Evolution occurs organically.
A biologist probably would read that sentence and think it’s redundant if not stupid, but when it comes to sports, the point is that a team’s flaws lead the charge when it comes to its identity changing. For example, injuries to Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight led to the rise of Suns guard Devin Booker.
Booker and the Suns have taken another step down the evolutionary road this season under first-year coach Earl Watson. T.J. Warren’s emergence alongside Booker is as important as Booker’s own improvements.
Need proof this is Booker’s and Warren’s team and no longer defined by point guards Bledsoe and Knight? In Phoenix’s 119-108 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, the wing duo took 49-of-91 field goal attempts, or 54 percent of the team’s shots.
But through just seven games in 2016-17, Booker and Warren’s success comes as a result of serious flaws for the Suns.
1. Rotation inconsistencies
Sunday night was a poor one for the Phoenix second unit, especially in context of where the Suns’ bench roles have been going since Watson’s announcement after an opening night blowout that the young players would play.
Knight, the man Watson called the most important player on the team, played 17 minutes, going 1-for-8 with four assists, a turnover and three personal fouls. Aside from Alex Len, the entire bench unit looked fairly untrustworthy enough for Watson to cut their minutes.
But on a team constructed and expected to lose its fair share of games, Watson put the extra minutes on his starters rather than on the young player who in brief stints have played with gusto, if not outright success.
The result: Booker played 45 minutes, lost his legs on offense late, and the Suns still lost. Warren played 39 minutes.
The lack of trust is concerning beyond Knight’s ongoing acclimation to the sixth man role.
It’s representative of missed opportunities to develop Tyler Ulis, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, who also each bring a change-of-pace skill. The bench veterans like Knight, P.J. Tucker and Len don’t especially bring much different than their starting counterparts Bledsoe, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler.
2. Unbalanced offense
It’s exciting that Booker and Warren are excelling with expanded roles.
Booker (44 percent shooting, 32 percent from three) and Warren (46 percent and 40 percent from three) have also been efficient despite having to carve out their own shots too much.
Watson expected the Suns to run more motion plays and fewer pick-and-rolls. But while there has been less Bledsoe and Knight over-dribbling in pick-and-rolls, the lost possessions there have only turned into more onus on Booker and Warren to carry the scoring weight.
Phoenix is ninth in the NBA in isolation play frequency and 10th-worst in points per possession of ISO plays. As far as spot-up shooting goes, the Suns have the fifth-lowest rate of taking spot-up shots at 14.5 percent of their plays, well below league-leader Brooklyn at 25.7 percent.
They could take more, but it’s a matter of whether the Suns have the shooters to take advantage.
Even Warren could be set up better. Not a noted shooter, he is sixth in the entire NBA by scoring 1.29 points per 24 possessions of spot-ups.
And that leads us to…
3. Three-point shooting
During the preseason, Watson dreamed of a world where the Suns would shoot 30 three-pointers a game.
A dream it is. Because of the history of that statistic (only teams like Houston or Golden State will even get that many opportunities) but also because of the roster at hand, the Suns aren’t going to be a three-point shooting team.
Phoenix, simply put, doesn’t have enough shooters.
Dudley’s addition looked good on paper, but the aforementioned lack of spot-up opportunities created by the offense hasn’t created enough space for him to get off enough attempts to make teams pay. The Suns have been terrible with corner threes, the most efficient shot in the game.
Bledsoe is second on the team by taking 4.3 three-point attempts per game, but his hesitance makes him nearly useless as a spot-up shooter — he’s shooting 20 percent from deep anyhow. Even after his step-back game-winner this week, Portland’s C.J. McCollum put it well: “I don’t know what Bledsoe shot today from the field, but I’ll take that shot every day of the week.”