Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Suns Season Preview

What type of system is Igor Kokoskov going to run with the Phoenix Suns?

The coaching situation for the Phoenix Suns hasn’t exactly been optimal since Mike D’Antoni left the team after the 2007-08 season. The Suns have basically been in a rebuild since, and outside of a surprise Western Conference Finals run in 2010 with Alvin Gentry, coaching has been an issue for them. Terry Porter, Gentry, Jeff Hornacek, and Earl Watson have all come and gone with mostly negative results; Watson was even fired just three games into last season, forcing assistant Jay Triano into a lame duck year as an interim. The Suns hope that will change, however, with the addition of Igor Kokoskov to the fold.

Kokoskov was a highly regarded coach within the assistant ranks of the NBA. The Serbian/American has spent the last four years as a member of Quin Snyder’s coaching staff, where he was largely in charge of offensive strategy. But he’s been more than just the captain of Utah’s quirky offense; he also was an assistant on the 2003-04 Pistons team, helped coach the Suns to that Western Finals run in 2010, and has also spent time on the Clippers, Cavaliers, and Magic staffs.

Kokoskov will be a first-time head coach, but that doesn’t mean that he has no head coaching experience. He has been a head coach at the national level for 13 seasons in Europe, coaching Serbia, Georgia, and most recently, Slovenia. This is where most people know Kokoskov from because he was the coach responsible for helping the tiny country that sits just east of Italy win the 2017 Eurobasket, a team led by Goran Dragic and of course, Luka Doncic.

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The Suns didn’t take Doncic with the top overall pick in the draft, but they still will give Kokoskov the reigns to a young core led by Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Josh Jackson, that’s been surrounded by veterans like Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Darrell Arthur. The team doesn’t have a strong option at point guard, but there are several shooters and secondary creation options around Booker as a primary ball-handler. Most teams would be wary of entering the season with a battery of point guards consisting of Isaiah Canaan and French rookie Elie Okobo, but Kokoskov’s offense is very well equipped to handle that.

Kokoskov isn’t going to be running a carbon copy of his Slovenia offense, obviously, but how they used Doncic is a good indicator of how the team might best use Booker. One of the core values of the Kokoskov Slovenia offense was getting Doncic and Dragic attacking downhill in the center of the court. This involved horns sets primarily and plays that focused on misdirection and multiple screen actions to create space for the lead guard.

The simple aim was to essentially get Doncic a switch by frustrating his defender — you can see how a combination of dribble hand-off and pick-and-roll frustrates Nick Calathes below, creating an open opportunity for Doncic to shoot over the big. It’s simple, but you can see how effective this will be for Booker as well, given the frame issues he still deals with in trying to create off the dribble.

These misdirections can get very complicated if you have two strong primary ball-handlers on the floor at a time. Often, Slovenia would run a three-man game at the top, with a big and Doncic setting initial screens for Dragic, and then the big setting up Doncic to curl back towards the top. Here, Slovenia runs four screening actions before ever attempting to attack the basket:

And you can see how that stresses the defense, forcing the wing covering Randolph to sag in as the play develops so that he’s out of position to contest.

The European game relies a lot more on these complex actions to generate attacking opportunities, generally because the athletic advantages aren’t as great. In the NBA, Kokoskov isn’t going to be running his most complex stuff regularly. But the principles will remain basically the same — Kokoskov really values the center of the floor, so spacing is paramount. The ultimate goal of a lot of Phoenix’s primary actions is five-out pick-and-roll, creating an open lane to the hoop and getting everything flowing to the rim.

That’s going to mean Booker and Ayton are going to have to learn quickly as the offense’s focal point. Booker needs to elevate his game as a playmaker to operate efficiently as Phoenix’s primary ball-handler, even though his looks into the lane are going to be easier. More importantly, though, is Ayton, who absolutely is going to need improvement as a screener to make this work. Ayton is a huge spacing threat rolling to the rim, but in order to make those switches happen, he needs to become better at making contact with the defender and sealing the guard to force the switch. That is teachable, but there might be some growing pains towards installing Kokoskov’s primary sets.

However, this offense should also find Ayton plenty of opportunities as well. Ayton should be able to provide significant vertical spacing thanks to his finishing ability and athleticism, and spreading the paint as wide as possible is a promising way to make use of that talent. The wide-open nature of the offense should also benefit Ayton’s burgeoning shooting ability because these misdirections can create some great pick-and-pop opportunities. But the Suns will want Ayton creating some offense as well, and a play like this at Summer League (run here by Dragan Bender) offers Ayton opportunities to use his strong face-up game.

Ayton probably won’t get many set plays this year, because traditionally, creation opportunities for bigs in Kokoskov offenses have come off modifications of these base sets. For example, Derrick Favors was a strong high-usage big for Utah, and a lot of his opportunities came off simple adjustments to those Slovenia sets — either ducking down into the post, turning dribble hand-offs into elbow creation possessions, or making decisions off the short roll.

The offense also finds opportunities for Booker’s isolation skills to flourish. The value of creating so many hoops for the defense to jump through is that you can generate switches with ease, and any of his sets can be stopped to take advantage, such as what Dragic does on this Spain pick-and-roll play in the first clip.

The concepts used by Kokoskov aren’t particularly innovative — a lot of NBA teams run similar actions to what Slovenia and the Utah Jazz have run with him at the helm. But the genius here is what can be built off of the initial sets. None of what was just shown above are set plays for a specific player — it’s all concepts that build, and build, and build off each other, or can be halted in the middle to take advantage of a mismatch. Those five-out principles stay consistent as well, and should be valuable for Phoenix, creating extra space for a non-shooter like Jackson to allowing for funneling of defenders away from guys like Ryan Anderson. And it’s all pretty easy for the players to run — heck, Anthony Randolph could even thrive in this offense at Eurobasket.

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Kokoskov isn’t a revolutionary like Brad Stevens, but he’s a very good tactician that manufactures space for his players well, and has for over a decade at the NBA level. While we still have a lot to learn about his coaching style — partiicularly, how he runs an NBA defense that’s relying on Ayton to protect the rim — his offense is the calling card, and should help Phoenix significantly improve from their dead-last offensive efficiency last year. In the process, his offense should help Booker be more efficient, and will certainly find Ayton plenty of finishing opportunities at the rim. This is a good fit of tactics and talent, something Phoenix hasn’t had in nearly a decade.

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