The Phoenix Suns have a top-four that’s more stacked than any other team in the NBA. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton form an undeniably potent, star-studded core. Come playoff time, the sheer firepower of that foursome will help mitigate concerns about the team’s overall depth, let alone who becomes the fifth starter/closer.
However, over this prolonged stretch without KD, brief spell without Ayton, and Landry Shamet re-entering the fold those concerns about the bench rotations have resurfaced.
Never mind that starters typically log 38-plus minutes on a nightly basis in the postseason. Never mind that the core four will be staggered, with one or two of them always on the court to minimize the damage of bench-heavy lineups. And never mind that a healthy Durant makes life easier on every rotation player, as we immediately witnessed in his first three appearances.
No, the people want the satisfaction of a safe and reliable bench rotation, and they want it now!
“I think we’ve dealt with a lot, but it’s hard to assess right now,” coach Monty Williams said. “I think we’ll be able to make a better assessment when we get Kevin back. But where we are right now, we’re a team that can adapt. We still play hard, we compete every night.
“We’ve had a lot of change, and I feel like our guys are still adapting to that.”
Not going to make excuses for anyone in a game that should have been won.
But have found myself wondering the last week what it would be like to re-do a lot to integrate KD then all of a sudden be told “actually, back to the old way but w/o more players”.
— David (@theIVpointplay) March 19, 2023
Navigating those waters is easier said than done. Phoenix’s most recent loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder was a prime example of this problem: Williams played 12 guys, and the uneven contributions continued to be nothing short of flummoxing.
Williams took ownership of the loss, but giving up 31 points off 14 turnovers might have played a bigger role in the result than who was on the floor and when.
For all the gripes about Monty’s rotations, there’s a bigger problem: The Suns are currently playing without their best player, relying on role players who have certified skills on one end of the floor…and a handful of question marks on the other.
"They defend No. 1. They have a number of guys that seem to have transitioned well into their role eventhough they were traded mid-season."
"From this point on, it's going to be more of a concise rotation."
Monty Williams on #Lakers, rotations after playing 12 at OKC. #Suns pic.twitter.com/X4ne6N2cxd
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 21, 2023
Williams is aiming for a more “concise” rotation, but what will it look like? We know Paul, Booker, KD and Ayton will log heavy minutes. We know Cam Payne will remain in the rotation by default, and we know the Jock Landale/Bismack Biyombo battle may depend on matchups. Darius Bazley has underwhelmed, while T.J. Warren’s been too timid offensively to counteract subpar defending.
But what about the rest of the guards and wings who will be fighting for minutes come playoff time?
In the interest of not mistaking the forest for the trees, it’s time to examine — piece by piece — exactly why it’s been so difficult for Williams to establish a set rotation, aside from the obvious fact that Durant’s still out.
Josh Okogie: From niche specialist to fifth starter
Okogie is the Suns’ best option for that fifth starting spot when everyone’s healthy, full stop. He’s the closest thing Phoenix has to a point-of-attack defender a la Mikal Bridges, he’s a mad man on the offensive glass, and he’s got a knack for making big-time defensive plays.
There aren’t many guys in the league who can make this type of game-saving block against the Orlando Magic:
Josh Okogie with the game-saving block against the Magic pic.twitter.com/23KoIEW3lm
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 17, 2023
In the last few weeks, he’s guarded everyone from Stephen Curry to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Paolo Banchero, expanding his palate for postseason assignments.
“He has high-level defensive instincts, but as he progresses and grows as a player, he’ll add the scouting report and knowing tendencies of other players,” Williams said. “You couple that with his instincts, he has the makings of being an elite defender on a night in, night out basis. We put him on the toughest guy.”
It’s a challenge Okogie embraces.
“I’ve been doing this since I got to the league, it’s nothing new to me,” he said. “I love the opportunity to go out there and guard Steph Curry, go out there and guard Giannis, go out there and guard Banchero and Franz Wagner, all those guys. I think it’s fun, and I’m always up to the challenge.”
It’s also one the Suns desperately need him to tackle with the starters in order to allow guys like Terrence Ross, Landry Shamet or Damion Lee to provide more scoring/shooting for the second unit. If Okogie can knock down the occasional open look, the Suns have more than enough firepower to justify playing him heavier minutes with the starters, who need the defensive mindset he brings to the table.
