By Adam Spinella
Sometimes it’s really difficult to see the positives in being one of the worst teams in the league. For the Phoenix Suns, expectations were low heading into the season. General Manager Ryan McDonough assembled a young roster with nearly all their rotation players on rookie contracts. Happenstance hasn’t made his life any easier.
For a team at the bottom of the barrel, Phoenix has been a bit of a circus early in the season. Brandon Knight tore his ACL this summer and will miss the entire season, zapping his trade value and leaving the Suns without clarity on their bench production. Then Eric Bledsoe demanded to be traded and was sent home, head coach Earl Watson was fired and now their best player Devin Booker is out the next two-to-three weeks with a strained groin. Sometimes when it rains, it pours.
Unpacking the results on the floor revolve around the team’s defense, more specifically their defensive effort. A week shy of Christmas, Phoenix has the league’s worst defensive rating, ready to compete with league records for brutality on that end of the court. While it’s hard to find positives in their ineptitude there, some offensive pieces have shown promise that should give Suns fans at least something worth watching.
Young rebuilding teams usually have a similar profile. They’re a bit younger and not as well-rounded on the offensive end. High turnover rates or poor shooting usually plague them, if not both. The mark of improvement internally comes from learning to take care of the basketball, properly function within a system and with gradual defensive steps forward.
That’s what is most concerning about these Suns. Their defensive effort is abysmal, consistent across youngsters and veterans. Watching the Suns on that end is high-level comedy or depressing to no end, depending on your point of view. Nearly once a week they have glaring mental lapses that become compounded by a “don’t give a shit” attitude from all five players on the court:
Now on their second coach of the season, it becomes increasingly difficult to shift blame away from the players for their nonexistent effort. There’s zero communication on the floor, evident by Booker and T.J. Warren trying to emergency switch a simple cut through the middle of the lane.
Effort is most easily noted by watching plays that don’t go according to plan, not those which do. When miscommunications occur, is anyone willing to fly around the court and contest a shot? Will anyone run across the floor to get a loose ball or a rebound? Is anyone going to sell out to help at the rim? A team does that for each other. A group of individuals stop and watch, wallowing in the disappointment of another broken play:
Even if the game is out of reach, these youngsters are auditioning for a larger role in the rotation. Effort is always the one thing players can control, regardless of time or score. It would be easy to point out the defensive personnel on the floor, with both Tyler Ulis and Mike James flanking Alec Peters late in that loss to the Clippers. But doing what’s easy is rarely what’s right. More than that it’s just an excuse for poor effort.
Young teams that have to scrap and claw to stay in games are the ones that learn how to win, something that benefits them as they mature and their talent level increases. Look no further than Philadelphia for the prime example of that: nobody ever faulted their effort during the darkest hours of the process. Players like Robert Covington, TJ McConnell and Richaun Holmes became so accustom to competing at a high level that it feels second-nature in close games.
Phoenix has no such urgency to compete or improve, lending itself to an overall pessimism about the team’s long-term upside. For all the offensive prowess of Devin Booker, his defense more than negates his impact. Nearly every embarrassing breakdown of their defense has him at the center, refusing to impart any effort on that side of the ball.
While Booker is as bad as bad gets on the defensive end, he alone doesn’t shoulder the blame for their failures. Help defense is almost non-existent in the Land of the Valley of the Sun. Simple one-on-one drives to the rim aren’t an exception, as each defender on the court is far too concerned with the individual movements of their own man to provide anything resembling help:
You’d think someone on the court would recognize Tyler Ulis (somehow listed at 5’10” but he’s closer to 5’7″) might need some special assistance with the 6’6″ Lonzo Ball.
The Suns, in theory, were built to be a group of athletic, long defenders capable of switching across matchups and still keep the ability to apply pressure on the ball. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, the team’s 2016 first-round picks, were the blueprint for this from a frontcourt perspective. Both have shown flashes of being more than serviceable in switches, especially Bender in his sporadic minutes.
Defense was the idea behind taking Josh Jackson fourth overall this June, and the long and lanky rookie looks the part of a one-on-one defender who can shut down opposing top scorers. He’s already mastered moving his feet, sticking his chest out and contesting a drive without using his hands, keeping arms wide to block passing lanes and bother ball handlers who try to change direction:
Teams that switch frequently with one strong individual defender are easy to thwart, though. One simple ball screen gets Jackson off his initial assignment, forcing another Sun to take an opponent’s top threat. Sometimes things are unclear with off-ball screens, and teams use non-scoring threats to force an off-ball switch. Jackson and Booker often find themselves in these situations, unsure of whether to switch off the ball and neutralize the action or to stick to their assignment:
Switching is most closely examined by way of on-ball actions, but it has deep repercussions for defensive rotations on the back line. Each guard must be able to challenge plays at the rim; big guys must know where and when to fly around from the top when a ball is driven baseline. Even if you’re going to try and mask that by switching back off the ball, that takes a ton of repetition, communication and fall five guys on the same page.
All that said, it’s too early to abandon some of these Phoenix youngsters. Booker has potential to be an elite offensive threat. Chriss, Bender and Jackson all have the ability to be top-tier defenders. There’s still some upside left to be tilled.
There are some small but meaningful developments that provide pleasant surprises in Phoenix throughout the first third of the season. No more heartwarming story swarms through the NBA than the perseverance of rookie point guard Mike James. The 27-year-old rookie has crossed the pond numerous times in trying to get recognized as a pro, and he got his shot with the Suns this summer. James now goes down in the history books as the first ever player to come off a two-way contract and be signed by that team to a regular NBA deal.
James has cooled over the last few weeks to be sure. Since Nov. 11, he’s shot only 17.4 percent from deep, and he’s only had one game with five or more free throw attempts in that span. Electric is the only word used to describe James when he’s on though; Synergy play-type data has him as shooting 67 percent from high pick-and-rolls when he attacks the basket. With a bevy of scoop shots and one-handed shots, he knows how to finish over the top of defenders who will try and challenge him at the rim. That raw speed he possesses is such a threat in and of itself that defenders are perplexed and mesmerized when he shakes them with a slow motion shimmy:
A tiny, ball-dominant guard who struggles to shoot from three is a tough sell long-term next to Devin Booker. James is best-served as the team’s backup point guard, juicing up a bench unit by attacking the defensively deficient big men other teams trot out there.
Everything about this team on the offensive end needs to be built around Booker, without hesitation. Only a handful of players in the world can get as hot as he can, and he’s been doing this while being the sole focal point of every defense he faces. The Suns are 0-8 this season when Booker doesn’t make multiple three-pointers; and more and more teams are going to chase him off the three-point line if the Suns keep trotting out starting lineups with T.J. Warren (18 percent from three), Tyler Ulis (25 percent), Marquese Chriss (29 percent) and Tyson Chandler (hasn’t attempted a three on the season).
Booker requires constant spacing and an offense that zings the ball around the perimeter. Phoenix, for all their warts, has fantastic spacing on the offensive end and a tricky package of misdirection sets that help spring Booker from off-ball screens to handoffs or ball screens. Spacing is created by both three-point shooting threats (which they lack) and by drilling spots into the heads of their offensive players. Both Earl Watson and Jay Triano have clearly emphasized spacing as going behind the three-point line to start their plays, giving attackers a head of steam as they go to the rim.
Booker, in particular, has more space to read defenses as they start to jump at actions clearly designed for him. It’s a clever way to compensate for the poor shooting that gets Booker the ball on the move. Particularly the play calls are important to get the ball to Devin on the interior, where he’s in the 91st percentile across the league in post-up scoring, according to Synergy:
Booker is a good passer and ball handler, works great off screens and post-ups, and creates offense for himself and others out of ball screens. The lack of shooters surrounding him prevent the Suns from running simple spread pick-and-roll frequently – there are simply too many people to help off, clogging the lane. The Suns, both under Watson and sustained under Triano, have wanted to avoid an offense that keeps the ball in the hands of only one or two playmakers. There are elements of the Blazers’ Flow Offense in what they’re running, with the occasional Spursian early offense movement.
By the way, T.J. Warren is turning into a massive bargain at around 18 points per game, shooting above 50 percent from two-point range and rebounding at a solid rate are huge leaps forward for the fourth-year pro. After inking him to a long-term extension this October, Warren has far outperformed expectations. The contract isn’t too bloated either; his $13.8 million due in the final year of the extension will account for only 12 percent of the projected cap that year, according to Box and One NBA Salary info. Warren has increased his scoring average each of his four years in the league, and if that trend continues beyond the 2017-18 campaign, look out.
