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Dan Bickley

Suns impossible to get a read on without a real point guard

Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov watches as guard Devin Booker (1) takes himself out of the game after an injury during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

If alibis were trophies, the Suns would be NBA champions.

They are still the worst team in the Western Conference. They must pass six franchises in the offseason just to claim the No. 8 seed in next year’s playoffs. If not, their postseason drought will reach the farcical realm, stretching into a full decade.

How would they look with a real point guard?

We have learned that their superstar makes all kinds of shots, including clutch shots, and is simply great at being Devin Booker. But he doesn’t seem to inspire or elevate his teammates. His return to the lineup in Tuesday’s loss to the Pacers resulted in appalling effort, as if Booker sucked the joy out of a team that somehow enjoys playing without him.

Before that game, the Suns were charting a new and rare course in Arizona, a hard-hewn identity built on defense and energy. Booker’s presence changed all of that, coincidence or not. And that’s a serious problem.

He needs to bring out the best in his teammates, not the worst. Maybe that comes with age and better health. Or maybe that starts with Booker truly committing himself to the virtues of tenacious defense, winning the respect of those who already have.

But how do you judge a high-volume scorer when he is still waiting for a true point guard to run the show in Phoenix?

We have learned that Luka Doncic is way better than Deandre Ayton, the true star of the rookie class. That’s not a sin and not a surprise. It doesn’t mean the Suns made a mistake on draft night. Not yet.

But it’s up to Ayton to make up the difference. At some point, he must grow tired of the criticism and jealous of the impact Doncic is making in Dallas. He has to grow in ways that Doncic already has, and that requires an appetite for greatness.

Meanwhile, the Suns need to do a better job of growing the beast. They need to run the offense through Ayton more often, get him the ball on the blocks, let him feel the glory of a 30-point game.

Alas, how do you judge the team’s first impact center when the Suns entered his rookie season without a real point guard?

We have learned that Igor Kokoskov has an arduous job. He has too often fielded a team not ready to compete, blown out in the opening quarter. He doesn’t possess the alpha male presence that commands fear and respect in the modern NBA. He has great concepts and perspective, but his communication skills are marginalized.

This season, the Suns have had numerous spats: Booker and Ayton exchanged words after a loss in December; Josh Jackson berated T.J. Warren following a turnover; and Booker screamed at Elie Okobo at the end of a loss, as both players stood out of bounds, each believing he should inbound the ball.

Kokoskov doesn’t always seem in control. He doesn’t scream or berate the officials. It might help if he threw a chair every now and again, but it would be wholly disingenuous, a head coach trying to be something he’s not.

So, finally:

How do you judge a rookie head coach employed to bring sophistication, design and deception to the offense … without gifting him a real point guard?

That’s why this season is so frustrating. Just when the Suns take steps forward, someone throws the car in reverse. They’re building on wet cement.

I’ll hold out hope that the Suns end up drafting Zion Williamson or Ja Morant; attract the attention of Kevin Durant, maybe even shock the world with his free-agent signature; and the acquisition of Kelly Oubre Jr. will be a serious twist of fortune, spawned from the embarrassment of a butchered three-team trade that never happened.

But they need to settle on their point guard of the future before making any long-awaited leaps or conclusions. After all, the void at the position has made this year’s team impossible to judge. And, ultimately, impossible to embrace.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier