Basketball Insiders continues it’s “Fixing” series for teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention. Today’s team: the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns shifted into a full rebuild in 2015. Four years later, the roster makeup has changed, but their state remains the same. In what may have been the tightest playoff race we may have ever seen from the Western Conference, Phoenix was the one team early on who was doomed to fail from the start.
What Is Working
Devin Booker. Besides that, not much else.
Okay, that over-generalization is a little harsh. Not everything in Phoenix outside of Booker has been a disappointment. In fact, a few things have gone right for Phoenix. Keyword being few.
First, is their rookie class. So much was made of how exceptionally deep this year’s draft was that its first overall pick – Deandre Ayton – had a rookie season that fell under the radar. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re on one of the worst teams in the league. In Ayton’s case, he didn’t make the same headlines as Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley III. He did, however, do enough to make Phoenix believe they have something good on its hands.
Averaging 16/10 in your first rookie season is pretty impressive no matter how your team does. Ayton’s 10.3 rebounds per game ranked 14th overall in the league and his 58.5 field goal percentage ranked him ninth overall in the league. Even if it didn’t amount to much, those achievements point to a very promising future for Deandre.
It is very possible that Ayton does not have as prosperous of a career as his fellow top-five 2018 draftees, but he’s shown that he’s far from a Darko – or a “Thabeet” type.
There’s also Mikal Bridges. His stats won’t jump out at you – 8.2 points on 43.2 percent shooting and 33.7 percent shooting from three – but the fact that the Suns are plus-4.1 with him on the court shows that Bridges is a keeper.
There there’s who they acquired this season. Many have given Phoenix’s front office grief for some of the moves they’ve made since they decided to rebuild, but stealing Kelly Oubre Jr. from Washington for an aging Trevor Ariza – who had no business being there in the first place – had to be one of the better ripoff trades that nobody paid much attention to.
Oubre’s been excellent since he arrived in the desert. He’s put up almost 17 points a game on 45.3 percent shooting (a career-best) while averaging nearly five rebounds a game. His play has been so encouraging that it’s almost unbelievable that all he was cost was Ariza.
Last, but certainly not least, is Devin Booker.
We already knew Booker was a scoring sensation. We just didn’t know that he was capable of being more than that. Many will bring up his career-highs in both his scoring output (26.6 points a game) and efficiency (46.6 field goal percentage) to show that he’s the real deal. However, what’s most impressive is that when the Suns decided to run the point through him, he ran with it.
Booker’s 1.64 assist to turnover ratio placed him 84th in the league, which won’t turn any heads. Still, dishing out 6.8 assists per game and having an assist percentage of 34 percent when you are designated as a shooting guard shows that there’s more to Devin’s game. Of course, we can’t talk about the guy without mentioning his late-season explosion.
Before his ankle injury the other night, Devin was going off. In the month of March, Booker averaged 34 points on 49/34/88 splits, with his standout performances coming in the last three games, where he put up point totals of 59, 50, and 48.
That didn’t translate into much success for the Suns. They went 5-11 in March and lost every game where Booker had 48 or more. This has brought up a question that many are sure to bring up over the next few years: Is Devin Booker an effective player?
There’s no definite answer to that question presently. Hopefully, there will be when and if they surround Booker with a better roster. Phoenix has a special talent in its young shooting guard. The question the team may have to ask itself is how much patience will he have?
What Needs To Change
Pretty much everything. When you are 27th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, that means an upgrade at pretty much every facet is needed.
The one silver lining is that Phoenix was dead last in both categories last season, which means there’s been some improvement. Devil’s advocate would say that since the Suns have hovered around the bottom ten in both offensive and defensive rating over the past three seasons, that casts some strong doubt as to whether the Suns have made any real progress.
It doesn’t look good when you see where the team places in individual categories. The Suns are the worst three-point shooting team in the league. They are the worst rebounding team in the league. They rank behind only Atlanta in most turnovers on average. They rank behind only Cleveland for highest opponents field goal percentage and are behind only Cleveland and Minnesota for highest opponent three-point field goal percentage.
Here’s where it gets odd. Despite having the league’s 27th-rated offense, the Suns have the 16th-highest field goal percentage in the league (45.9 percent). Despite having the league’s 29th-rated defense, the Suns rank second in steals per game (8.9) and are tied for 13th in blocks per game (5.1).
So it sounds like the offense isn’t a total disaster and there is a legitimate effort on defense. It’s just not leading to any favorable results. There are no quick fixes for the Suns, but there are ways in which they can translate their efforts into victories.
Get a Point Guard – Credit to Booker for doing what he could, but he needs someone who can handle the offense in the backcourt beside him. Booker posted a career-low in three-point percentage at 32.6 percent. If he has a point guard who can find him in the right spot, his efficiency as a shooter could improve drastically.
The Suns tied for 18th in assists per game despite not really having a true point guard on the roster. That would be impressive if it weren’t for the previously mentioned low offensive rating. Getting a point guard who can help the offense pick its spots can help it reach new heights.
Get a three-point shooter – Outside of T.J. Warren and Troy Daniels – who both played less than 50 games – the Suns did not have any player who shot 36 percent from distance or better. Booker is enough of a scoring threat and an underrated distributor that having three-point shooters will force opponents to stay on their heels.
That is easier said than done, but the Suns’ offense could see a lot of improvement if they just had more floor spacing around their young star.
Get a rebounder – The Suns’ rebounding issues may have very well contributed to their defensive issues. Phoenix surrendered the highest average of offensive rebounds a game with 11.7, which led to them giving up the most second-chance points in the league with 15.3.
Ayton’s proven he can get on the boards, but he can’t do it alone. If the Suns add someone who can give him help in that department, the defense could take another step forward.
There are more problems on this squad than just the ones mentioned above, but these are the most basic holes that Phoenix needs to have filled.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Even after trading Ryan Anderson’s team-friendly deal for Tyler Johnson’s bloated contract, Phoenix should have a fair amount of cap flexibility on its hands.
With Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Darrell Arthur and Wayne Ellington among others all coming off the books, Phoenix will have a shade under $87 million on its cap. Some of that free cash should go into a possible extension for Kelly Oubre Jr.
Oubre’s inflated numbers have come at just the right time since he’ll be a restricted free agent and hence, will probably have a fair amount of suitors. More teams will have money this season and may look to spend their money elsewhere when the big fish are off the table. His shooting percentages are not and never have been the prettiest, but Oubre has shown that he is a fit. Don’t be surprised if he winds up staying long-term.
With the Suns not picking up Dragan Bender’s player option for next season, his return isn’t likely. Troy Daniels, Richaun Holmes and Jamal Crawford’s returns are all up in the air. Phoenix could take or leave any of them.
Even though they should have cap room, the Suns’ lack of success will probably prevent them from being serious bidders for the best free agents on the open market. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the lookout for productive players who could come on a bargain.
One player who could be the ideal target would be Clippers forward JaMychal Green. With LA hoping to get in the sweepstakes for a star or two, Green just might be available if the Clippers’ plans succeed.
Green would solve a fair amount of the Suns’ problems by himself. Not only is he a career 36.6 percent shooter from three, but his rebounding numbers per-36 (10) are excellent for a guy his size, and have steadily gotten better every season. With presumably more minutes with the Suns, he’d show the league what he’s made of.
Focus Area: Draft
By finishing with one of the three worst records in the NBA, Phoenix has a 14 percent chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft while also having a 42.1 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. If they get No. 1, then things get a little interesting.
Zion Williamson is believed to be the best prospect to come out of this draft and one of the best prospects the league has had in years. Phoenix would be foolish not to take him obviously, but they should not brush off their point guard issues. Williamson is undisputedly going to have the most glorious career in the draft, but Ja Morant showed he’s no slouch in the NCAA tournament this season. It is worth pondering who to take if it came to that.
Now if the Suns get No. 2, then they’ll have no problem taking whoever is left between the two. If it’s No. 3 or lower, then Phoenix will have a conundrum.
There are some appealing prospects after Williamson and Morant, but they are not sure things. Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and De’Andre Hunter have something to offer. The problem is that their cloudy ceilings will make the Suns have to gamble, which has not worked out too often for them in the past.
The Suns do not have the best track record when it’s come to the draft in recent years. After hitting a bullseye with Booker – in a season in which they weren’t trying to tank – they then whiffed on Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, then selected an enigma in Josh Jackson before getting Ayton.
The Suns have had four picks in the top eight over the last three years, and the only one who looks like a sure thing is Ayton. If they don’t get a top-2 pick, then the pressure will increase tenfold.
Some rebuilds are quite short while others take seemingly forever. In the Suns’ case, their rebuild has taken longer probably than they would have liked. Everyone involved in the franchise wants to see the team take its next step forward.
That just might come from this summer if they play their cards right.