That’s easier said than done, though. To start 2023, it appeared as though Okogie — a career 28.8 percent 3-point shooter — had finally turned the page. In January and February, he drilled 42.4 percent of his triples. So far in March, he’s regressed back to the mean, making just 29.8 percent of his 3s. Keeping the faith through those kinds of dry spells can be difficult.
“It’s for sure easier said than done, but I put in so much work into shooting,” Okogie said. “I shoot every day, I work on my shot every day, and when I’m left open, there’s no reason for me to work on my shots every day if I’m not gonna shoot it in the game.”
The problem is, Okogie will get tons of open looks playing with such a talented group. When he cashes in, like his 5-for-10 performance from deep against the Chicago Bulls on March 3, he can be the brick that obliterates the camel’s back. When he doesn’t, like his 0-for-8 night against the Dallas Mavericks, he’s in danger of becoming an offensive liability who could even get benched.
Josh Okogie went 0/8 from 3 @ DAL – 7 of those misses were with Luka Doncic helping off him.
PHX adjusted their lineup down the stretch & who was guarding the shooter on 5 of the final 7 Suns made 3s? pic.twitter.com/OZrUJW07SU
— David (@theIVpointplay) March 6, 2023
For Okogie, it’s all about finding the right balance between drilling open looks and driving when they’re not falling — something that made him an X-factor for Phoenix in the first place.
“I think Dallas game when I went 0-for-8 or something, coach told me, he was like, ‘Sometimes you gotta read the game if your shot’s not falling, and figure out a way to drive to the basket, get some layups and then kick out for shots for your open teammates,'” Okogie explained. “So I kind of remembered that day, missed like my first four, so then I was like, ‘Okay, let me see if I can get in there and get some assists, get some easy ones just to get me going and get to the free-throw line.’”
Okogie may be the fifth starter right now, but if he wants to be the closer as well, he’ll need to strike the right balance.
Torrey Craig: The overexerted understudy
Because of Cam Johnson’s knee injury, Jae Crowder’s season-long absence from the team and now KD’s ankle sprain, Torrey Craig has started more games than anyone envisioned. He’s started in 55 of his 68 appearances so far; the most starts he’d ever logged in a single season before this year was 37 back in 2018-19.
“I didn’t really have this crazy expectation that he would have like an All-Star year or anything like that,” Williams said. “We just knew to a degree what to expect from him. I challenged him on a couple of things that he and I know about, and he’s done a pretty good job of trying to do that every night, even in his workouts.”
Those challenges, for those who don’t remember that far back in the season, included his usual defensive intensity, cutting more often, and crashing the offensive glass rather than settling for jumpers. According to Cleaning The Glass, Craig ranks in the 94th percentile at his position in his percentage of offensive rebounds off teammates’ misses. He’ll still make plays like this reminding why he earns significant minutes:
The problem is, much like Okogie, he can be a liability on the offensive end when he settles for jumpers and they stop falling.
Despite starting the majority of his games, Craig hasn’t scored in double figures since Feb. 10 — 14 games ago. He’s still shooting 39.8 percent from 3 as a starter this season, but over the last 13 games, his numbers have plummeted to 5.1 points in 23.9 minutes per game on .343/.372/.667 shooting splits.
In the month of March, Craig has only made 30.3 percent of his long range attempts, and he gets careless with the ball far too often for a veteran of his stature:
Between that and the 3-ball dropping off, it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that he’s a team-worst -180 this season. For reference, the second-worst total point differential on the Suns belongs to Ayton…at -37.
That’s a pretty massive gap!
However, with Durant out and the Twins gone, the Suns are limited in their wing options to replace him. And despite Craig’s middling offensive numbers, the Suns’ current starting five of Paul, Booker, Okogie, Craig and Ayton boasts a +13.0 Net Rating in 203 minutes together.
The Suns are 7-6 in those games, but that’s been a product of inconsistent bench minutes more than Craig’s starting role. As Williams mentioned, no one has had to adjust more this season, with Craig going from bench role to starter to Durant backup to his understudy again.
