The holiday season hasn’t been kind to the Phoenix Suns. Since the start of December, the once-upon-a-time 1-seed out West has gone 5-12, sinking from a top spot in the conference standings all the way to eighth.
Injuries remain the biggest catalyst behind the Suns’ ongoing skid, but this shorthanded stretch has also magnified inherent roster flaws that were present from the start of the season: Devin Booker is carrying this team, neither Deandre Ayton nor Mikal Bridges is a capable second option, Chris Paul is a shell of himself, Phoenix lacks reliable creators on offense, and barring a trade, their immediate title window may have already closed.
With Booker’s left groin strain set to be re-evaluated in just over three weeks, and Cam Johnson still not a full participant in practice as he recovers from a torn meniscus, the biggest cure-all would simply be “get healthy.” After all, the Suns boast an 18-11 record and a +120 total point differential with Booker on the court this season. Without him, those numbers plummet to a 2-7 record and a -25 point differential.
It’s not just Booker, either; Phoenix leads the league in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) lost this season by a substantial margin:
Lost-vorp due to injured players
— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) January 2, 2023
However, in the case of New Year’s resolutions, “get healthy” is hardly a tangible plan of action. Nobody tries to get hurt, and the players do their due diligence to either stay on the court or get back to it through extensive rehab.
But even if injuries can’t be controlled, there’s still plenty to change that’s within the Suns’ power. So much like our own New Year’s resolutions, which don’t kick in until a few days after the start of a new year and typically die off around mid-February, let’s take a look at a few tangible things Phoenix can do to help right the ship without their best player around.
5. Give Duane Washington Jr. more run
Against the New York Knicks on Monday, the Suns scored 11 points in the first quarter and only had 31 by halftime. They were shooting an abysmal 33.3 percent from the field and couldn’t get any of their 3s to fall. They’ve been one of the league’s top offenses all season — even without Booker and Johnson — but badly needed some help on that front.
Which is why it was all the more baffling that a guy like Duane Washington Jr. didn’t see the floor until the fourth quarter in what amounted to garbage time.
True enough, Washington’s minutes were bound to take a hit with Landry Shamet and Cam Payne both returning to action. Payne is the more proven player in Phoenix’s system, and before the Achilles soreness sidelined him, Shamet had just registered 31-point games in two of his last three appearances. With so many guys out, it makes sense coach Monty Williams would want to reintegrate them as soon as possible.
But the Suns were clearly digging their way to a new rock bottom on Monday. They needed offensive creation, and for all his flaws on the defensive end, Washington is one of the few players on this roster who can create his own shot, hit 3s and generally play with some confidence on that end.
It was only their first game back, but Payne and Shamet are largely unreliable as shooters and even decision-makers at times, so it’s not like there’s a huge difference in risk management here. Washington wasn’t going to carry the Suns to victory, down 20-plus on the road, but a change of pace was required. Phoenix is 4-3 so far this season when Washington plays at least 15 minutes, and at 22 years old, he’s one of the few players on the roster with untapped upside.
Good teams focus on contending, but great teams do so while developing their young talent. The Suns need to find a way to feed Washington more minutes, especially if Payne and Shamet continue to struggle.
4. Attack. The. Damn. Basket.
At this point, the Suns’ lack of pressure on the rim is just an inherent flaw in this roster’s genetic makeup. They have too many midrange savants and spot-up shooters, and not enough guys who attack the basket. When Josh Okogie is Phoenix’s best hope at putting his head down, driving into the paint and drawing contact…well, it’s no surprise Cleaning The Glass ranks the Suns 29th in frequency of shots at the rim.
However, that problem has gotten even worse with Booker banged up. Leading up to December, the Suns averaged 49 points in the paint per game, which ranked 16th in the league — average, but not detrimental to the cause.
Since the start of December, that number has dropped to 41.4 points in the paint per game, which ranks 27th. One would expect that number to go up when operating primarily through their franchise center, but Ayton has taken a much higher number of shots from the midrange lately.
.@HPbasketball caught this in Denver on Christmas. Ayton had 26 attempts from 15-19 feet coming into that game and now has 12 in the last four games. Already a few more tonight.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) January 2, 2023
Not all of this can be blamed on Ayton’s lack of physicality, of course. This whole roster outside of Booker, Okogie and Damion Lee lacks players who can attack the paint.
