With the start of the new season less than a month away, it’s looking more and more likely that the Phoenix Suns have decided to run it back. They matched Deandre Ayton’s contract offer from the Indiana Pacers, keeping him on the team for at least another half a season.
They were not able to trade for Kevin Durant, therefore keeping several other major pieces on the roster. There have been quite a few moves made at the back end of the roster bolstering their depth, but the Suns are going to stick with the core of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Ayton for the time being.
Given the Phoenix Suns are bringing back largely the same team that lost in the second round last year, it’s fair to question how they can improve on that result.
I think the answer lies in the Suns shortcomings in that series. There were a number of reasons for the Suns collapse in the last few games, but chief among them were the lack of creation outside of Paul and Booker, Paul’s performance following his injury, and the bench guard play. The fixes to these issues all go hand in hand, and the Suns can improve on these areas of weakness through experimentation during the regular season.
In the series against the Mavericks, the trio of Ayton, Bridges, and Johnson averaged a combined 36.2 points per game. Bridges and Johnson in particular had trouble creating for themselves as their unassisted basket percentages of 10.7 and 8.7 respectively, were both down from their regular season marks of 18.1 and 14.7. With Paul hampered and unable to get them the ball as much as he usually does, their points per game dropped precipitously.
Ayton, on the other hand, did well in the self creation department in that series as his unassisted percentage of 30.6 was significantly higher than his regular season mark of 18.8. However, his touches in the series were way down from the prior series. In that stellar series against the Pelicans, Ayton touched the ball 52.0 times per game, but that number dropped to 38.1 against the Mavericks, resulting in his points also being down.
Much of that was due to Booker returning, but there’s no scenario in which Ayton should have less touches than Jae Crowder in a playoff series. For Bridges and Johnson, the Suns should see this regular season as an opportunity to get them more comfortable creating their own offense. For Ayton, they should make sure he becomes a more consistent focal point of the offense.
If the young Suns trio are successful in taking on more offensive responsibility, it could have hidden benefits for others on the team. Lessening the regular and postseason load on Paul could be the key to him staying healthy. With Booker’s injury in the first round he was asked to do a lot more scoring than he’s accustomed to.
That uptick in usage at his age could have very well been the reason why he suffered a quad injury in the next series. Taking some pressure off Paul isn’t a fool proof method to keeping him healthy by any means, but if the team becomes slightly less reliant on him, they’d be better prepared in the event of another injury.
The last piece of the failure against the Mavericks was the guard play the Suns got out of Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet. Both players are still on the roster, but the Suns did bring in Frank Jackson, Duane Washington Jr., Josh Okogie and Damion Lee this offseason. While there is a comfortability level with the incumbent Suns, a season long audition for the backup guard spots could bring out the best in one of them. It would also be beneficial to get the new guys some reps with the rest of the Suns in case someone flounders in the postseason again.
Using this upcoming regular season as more of a testing ground doesn’t come without plenty of risk. There will be growing pains as players try to become comfortable in newer roles, and losses will surely follow because of that. This in turn could also end up hurting the Suns seeding, which is a huge deal given how good the West is expected to be once again.
As we just saw last season though, higher seeding doesn’t mean an automatic advancement. If the Suns can give themselves a better playoff chance at the expense of some regular season wins, then they simply have to do it.