April 18, 2020, 12:32 pm
Another disappointing season in what has become the norm in Phoenix. It’s been a decade since the Suns last made the playoffs with one final hoorah led by the duo of Steve Nash and Amare’ Stoudemire. With six straight losing seasons and a possible 5th straight with under 30 wins, there hasn’t been much to cheer about in the desert.
Ironically, since drafting current face of the franchise Devin Booker in the 2015 NBA Draft, this year’s 26 wins and 13th position out West has been the team’s best year to date. Now, this is not pointing the finger at Booker, as he is only 23 years old and just starting to scratch the surface of what he can be, but it is an odd, yet interesting number.
Another fact, and not so much odd but telling, is that since Booker joined the Suns, he has had a new head coach every single year of his career. Earl Watson made it into year 2 but was fired a mere three games into the season before Jay Triano took over. Now we can point the finger. And it is pointed directly at the underwhelming front office, and maybe owner Robert Sarver flexing his power a little too much. More on that in a moment.
Have no fear Suns Fans, change has come! While selecting the nearby Arizona product Deandre Ayton over Luka Doncic even after bringing in Igor Kokoskov, who coached Donic for the Slovenian national team, will live in infamy with this franchise forever, the organization is trying its best to right the ship. Allegedly, the call on that pick came down from the top, owner Robert Sarver.
And if those lofty standards (kidding) of the recent past are anything to go by, these new changes have been an improvement so far.
Under New Management
The Suns tried something new and went with first year GM James Jones. Yes, the sharp-shooting veteran who won multiple championships alongside LeBron James, that James Jones.
Jones retired from the NBA after the 2016-17. He was always thought of as a consummate professional with a high basketball I.Q, and he quickly ascended the ladder in the Suns front office after being elevated to interim co-GM in the 2018-19 season when the team fired Ryan McDonough midway through the campaign. Much of that can be tied to the lack of winning, along with the previously mentioned draft blunder.
With Jones at the helm in a full-time and official GM role, one of the first moves he made was to bring in his own guy to lead the charge. That guy would be Monty Williams. The team’s 5th coach in as many years. Known as a players’ coach, Williams is a former first-round pick himself, having played nine seasons in the NBA for five different teams. Williams has previous head coaching experience, including two playoff appearances under his belt with the New Orleans Pelicans/Hornets.
With a new nucleus in place for the Suns brass, it was time to start building a team around Booker and Ayton. In his first draft, Jones and the Suns were regarded as the biggest question mark of the lottery, as he was seemingly part of countless trade rumors and didn’t necessarily have a preference of who to take. Ultimately, the Suns traded back from 6th to 11th and selected Cameron Johnson out of the university of North Carolina.
Jones wasn’t done there though, as he made other draft day moves to acquire veterans Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, adding a first-rounder in Ty Jerome, and most notably shipping out TJ Warren. Still needing some work, especially a true point guard to play alongside Booker, the team tested the free agent market.
Roster Under Construction
Along with trading Warren, a former lottery pick who has had a nice season in Indiana, the team also moved out another former top-5 pick in Josh Jackson and a guy who has shown nice potential in De’Anthony Melton. The draft capital was questionable, but for Jones and the Suns, they liked the faces they were bringing in to pair with their young duo.
Aron Baynes developed a 3-point shot for Australia in the summer after flashing it at the end of his Boston run and that has carried over to a level unmatched throughout his career this season. Dario Saric has been underwhelming, but he’s a guy who has seen heavy minutes in the frontcourt.
Not finished with revamping the frontcourt, the team also signed Cheick Diallo and Frank Kaminsky, while making sure to lock up Kelly Oubre Jr. down for a couple more years.
One thing that the Suns have been lacking for a few years now, as mentioned above, has been a point guard. Someone that can see the floor and dictate the game, and most importantly let Devin Booker go back to his more comfortable role as an off-the-ball combo guard.
The Suns not only did that, but they brought in the best passing point guard on the market in Ricky Rubio. Rubio had a couple of down years fantasy-wise while playing alongside Donovan Mitchell in a slow-paced Utah system, but he’s once again established himself as one of the best assist guys in the league, sitting at 3rd most with 8.9 assists per game.
