Basketball has always been a strong-link sport. The “strong-link/weak-link” theory, first posited by authors Chris Anderson and David Sally in their 2013 book, “The Numbers Game,” is simple: A strong-link game is one where a team is generally as good as its best players allow it to be and a weak-link game refers to one where a team is only as good as its worst players.
Anderson and Sally were using basketball as a contrast to soccer, the primary subject of their book, in which they argued persuasively that the latter is a weak-link game. In a broad sense, their basketball comparison was spot-on: NBA history is littered with title winners driven by the top superstars in the game, with the exceptions so few and far between that they effectively prove the rule.
Both 2021 NBA finalists fit the bill, defined primarily by stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton or Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Simultaneously, though, the Phoenix Suns — just two games away from the franchise’s first championship — are forcing us to consider the value of this coin’s flip side: Having no weak links on the floor.
Just one of the eight Suns playing rotation minutes in these Finals has a negative rating in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric for the full 2020-21 season. That player — Torrey Craig — is averaging 12.8 minutes per game this postseason, and with a full-season RAPTOR mark of only -1.2, he’s not really a true weak link.1
That’s a stark contrast to every other contender. Consider some notable weak links in the rotations of each of the other three conference finalists:
|Team||Players w/ RAPTOR||Combined Minutes*||Plus-minus|
|Atlanta Hawks||Onyeka Okongwu (-1.1) • Cam Reddish (-2.3) • Lou Williams (-2.8) • Tony Snell (-2.9) • Solomon Hill (-3.1)||350||-92|
|L.A. Clippers||Luke Kennard (-3.1) • Rajon Rondo (-4.1)||139||-31|
|Milwaukee Bucks||Jeff Teague (-2.4) • P.J. Tucker (-2.8) • Bryn Forbes (-3.5)||155||-10|
Health and the unavailability of better players has played a role in these weak links seeing so much of the court. Trae Young’s injury forced Hawks coach Nate McMillan to give Lou Williams and Tony Snell more run in the Eastern Conference finals than he surely would have liked; Kawhi Leonard’s absence had a similar effect on L.A.’s Ty Lue, who had to shoehorn Luke Kennard into his conference finals rotation.
Even the Bucks would have fewer weak links with some better injury luck. Donte DiVincenzo’s absence has largely forced Jeff Teague and Bryn Forbes into Mike Budenholzer’s rotation, where they’re picked on regularly by smart offenses. Milwaukee has given up a stunning 118.1 points per 100 possessions with either player on the floor this postseason, per PBPStats.com, compared to 101.7 when both are on the bench.
Bucks and NBA fans alike might be surprised to see P.J. Tucker’s name on the “weak link” list, but while it’s tougher to see, the case is there. He’s shooting just 32.1 percent from three for the playoffs, a number that’s been dropping consistently over the past two years – likely in no small part due to opponents’ realization that he’s not a threat from anywhere but the corners. That limitation makes it easier for defenses to give Tucker space while helping on other threats, a telltale sign of a playoff weak link.
Even squinting hard, and even looking past the broad metrics, those weak links are nowhere to be found within Suns coach Monty Williams’s rotation.
Bad shooter on the wing who the defense can help off? There isn’t one.
Don’t let Booker’s slightly lower shooting percentage confuse you; he’s a star who takes plenty of tough shots, which chips away at his overall number. The Suns are laughing if an opponent leaves him open to help elsewhere.
A true 35 percent 3-point shooter is generating 1.05 expected points per shot with each attempt; add in roughly 0.12 to 0.15, the standard values used among NBA analysts to account for potential offensive rebounds on misses, and you’re looking at an expected points per possession approaching 1.20 — more efficient than the best offenses in NBA history, in other words. With every one of Phoenix’s rotation wings near or above this figure on a robust sample, who are you leaving open?
And while their fellow conference finalists were forced to rely on players with defensive liabilities, the Suns have not.
There isn’t a Teague, a Kennard or a Williams on this roster for opponents to pick on. Every rotation Sun is at least capable defensively, rendering the head-hunting that often defines certain matchups much less effective. Few rotations around the league are as stout across the board against isolation play, according to Second Spectrum tracking data across the full season:
|Player||isolations||Pts per chance|
Though this data is far from perfect, given sampling issues, it tracks with more subjective analysis as well. Which Suns rotation piece are you comfortable aborting your normal offense to pick on? Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne aren’t exactly stalwarts by reputation, but both work hard and have their positioning down — plus they’re bench players who have seen around 20 minutes a night in the postseason.
Even Booker, the only starter on the list whose raw stats approach appetizing territory for opponents, is questionable as a true weak point. Always a capable body at 6-foot-5 and over 200 pounds, Booker has quietly taken huge strides in his defensive play overall this season. That said, the Bucks could probably go at him a bit more often, if for no other reason than to wear down an opposing star player — tracking data shows he’s been the isolation defender on only four possessions thus far in the Finals (and Milwaukee has scored 6 points on those). As a primary strategy, though? It feels thin.
To be clear, these Suns don’t singularly disprove the strong-link/weak-link theory in basketball. Their superstar guard tandem remains the driving force behind their success, with a big assist from Deandre Ayton’s postseason star turn.
The impact of a total lack of weak points, however, is hard to ignore. That the Suns are up 2-1 in these Finals despite some uncharacteristically poor offensive play from Booker — and despite two straight legendary performances against them from Antetokounmpo — is no small feat.
Suns GM James Jones’s Executive of the Year award was never a tough call, and it looks even better in hindsight. His acquisition of Paul and management of the franchise’s stars will get many of the headlines, but constructing a roster truly free of weak points perhaps is equally impressive – and valuable.
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