With more shooters and switchy defenders, most of Booker’s flaws can be masked and his greatest strengths set free. It might be worth seeing if Booker and Dragan Bender have some chemistry in lineups together. The pair has been a -78 in 291 minutes sharing the floor this season (roughly 10 minutes a game), but the pair hasn’t yet been exposed to the rigors of playing against a starting unit yet. Bender has only started one game in his career, so the minutes they share the floor are with mismatched lineups.
Part of the solution for creating areas to try those lineups will come after the trade deadline if the Suns can find a trade partner for Tyson Chandler or Greg Monroe. Chandler may still have some value on the market as a rim protecting veteran. Monroe, on an expensive expiring deal, is more likely a buyout candidate.
Centers are a dime a dozen these days, with spacing and perimeter playmaking amongst bigs prioritized greater than back-to-the-basket finishing, offensive rebounding or the proposition of having two interior presences sharing the court. The game is changing, so front offices adjust and place a lower premium on one-dimensional big men with large salaries. Chandler falls into this category; he’s never made a three-pointer in his career, is on pace for his 11th consecutive season with a negative assist to turnover ratio and is averaging a career-low in “slocks” (steals plus blocks) per 36 minutes.
Chandler still finds ways to be an incredibly useful offensive player though. His offensive rebounding rates have remained around 12 percent, a top-20 mark in the league for players that log his share of minutes. Per Synergy sports, Chandler is shooting an absurd 12-for-13 when he slips the pick-and-roll. Defenders almost slow themselves to anticipate his physical, bruising screens. Playing with quick ball handlers in Phoenix puts ball screen defenders in a no-win situation when Chandler slips; his man raises to step to the ball while Tyson prepares for an all-out assault on the rim:
Some team somewhere can find postseason use in Chandler’s ball screen offense, offensive rebounding and sturdily dependable defense. The Spurs kicked the tires on his availability before the season, but ultimately any deal fell apart. Familiarity with Bucks head coach Jason Kidd (the two won a title together in Dallas and were teammates again with the Knicks) makes Milwaukee appear as a logical destination. But the Bucks strongly lack good shooting to surround Chandler, and their defensive strategy is an aggressive one, which takes Tyson out of his most effective element surrounding the basket.
Don’t be shocked if the Suns have difficulty moving Chandler due to the size of his contract. Eating such a large deal for a would-be backup 5-man isn’t what most general managers go crazy about.
Another trade chip is Jared Dudley, the seldom-used veteran swing forward. Dudley’s deal (two years remaining, with next year only at $9.35 million) is more palatable, his position more versatile and his skill set more in demand. People forget that the Boston College product is a career 39 percent three-point shooter, and his current 1.25 points per possession out of spot-up situations puts him in the top 10 percent shooters in the league.
Judging Dudley’s defensive impact in a wretched defensive wasteland like Phoenix is a difficult proposition. Success on that end of the court takes all five guys, not just one or two above-average players. Dudley’s style, a switchy (which apparently is an adjective now) forward who is positionally sound and doesn’t rely on athleticism, doesn’t lend itself to having success in a broken unit. Still, his defensive metrics have been mainly positive since joining the Suns. Last season opponents only scored 0.782 points per possession when Dudley was the primary defender, far and away the best rate on the Suns:
Could the Suns squeeze some decent value out of Dudley by dusting him off the shelf and trying to rehabilitate his trade market over the next few weeks? It certainly seems so, as he’s been a regular part of the rotation these past two weeks. The downside to this strategy: his statistical output could decline (both in terms of shot-making and his individual defensive metrics on a poor team, making last season look more like an outlier). If it does, are the Suns really helping or hurting his value?
Thinking about basketball players as purely assets seems cold and is pretty poor practice, no matter who in the organization is doing the evaluation. From an asset perspective, the Suns would be best-served moving on from Dudley or Chandler now, trying to squeeze out some young players or draft picks as a loot. From a humane perspective, these are two gritty, smart and impactful veterans that are stuck in this basketball purgatory in Phoenix. They shouldn’t need a humanitarian effort to be saved.
Sometimes a season outlook is pretty black-and-white. The Suns aren’t really good, and the optimism about the core they have is starting to slowly dwindle. Regardless of who is the head coach or general manager, help is (potentially) on the way.
The Suns have three first-rounders in this loaded 2018 draft, with two of them (their own and Miami’s) likely to be lottery selections. There’s a chance to hit the reset button from a talent perspective. In the meantime, expect the team to continue taking their lumps as they let the kiddies play and make mistakes. Hopefully the effort and urgency catches up to them… there’s never a good time to take a play off.