But at some point — and we’re well past that point — the coaching staff has to change up their playing style, with an emphasis on getting to the cup. Otherwise, the Suns will continue to get boat-raced in points in the paint and free-throw rate, where they currently rank 29th.
We’ll put it this way: There is a very clear reason the Suns rank dead last in location effective field goal percentage, which Cleaning The Glass uses to provide a sense of a team’s shot profile.
3. Get off to better starts
When it comes to starting games off strong, continuity matters. So does having your best players available. The Suns having to start 14 different players at various points this season is the antithesis of both.
But no matter who’s out on the floor, Phoenix has got to find a way to stop digging themselves into early holes that prove impossible to climb out of. Here’s how they’ve started off in six of their last seven games:
- Down 14-7 to Washington Wizards
- Down 13-2 to Memphis Grizzlies
- Down 13-2 to Denver Nuggets
- Down 8-0 to Memphis Grizzlies
- Down 14-5 to Washington Wizards
- Down 14-4 to New York Knicks
And that’s not even including trailing the Toronto Raptors 33-24 at the end of the first quarter!
“I mean, they came in, hit us first,” Paul said after the team’s home loss to Memphis, when the Suns trailed by 19 after the opening frame. “That’s sort of done happened a few times this year, so we gotta figure out how to be better.”
This is one area where Booker’s absence shows up pretty clearly. Ranking seventh in the NBA in first-quarter scoring at 8.2 points per game, Book is used to igniting the Suns’ offense early. He’s been doing it for years now, and it was even more necessary this season, with Paul, Ayton and Cam Johnson all missing various stretches.
Unfortunately, Booker’s one-man opening act hasn’t been there to bail the Suns out lately. Before December, their first-quarter point differential was a +32 over 21 games, which was a top-10 mark in the NBA. Since December, with Book missing all but eight of the team’s 17 games, the Suns have been a -50 in the opening frame. That appalling number is tied for dead last in the association.
“I’m not gonna downplay the fact that we miss Book — of course we do,” Landry Shamet said. “He’s an All-NBA guy, he should be in the MVP conversation. We miss him. But none of the basketball X’s and O’s stuff even matters if we don’t pick up on our end of that mentality, physicality, hit first. That’s where it all starts.”
Not having their preferred starting lineup, which boasts a +33.1 Net Rating this season, obviously matters. But the Suns were so good about adapting to guys being out last year, so if they want to survive Booker’s prolonged absence, they’ll need to find a way to avoid the early deficits that trigger their Game 7 PTSD and allow things to snowball.
The thing that's most concerning to me is how quickly missed shots or deficits snowball with this team. I hate to keep going back to Game 7, but ever since then, when the Suns get down, they get down BAD
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) January 2, 2023
2. Defend better/keep opponents off the offensive glass
Ironically enough, even with Booker sidelined and a handful of players in and out of the lineup, the Phoenix Suns have remained an elite offense.
Games like Monday, where they scored a season-low 83 points, may suggest this team badly needs help behind Book. But they’re still fifth in offensive rating despite this 5-12 skid, they were ranked as the NBA’s best half-court offense as recently as last week, and they’re taking a good amount of high-quality 3s as well:
🚨 ShotQuality’s First NBA NET Rankings 🚨
— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) December 26, 2022
Unfortunately, it’s the defense that’s spiraled over the last month. What was once the Suns’ bread and butter has become their biggest obstacle to staying afloat without Booker.
A few key areas indicate where they need to get back to their roots. For starters, the Suns have exacerbated their free-throw issue by giving up a high volume on the other end. Opponents have averaged a whopping 27.8 free-throw attempts against the Suns since the start of December, which is the highest number in the NBA and a dramatic increase from the 24.5 per game they surrendered through November.
In a similar vein, the Suns have also been bullied in the paint. Their diminishing returns on points in the paint have been bad enough, but they’re also giving up 51.8 points in the paint per game over the last month, which ranks 18th in the league. Before the start of December, they were only giving up 47.4 points in the paint, which ranked seventh.
"We can make all the excuses we want, but the games got to get played." Damion Lee. pic.twitter.com/MMrvMQV6hk
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 3, 2023
“Whether it’s Boston, Memphis, these teams who are big and physical and want to put their hands on us, we don’t have the pregame edge that we’ve had around here,” Williams said after Phoenix surrendered 72 points in the paint against the Grizzlies. “We gotta get back to chasing something, and right now, I feel like the prey. I don’t like that feeling. I just told our guys the same thing: We gotta get our edge back.”
