The Suns are 2-4 to start the 2017-18 season.
That might seem like the norm on paper, but the team has played some encouraging basketball under interim coach Jay Triano without their best player Eric Bledsoe, who looks to be on the way out.
Here are five observations and statistics that stand out six games into the season.
Devin Booker dealing with double teams
In Saturday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Devin Booker was on fire. He finished with 34 points, six rebounds and six assists on 19 field goal attempts, all while playing much better defense.
With Bledsoe absent, Booker is far and away the team’s best offensive player. That becoming a fact leads to the eventual conclusion of Booker being double-teamed, but this wasn’t supposed to come before his 21st birthday.
We got a sneak preview of what it could look like in Portland when the Suns were threatening to steal a game on the road, and it was going to have to come through Booker.
On this possession, Booker gets doubled in the corner. This might seem like an easy way for Booker to be trapped, but it’s in such an isolated area of the court that someone will be wide open. The Suns have a lot of decent passers and that makes a play like this easy for them to execute. This time it’s Marquese Chriss making the important pass.
The problem isn’t making the passes, it’s who is going to receive the ball for the shot.
This time, it’s T.J. Warren. Clang.
Watch Triano on the bench while the play unfolds. He claps as Warren catches the ball. It’s a great offensive possession at a critical point in the game, something a young team really struggles to do.
Next up, it’s a closer, quicker double not requiring an extra pass.
Chriss now takes the shot from the midrange.
If you scroll back up and watch those two videos again, both players are prepared and ready for the ball to take the shot. Sometimes, the issue is presented when a star player gets doubled and a defense is able to adequately rotate. That’s something Triano will integrate into his game plan in the future, but these possessions are only about hitting an open shot.
The wing rotation of Chriss, Warren, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson have to make these shots if the team wants to win going forward.
“He can do that?” featuring Marquese Chriss
In year two, Marquese Chriss is still showing how high his ceiling is.
That might seem like a strange statement for someone to make about a player who hasn’t become a legitimate scoring option yet, but that’s because Chriss is still integrating everything into his skill-set.
It’s going to take another season or two for him to hone in all his talent.
In one of my favorite traditions during Suns games since the beginning of last season, it’s called, “he can do that?”
A one-dribble floater from the corner? He can do that?
Some variation of a euro step that’s more of a jump cut into a clever left-handed finish off the glass? He can do that?
While Dragan Bender’s defense is an immediate positive for the Suns, Chriss is going to take some time, but the Suns are going to be rewarded if he can harness all the potential he has as a scorer.
The Troy Daniels effect
When the Suns acquired Troy Daniels from the Memphis Grizzlies, he helped address two issues for Phoenix heading into this season: having a backup shooting guard and shooting.
Daniels having a positive effect on the Suns is simple: the spacing an elite three-point shooter brings would benefit the team.
Well, in the opening of the season, that hasn’t been the case.
The Suns have a 91.2 offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) when Daniels is on the floor and a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 115.8. Both are the worst by a good margin among the 10 players in the Suns’ rotation.
Daniels is shooting 35 percent from three on the season, so while that’s below his career average of 40.5 percent, it’s not like he’s bricking his shots out there.
A worthy note here is Daniels has not played with Booker much since Triano simplified his rotations.
Even still, the team will have to get better when Daniels is on the court, or the second unit will suffer.
Speaking of those ratings, despite pedestrian box scores some nights, the Suns are playing well when Bender and Alex Len are on the floor.
Bender’s -3.5 net rating (the difference between an offensive and defensive rating) is the second-best on the team behind Mike James and Len’s -4.0 mark is third-best.
The Croatian may have a 5.82 PER and is only shooting 31.8 percent from the floor, but the Suns are clearly better when he’s on the court. Phoenix’s net rating drops to -16.8 when he’s not playing.
The same can be said for the Ukrainian Len, as that net rating when he’s on the bench is -15.8.
It’s a small sample size, but one has to wonder how long Triano rolls with Tyson Chandler and Chriss as the starters if the European duo continues to have a positive effect on the team’s play.
Mike James getting buckets
James is an NBA player. If that wasn’t clear in the time leading up to the start of the season, it was after the team’s first win of the season against the Sacramento Kings when he got his first career start filling in for Bledsoe.
He hit two very difficult shots late to win the Suns the game.
He has always been able to get buckets, but it looks like his time spent playing overseas professionally has balanced out his floor general game.
That much-needed sense of equilibrium for Phoenix is why his aforementioned net rating is the best on the team. He knows when the team needs to have movement and push or slow the pace.
It remains to be seen if he will continue this success as a starter, but his play has earned him a spot in this league for the foreseeable future.
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