New Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek has a significant challenge on his hands for 2013-14 and beyond. While the acquisition of young point guard Eric Bledsoe gives the franchise reason for excitement, the Suns are still generally lacking in the talent necessary to develop a clear direction for the team. Bledsoe and Goran Dragic figure to play together often in two point guard lineups, but the situation is fluid. After next June's draft, the Suns could look very different.
Nevertheless, Hornacek is looking to craft a coherent identity for this season's squad. In early interviews and appearances, he's made no secret of wish to have the Suns play at a fast pace. In fact, as Hornacek told Jim Coughenor of Bright Side of the Sun, he'd like his team to average 103 points per game (via EOB):
Here's where I really tried to pin Jeff down. My lead in was that last season there were five teams (Denver, Houston, OKC, SA and Miami) that scored at least 102.9 points per game. Given that, I asked for a one word response on whether the Suns scoring average for the 2013-14 season would be higher or lower than 102.9 points per game...
Coach Hornacek's one word reply:
"What did we average last year? (It was 95.2 by the way) Over 102.9, we would hope we can get there. If we can get there I think that's a good start for us in our first year. So, hopefully, I would say yes."
You heard it here first, folks. I think that absolutely qualifies as "higher." Maybe that also qualifies as Hornacek's first official prediction as coach of the Phoenix Suns.
We can safely predict that the Suns will not meet this lofty expectation — as noted by Coughenor elsewhere, the roster is seriously lacking in shooters and scorers. For that matter, it's worth noting that points per game is a poor stat to measure the quality of an offense. Points per possession has rightfully supplanted points per game among basketball cognoscenti, because it measures the rate at which a team converts its chances rather than just the raw scoring numbers. By dumping the context of pace, points per possession shows how well an offense actually works.
On the other hand, that context can tell us a great deal about a team, and it's here that Hornacek's response actually proves quite meaningful. The Suns did play fast last season (ninth in the league), but they converted their opportunities at such a poor clip that their 95.2 ppg ranked 21st overall. Hornacek has shown himself to understand advance statistics and must know that his team won't improve it's scoring average simply by becoming one of the most efficient teams in the league. Although he doesn't come right out and say it, setting 103 ppg as a goal suggests that the Suns will ramp up their pace well past where it was in 2012-13.
Efficiency stats do an excellent job of showing what's working well, but it's worth remembering that teams — particularly growing ones like the Suns — have to develop systems and approaches that allow their players to succeed. While a context-neutral metric may indicate that Phoenix needs to focus on converting the opportunities they create, no matter how they do it, the organization needs to build a foundation and figure out what it wants to do long-term. In other words, there's little point in focusing on optimization when it's unclear what the team will look like in a few years. Simply by expressing how the Suns offense may play, Hornacek has set them in a positive direction.