In that same vein of physicality, two familiar weaknesses have reared their ugly heads in recent weeks — offensive rebounding:
- Opponent offensive rebounds before December: 10.2 per game (15th)
- Opponent offensive rebounds since December: 12.1 per game (26th)
And second-chance points:
- Opponent second-chance points before December: 13.2 per game (12th)
- Opponent second-chance points since December: 15.0 per game (24th)
Whether it’s Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder or Torrey Craig, part of that struggle comes with a roster that likes going small at the 4-spot. However, the Suns have recently tried to match bigger, bruising frontcourts with size in dual-big lineups, and the results haven’t panned out in their favor.
Teams attack the Suns with size & the Suns are prone to match. Often leaves the offense stuck in mud.
It has mostly been a lack of personnel recently but at some point Phoenix have to take the risk to get back to who they are.
— David (@theIVpointplay) January 2, 2023
After the Grizzlies loss, the inability to keep Memphis off the offensive boards may have persuaded Williams to veer away from staying small.
“When you’re playing in transition, you’re giving up a lot of paint, and then you’re reacting to the penetration, and that’s gonna put you in a lot of rotation, rebounding situations,” Williams said. “So that may be one thing. It’s just a number of things from a size perspective.”
At this point, however, the Suns simply need to play their best available players and try to do what they do best. There’s no easy answer when Phoenix is getting pummeled on defense, but Josh Okogie and Damion Lee may need an uptick in minutes.
1. Make at least one significant trade
Each one of these New Year’s resolutions so far has been aimed at Monty Williams and the players, but this last tangible goal is for management, and management alone.
Make. A. Damn. Move.
When Kevin Durant wanted to join the Suns, it was understandable James Jones tried to put all his eggs in that basket. But when the Brooklyn Nets didn’t want to play ball, Phoenix held on for too long, missing out on all the prime mid-level targets in free agency that might have boosted their title hopes.
Jones absolutely hit on his end-of-the-roster additions with Lee, Okogie and Jock Landale. But the Suns currently have a combined $28.9 million tied up in Crowder, Shamet and Dario Saric — three guys who have given Phoenix virtually nothing this season but are the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-highest paid players on the roster.
Even worse, the salaries of Crowder ($10.2 million), Saric ($9.2 million) and Torrey Craig ($5.1 million) are all expiring. That’s roughly $24.5 million in salary the Suns will be losing but won’t be freeing up in cap room. The reason is they’re already nearly an above-the-cap team for next season with the $131.2 million they owe Booker, Ayton, Paul, Bridges and Shamet next season — not to mention an extra $6.5 million for Payne’s non-guaranteed deal.
With next year’s salary cap projected to be around $134 million, the Suns would either have five players under contract and negligible wiggle room under the cap for signing outside free agents, or they’d have six players with Payne and be over the cap. That means they could only operate above the cap by re-signing their own free agents or using exceptions and veteran minimum deals to woo outside free agents…all while diving deeper into the luxury tax, under a new owner who may not be very enthused by what he’s seen lately.
Speaking of owners, Robert Sarver isn’t going to make any of this easy. There’s a chance the Suns are completely stuck in the mud, as one last middle finger from their soon-to-be former owner:
As @WindhorstESPN notes here, Robert Sarver still has to give the Suns personal sign-off on any deal for a player with a salary that is more than the current "average player salary," multiple league sources tell ESPN: https://t.co/L7DRYThg1s
— Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) January 3, 2023
However, if there’s any possibility of getting deals done, Crowder, Saric and probably Shamet are contracts that absolutely need to be traded before the deadline, not just to help Phoenix’s short-term title prospects, but also to set them up for more activity on the trade market and flexibility in free agency.
Truthfully, there may not be an all-in move before the Feb. 9 deadline that re-establishes Phoenix as a legitimate title threat. We’ll discuss a few viable trade targets later this week, and no one should be safe on this roster outside of Booker, but at the very least, Jones has to move some expiring deals and deadweight salary. Otherwise, the Suns will be left with a very expensive core that may have missed its window and very few avenues to prop it back open over the offseason.