“When you’re in his role, it’s hard,” Williams said. “We don’t call a play for him. Some nights, we ask him to guard the toughest guy. Most of his shots are second, third, fourth option shots, and it takes a lot of mental stamina to do that. And so that was the expectation was to be adaptable in his role, whether he’s starting, coming off the bench, and then even when he’s coming off the bench, his minutes get pinched a bit and he’s still gotta have that same mentality.”
Filling in for an all-time great is an impossible ask, but hopefully once KD returns, Craig can get back to doing the little things and bolstering the bench in a more concentrated role.
Landry Shamet: The unexpected return
Remember two months ago, when a large portion of the fanbase thought Landry Shamet’s absence would be a good thing? While his inconsistency can be maddening at times, Shamet represents a happy medium between Okogie’s defense-heavy approach and Terrence Ross’ offense-only skill-set.
Shamet wasted no time reintegrating himself back into Phoenix’s shorthanded rotation, posting 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting from deep against OKC on Sunday, with his only miss being a three-quarter court heave at the buzzer. He only played 20 minutes, but that was the most among any bench player and due largely to his minutes restriction after not playing for two months.
Shamet has long been a favorite of Monty Williams, and his immediate reinsertion into the lineup could pose problems for Ross and Damion Lee.
"We have options with (Terrence Ross and Damion Lee). They've really helped us. We've got to figure out which one of those guys is going to be in the rotation so we can start to get a rhythm." Monty Williams when asked about Landry Shamet (foot). He's probable Sunday at OKC #Suns
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 19, 2023
Offensively, Shamet is a career 39 percent shooter from deep, and he’s made 38.6 percent of his triples this season. Starting him over Okogie would be a stretch, considering that group needs a point-of-attack defender, but now that he’s back, Shamet could receive the lion’s share of minutes as the backup 2-guard.
If he can capitalize on the open corner 3s he’ll get playing alongside Booker and/or Durant, he may even become Phoenix’s fifth closer. The reason? He’s also a capable, committed defender.
It’s often been lost among his inconsistent scoring, but Shamet has worked his ass off defensively throughout his Valley tenure. He knows how to play in 0.5 and should be able to hit open 3s with all the spacing Durant provides, but his ability to navigate and fight through screens could make him a mainstay in Williams’ rotation if he stays healthy.
Terrence Ross: Human Torch on one end, inhumanely torched on the other
We already covered this in-depth, so we won’t waste too much time here, but Ross’ path to playing time hinges on one fundamental question: Can the beauty of his rainbow shot (and ability to hit contested 3s) outweigh the lingering defensive concerns?
Nicknamed the Human Torch, Ross is a career 36.3 percent shooting from deep — both of which hint at the streakiness that’s plagued him at times. He’s shooting better than 38 percent this season, and there’s a loose correlation between his efficiency and the Suns’ success: He’s made 52.6 percent of his triples in wins, compared to just 30 percent in losses.
With that being said, the Suns are 4-6 in his 10 appearances, 1-3 when he scores in double figures, and Ross is a -29 overall in 183 minutes in Phoenix. The reason? So far, Ross’ offense hasn’t outweighed his struggles on the defensive end.
As we covered before, part of that has been adjusting to Phoenix’s schemes when it comes to switching. But part of it is Ross can be a pigeon on defense. If opponents view him as food, or if he’s not completely in lockstep with his teammates come playoff time, the only chance he has at earning minutes is by igniting as a microwave bench scorer.
Ross is fully capable of swinging a playoff game or two in the Suns’ favor on those vintage Human Torch nights, but he’s also capable of swinging it back to their opponents if he can’t even be passable on defense. After Phoenix’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, when the Suns were outscored 65-31 in bench scoring, Williams hinted his rotations may need to favor the defensive end.
“Our defense from our bench has to be a lot better, and that’s on me to get the guys out there that know what we’re doing,” he said.
Damion Lee: The forgotten fourth-quarter sniper
In a matter of one month, Damion Lee went from the NBA leader in 3-point percentage and an indispensable part of the bench rotation to the potential odd man out of Williams’ rotation. That shooting slump where he hit just 24.2 percent of his 3s in February didn’t help, but on the season, Lee is still canning 44.6 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
That seems like a pretty useful trait, especially as a guy who’s played with Durant before! Unfortunately, as much as he’s bounced back on a limited number of attempts in March, the scouting report is out on Lee. His ability to adjust to opponents running him off the 3-point line may be crucial to earning spot minutes in the playoffs.
For those wondering why Damion Lee is getting these late minutes…this is why pic.twitter.com/mVWZjtN3wq
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) October 20, 2022
“You’re gonna have some dips, and then you become a part of the scouting report,” Williams said. “That’s just basketball in the NBA. You knock down shots the way that he did, teams are gonna try to take you out, and when you don’t get 25-plus minutes a game and your shots aren’t consistent, that could cut into the efficiency as well.
“And then you got a ding-dong like me that didn’t play him last game, so he’s not gonna get any shots. But I think teams just respect him. When he has the ball at the 3-point line, if you watch the closeouts, it’s an aggressive, ‘close to feet’ closeout.”
In any case, Ross’ arrival has stretched Lee’s minutes pretty thin, and that was before Shamet returned. Lee didn’t see the floor at all against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 14, and since Ross’ first game with Phoenix, he’s averaging just 12.2 minutes per game. Over the prior three months, Lee logged a healthy 22-23 minutes a night.
He’s not the defensive stalwart that Okogie is, nor can he create his own looks as consistently as Ross. He doesn’t quite have the balance that Shamet provides either. But Lee has hit a number of big shots this season, drilling corner 3 after corner 3 in crucial moments. In fact, among the 186 NBA players with at least 40 long range attempts in the fourth quarter, Lee leads them all in efficiency (52.4 percent on an impressive 84 attempts).
He feels like the most likely candidate to be squeezed from the rotation with that logjam at the 2, but if Williams has to turn to him in a pinch, he shouldn’t hesitate to do so — particularly late in games when the Suns need spacing and passable defense.
Ish Wainright: The Suns’ strongest defender
It’s funny how quickly a few missed shots can change things. As recently as Feb. 25, Ish Wainright and the fanbase were celebrating his hard-earned conversion from a two-way deal to a full-time contract. As recently as March 5, in the Suns’ third game with KD, Wainright proved he could not only supply defense, but knock down the kinds of open looks someone needs to hit when opponents focus their attention on Durant and Booker.
Wainright was stellar in that game, spending time guarding Luka Doncic, switching everything and going 4-for-5 from deep. With Okogie struggling on offense, Wainright was the Suns’ fifth closer in a narrow road win.
Since then, however, he’s come crashing back down to earth, going 4-for-21 from deep and missing a number of big shots late in games — the exact same kind he drilled against Dallas. Wainright’s switchability and strength has made him one of Williams’ first subs off the bench lately, and he has value as a burly option to defend physical drivers like Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Ish Wainright is one of the few humans Giannis preferred to spin around rather than going through and I don’t blame him.
— Zona (@ZonaHoops_) March 15, 2023
But if he can’t hit those open 3s, he’ll become a liability on offense. The Suns are already starting to see the effects of giving ample minutes to Okogie, Craig and Wainright in the same games. Defenses are crowding the paint to better defend Booker, Paul and DA, forcing Phoenix’s other guys to make shots.
“Shot-making is a huge part of it all, teams are funneling the ball where they want it to go,” Williams said. “Typically Book and DA see two, sometimes three defenders in pick-and-roll or in the paint, so the backside is important for us to have guys over there and to have the confidence to shoot the ball. I gotta get the right guys over there that can be efficient when we’re shooting the ball, because the shot quality’s been there lately.”
Phoenix Suns catch & shoot % on 3pa's post ASG:
🔥Durant: 66.7% – 3.0
🔥Booker: 59.3% – 2.5
🔥 Lee: 56.3% – 1.6
🔥 Paul: 47.6% – 1.9
🔥 Ross: 47.4% – 4.2
🧊 Payne: 33.3% – 1.9
🧊 Craig: 33.3% – 3.3
🧊 Wainright: 32.4% – 3.1
🧊 Okogie: 31.4% – 4.6
They're 2nd post ASG, at 41.8% pic.twitter.com/ip1OZMGQjp
— Stephen PridGeon ☯️🏁 (@StayTrueSDot3) March 22, 2023
That problem lessens when Durant returns, but for the time being, the inconsistent production from the bench guys vying for playoff minutes has made it maddening to pick a rotation and stick with it. Unless he starts drilling 3s again immediately, it will be tough for him to continue being a viable part of the rotation once Durant’s back and Craig returns to bench duty.