoenix Suns have been a great story this season, getting off to a hot start and managing to maintain their new-found winning ways even after losing Eric Bledsoe for an extended period with a torn meniscus. Rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has engineered a solid playoff team out of a group expected to finish near the bottom of the West before the season. The return and strong play of Channing Frye, who missed all of last season with an enlarged heart, has been a big help to the team.
Frye has offered vital spacing to an offense that ranks in the top 10 in efficiency after finishing 29th last season. He’s hitting 41.6% of his threes while shooting over five per game. What’s interesting is that he is doing almost all of his damage above the break:
A lot of floor spacers will take a healthy portion of their threes from the corners, but Frye almost never lets fly from there. Why? Hornacek is using his big man’s unique skill set to shore up the other end of the floor.
Phoenix ranks 2nd in the league in points per possession in transition (according to mysynergysports.com), and that has helped them maintain a respectable 12th in defensive efficiency. One of the big keys to stopping opponents in transition is the use of Frye as the first man back. Most teams will use at least one big, and often both, to crash the offensive glass and try to produce secondary possessions. Even if they are not tasked with trying to gather offensive rebounds, bigs on most teams will be somewhere near the basket when a shot goes up, leaving transition defense to one or two designated wings.
Obviously this can lead to some ugly plays if the other team can get the ball off of a miss or a turnover and start running. Small guards are forced to try to stop the likes of LeBron James or Blake Griffin – good luck with that.
Hornacek recognizes this problem and counters it by leaving Frye out along the top of the 3-point line nearly all the time. Here he is in his usual position in a recent game against Philadelphia:
As soon as a shot goes up he starts retreating to cover any leak-outs. There are obvious benefits to having a 6’11” big as the first line of defense in transition instead of a couple of guards.
While Phoenix is still on offense Frye is usually setting high picks for Goran Dragic or other wings, then flaring back to his perch at the top of the arc. He is a reliable safety valve who moves the ball from side to side and fires away anytime he is presented with an open jumper. When he is on the bench, Hornacek will often turn these duties over to one of Marcus Morris or Markieff Morris, but they are not called on to handle this role nearly as often as Frye.
It’s fun to see quirky personnel used this effectively to handle a problem as universal as transition defense. Hornacek seems to already have a better than average grasp of the tradeoffs between offense and defense and how to handle them, which is a good sign for Phoenix’s future success with him at the helm. In the short term, I’m just happy to enjoy a healthy Frye and see his skills maximized on an exciting Suns team.