Not only has the ball movement and court vision Rubio possesses shown up in his stat sheet, but the Suns as a team sit at first league-wide in assists per game. Even better, they rank first or second in assist percentage, assist ratio, percentage of 2-point field goals made on assists, and percentage of 3-point field goals made on assists. A team that was desperately in need of another facilitator couldn’t have asked for anyone better.
While there are quite a few reasons on why the Suns’ season turned into a disappointment, it’s easy to forget that this team came out of the gates strong and was playing surprisingly well before even more hiccups were dealt.
Ay-Ton went wrong with Deandre
Before we get to what else went wrong throughout the roster, we must talk about the elephant in the room, or better yet not in the room; franchise big-man and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton. A guy who was going as high as the top-20 in many fantasy drafts, Ayton was a colossal disappointment for a multitude of reasons. Most glaringly, he only played in a mere 30 games out of a possible 65 and was still out of action up until the season was halted.
Was Ayton a disappointment when he played? He was not.
He was the 21st and 28th ranked player respectively in 9/8-cat leagues on a per-game basis. He averaged 19.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.7 blocks and 0.7 steals on 55 percent from the field and 77 percent from the line.
But he missed more than half the team’s games, and a whopping 25 of them blindsided not only his fantasy owners but the entire organization and fan base. Yes, I am talking about how Ayton got popped for PED use after the first game of the season. The 2nd/3rd round pick on average had to wait until the latter half of December to get back on the court because he took an illegal substance.
We won’t go into the details on it, but whatever he did, it cost him 25 games and it cost his team much more. To make matters worse, Ayton wasn’t exactly Mr. Ironman when his suspension was lifted. He would miss time on three more occasions throughout the season, including a five-game absence after getting injured in his first game back from suspension.
Ayton would play only 73 minutes and 44 seconds of NBA basketball before the calendar switched over to 2020. And the worst thing about all of this from a fantasy perspective, you couldn’t even stash him on IR while he was suspended; instead owners had to waste a valuable roster to keep him.
And just to pour salt in the wound, the Suns started off the season hot and we are playing their best ball in his initial absence before the previous hiccups appeared. And since we’re already here, and there’s a tiny bit of salt left in the shaker, that Luka Doncic guy, who was expected to be taken with that first overall pick, has blossomed into a rising superstar in only year two.
The Trainer’s Room
As we touched upon, Ayton was off the court for more than half of Phoenix’s games, but he wasn’t the only one to see the trainer’s room as pretty much everyone sans Mikal Bridges, and Devin Booker with only three games missed, saw time on the sidelines.
The first guy to go down was the guy who was filling in for Ayton when the team was hot: Aron Baynes. The Suns started out at 7-4 in their first 11 games, looking like a completely new team. With smothering defense and a team-oriented, ball-movement based offense, they were looking like a well-gelled team. And right at the center of this hot start (no pun intended) was Baynes himself. Showing off his newfound deep ball, along with his tough-nosed defense, rim-protection and overall physical play, the Suns were rolling.
Then Baynes got hurt. The first of multiple injuries to him as he missed 23 games this season. And the Suns were now down to their third string center, fellow newcomer Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky would himself also get hurt for the long haul, missing half the season with a stress fracture in his kneecap.
But the injuries didn’t stop there – Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric missed 15 games combined. Cameron Johnson only played in 49 games, while deep-reserve guys like Elie Okobo and Jevon Carter missed a few as well.
The biggest blow came shortly before the season was suspended when Kelly Oubre Jr., who turned himself into quite the two-way player over the past year-plus, suffered a knee injury, rumored to be a torn meniscus, that was expected to keep him out for 4-6 weeks.
All in all, pretty much everyone besides Bridges and Booker missed a chunk of time. While the team was hot early, even without Ayton, you just can’t win games consistently in the NBA with guys in street clothes.
The lone positive about all these injuries is that it opened minutes and roles for some of the guys, most notably Mikal Bridges.
