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Tiny Ball: Suns experiment early with striking three-guard lineup

In the highest-stakes stretch of Phoenix’s young season, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek plunged his team into the unknown. The three best players on his roster — all point guards — shared the floor for some seven minutes against the defending champion Spurs on Friday. During that time the Suns uncorked an 8-0 run that stole the lead and sealed the game. Thus begins Phoenix’s exploration of the three-guard lineup in earnest, an attempt to best leverage the abilities of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas.

Once Thomas was acquired from the Kings via sign-and-trade, it was fairly and fully assumed that this season’s Suns would keep two point guards on the floor at almost all times. That the three lead guards are effective and compatible in any pairing makes this possible, while also tempting the inclusion of a third guard. Phoenix does not have anyone more productive or dynamic than Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas. It stands to reason that the Suns would want to play those three as much as possible, further distorting positional convention when necessary. There is a time and a place for lineups as undersized as these, but over the weekend Phoenix established that the prerequisite time and place has much more to do with matchup than opponent quality. The NBA schedule will present few stiffer challenges than the Spurs. Yet because San Antonio leaned on a perimeter trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green, Phoenix was able to run pint-sized lineups with mitigated risk.

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To some extent the three-guard look paid off as intended. A third ball handler allowed the Suns to move the ball up the floor quickly, even in crunch time. Thomas’ go-ahead layup, for example, came as a result of a snap outlet pass and a fearless sprint through a one-on-three fast break. On one possession, Bledsoe executed a dribble hand-off to Dragic, who then handed off to Thomas — a sequence that had the look and feel of a double reverse. With three skilled creators on the floor, Phoenix went seven minutes against the Spurs (and two against the Jazz on Saturday, for that matter) without committing a turnover. The potential of this trio is so clearly evident.

Bledsoe is a fundamental reason why. Though a point guard by general definitions, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Bledsoe brings an uncanny ability to rebound and defend that transcends his position. At times against the Spurs he lined up opposite Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, a 6-7 small forward. Just as easily, Bledsoe can slide over to defend the league’s quickest point guards or most explosive shooting guards. All the while he’s averaged 7.2 rebounds per 36 minutes in the Suns’ first three games, output characteristic of a much taller player. Bledsoe is strong and physical enough to make the three-guard lineup more than a novelty, and should it become a regular feature his unique skill set will have made it possible.

Yet on the occasion of the three-guard lineup’s run against the Spurs, it should be noted that the Suns made their stand through wholly unexpected means. A potent offense with three points of initiation made just a third of its field goal attempts, hurt by occasional stalls and unfortunate misses. The team defense, on the other hand, held San Antonio to an even worse 27.3 percent with scurrying challenges to shooters all over the floor. Phoenix leaves itself vulnerable defensively when running so small, but its lineups can cover ground and irritate ball handlers. On this occasion that was enough, if only because Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas were able to rely on sophomore center Alex Len.

The three-guard lineup is actually small across four positions: The 5-9 Thomas is a mite of a point guard, the 6-3 Dragic is undersized against most shooting guards, Bledsoe gives up 6 or 7 inches to most small forwards and the 6-10, 245-pound Markieff Morris (Phoenix’s best power forward option) is often overpowered inside. Len is a giant not only in contrast but in general: His 7-1 frame and long arms stand out against the backdrop of a center position that skews smaller with the game’s evolution. Only eight listed 7-footers have played as many minutes as Len this season and only 29 have logged any minutes at all. Viable players of that size are a rare breed. A single one, however, can help make up for some of what’s surrendered in undersized lineups like the Suns' three-guard look. 

It’s far, far too soon to paint the 21-year-old Len as some rock for Phoenix, given his inexperience. Yet against the Spurs Len altered shots around the rim and recovered out to challenge open shooters. He worked the offensive glass to make up for his team’s uncharacteristic misses, helping maintain win-worthy offensive efficiency. A true, proven rim protector would go a long way in Phoenix. In lieu of that, however, a prospect like Len is an interesting substitute because of how his length comes into play and how often he catches unfamiliar opponents by surprise. 

The latter won’t last. At some point opponents will get a better feel for what works and what doesn’t against Len, particularly if he continues to make a genuine impact. The former, though, will remain. Len will be bodied and pump-faked and boxed out and worn down. But the fact that he’s 7-1 with a 7-4 wingspan and relatively nimble feet gives him an undeniable on-court influence. As a result, the Suns could find more use out of their three-guard lineup than Miles Plumlee’s minutes at center would allow.

Some massaging will be in order to balance what Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas bring to the table, and what — in terms of size and collective defense — they might take away. Hornacek is wise to begin that process early. Maybe Len will play a big role in that lineup’s success or maybe he’ll fade to irrelevance. Perhaps Dragic will continue to play more of a supporting creative role when sharing the floor with two other guards or maybe he’ll attack the taller defenders tasked to cover him. Phoenix will only know through experimentation, the very process that could prove necessary in pushing the Suns to higher-variance success.