Developing the Young Guys
The Suns are one of, if not the youngest, teams in the league, with Baynes the only member of the team in his thirties. Outside of Baynes, only three other players, fellow newcomers Rubio, Kaminsky and Saric, are currently even older than 24. When we talk about youth and potential, the Suns have that in spades.
The nucleus of the team is made up of Booker (23), Ayton (21), and Oubre (24). Along with this core, there’s this year’s lottery pick, Johnson (24), last year’s lottery-acquired guy, Bridges (23), and another first-rounder acquired via trade this year, Ty Jerome (22).
While Jerome didn’t see much playing time this year, the rest of these guys did. Booker led the way, while Oubre continued to build off of the momentum and potential he showed since he was acquired in the Trevor Ariza deal. But it was the mounting injuries that opened up the playing time for Bridges and Johnson that is most notable. Unfortunately, Johnson would succumb to an illness of his own that would derail the momentum he was starting to build with the added minutes.
But things went quite well for Bridges. He started the season as a reserve who saw varying floor time from game to game. Bridges was a reliable defender when out there, but had a limited and inconsistent offensive repertoire that resulted in a few complete bricks on wide open shots. That kept his playing time on the lower side, even in the tough spots where Williams talked about needing Bridges on the court because of his invaluable ability to guard the 1-4 spots.
Slowly things would start to fall into place and by the time the calendar turned 2020, Williams had him on the court playing everywhere. He mainly saw his minutes at both forward spots, but he did earn a few starts at shooting guard when Booker was out, then again when Booker slid over to PG for an ailing Rubio.
Bridges’ minutes climbed up every single month of the season from 18.5 in October to 29.9 in January. It was towards late January when he would earn a spot in the starting lineup, starting the Suns’ last 19 games before the season was suspended. In February, his minutes jumped to 33.4, and in four March games he was on the court for a whopping 40.4 minutes per game. Bridges was a sleeper coming into the season for his ability to go 1/1/1 with steals, blocks and threes, and he proved it when he saw the minutes.
On the full season, Bridges sits with top-95/75 value (8/9-cat), and that’s with the slow start included. In those final 19 games, Bridges crushed it with top-45/35 value.
His shot is still a work in progress, but he was able to finish the season with a 62 percent true shooting percentage and 59 percent effective field goal percentage, while stamping his name into the young nucleus of Ayton, Booker, and Oubre.
Where do we go from here?
That is a question Suns fans have been asking ever since they dealt away franchise icon Steve Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns are in a good spot as we sit.
They have Booker locked up through 2023/24. (Though if you read my previous Wolves article, you might be familiar with something brewing on that front, but we won’t touch that in this one.) They have Ayton and Bridges on rookie deals for the next few seasons. They have Rubio around for two more years after this one. And Johnson is around for a while.
They’ll also be loaded with cash this summer with just under $85 million committed to next season and no player options.
At the top of the list is what do they do with Oubre. They signed him to an affordable two-year deal before the season but entering next year that’s already turned to an expiring deal. He’s deserving of a pay raise, and some team is going to give that to him if he hits the free agent market. Do the Suns try to extend him before that happens or will they let it play itself out?
Next up is Dario Saric. He is entering unrestricted free agency. With his underwhelming play this year, he isn’t likely to be a priority and the Suns may let him walk, though he is only 24 and they’ll be short on bodies in the frontcourt with Frank Kaminsky’s team option likely to be declined and Aron Baynes becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Baynes is likely to be a priority for the Suns given that he played the best ball of his career when healthy and gives the team a unique element of toughness that nobody else on the roster can provide, but he is also 33 and may want to go play on a team that will offer him a chance at another championship.
Losing Tyler Johnson’s bloated $19 million contract is going to give James Jones and the rest of that front office a lot of money to play with. They’ll need to bring in more capable players to help Booker sniff his first playoff race, because if he’s in year 6 and the team is still sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, he might not want to put up with it anymore. Whoops, I’m sorry! I said I wouldn’t mention it in this article, for Suns’ fans sanity, but it slipped. I promise that is it.