EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
The 5: Questions for the Suns’ homestretch
In each of the last two seasons, the Phoenix Suns tallied 18 wins by NBA All-Star weekend.
Yet, the post-break expectations are incomparable.
In 2016-17, the Suns came out of the week by shutting down Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler with the full throttle on strategically resting their veterans. This year, with the lottery standings more of an afterthought, Phoenix will continue attempting to light a spark with a roster made up of youngsters.
Soon-to-be restricted free agent point guard Elfrid Payton continues his tryout. Attempting to fit Payton with Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and the rest of the Suns’ young rotation makes this stretch important.
Interim coach Jay Triano has an audition of his own as he attempts to build something this year and earn a chance to remain at his current post next year.
Here are five storylines to watch as Phoenix attempts to grow its young core in the final 23 games of the year.
As we discussed on our podcast this week, the fit between point guard Elfrid Payton and the Suns works only in that they need a point guard and that his flaws match his team’s as a whole. Yes, Payton gives Phoenix a better distributing point guard — arguably the best out of the pick-and-roll since Steve Nash left at the start of this decade — but his inability to stretch the floor and his defensive holes put the Suns in a weird position.
He’s a restricted free agent, but even a reasonable deal will tie down more than $20 million at point guard when considering Brandon Knight should be able to return around the beginning of next season. Still, if Payton is averaging close to 20 points to go with eight or nine dimes per game, the Suns have to think about re-signing him.
The defense has floundered of late, even before Booker missed a chunk of games in February heading to the All-Star break. Here’s where the Suns rank, by month, in defensive rating.
22nd (107.2) – October
27th (110.1) – November
20th (108.2) – December
29th (111.4) – January
30th (119.2) – February
Much of Triano’s improvements have come on the offensive end, and rightly so. He was previously Earl Watson’s offensive guru, but even through roster turnover, he’s got to prove he can help the Suns take steps forward, even if they’re physically at a disadvantage because of their age and their individual holes as defenders.
Offensively, his teaching has gotten across and midseason tweaks have led to mini-streaks of success until opponents adjust against the Suns’ over-matched collection of talent.
However, if the defense doesn’t improve, Triano will need to have a good name in mind for filling out his staff if he earns an interview for the permanent job.
The young forwards
The Suns flashed the look a few times before the All-Star break, but Triano’s comment that he’ll look more at Bender at the center slot brings intrigue to the rest of the year. So far, Bender’s spot minutes spent there have not gone well, especially alongside Marquese Chriss.
Chriss’ vague and unsettling comments to AZCentral’s Scott Bordow about “a lot of stuff going on” make his personal track one to worry about. But how does he fit alongside Bender in solely basketball terms?
By plus-minus statistics alone, players tend to do well with Jared Dudley on the court, and putting him alongside Bender will test whether a) Bender can rebound at a better rate playing center and b) facing more interior-oriented defenders will help bring the most out of Bender’s shy shooting habits.
However this goes, it’s going to be a factor in how Phoenix approaches a draft with several very different, very unique big men on the board.
Jackson playing within himself — and the team
Finally, Josh Jackson has turned a corner. He’s being more patient with the ball, has drastically improved his finishing around the rim (probably because of his patience) and is scoring in double-figures with regularity.
But Jackson is still, to a certain extent, playing street ball out there. The more he’s scoring by running off screens and cutting, the better. With all his athletic talents, he’s capable of holding his own as an on-ball defender. Until he develops better instincts off the ball, the talk about his defensive potential becoming elite can’t start.
Jackson is averaging 17.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.9 turnovers in 33 minutes per game this month. He’s improved his finishing at the rim and is shooting 45 percent overall, but his jumper still looks problematic; he’s shooting only 27 percent from three and 54 percent at the free throw line in February.
Booker wearing down?
Durability is part of being a star.
Devin Booker is still finding that out. He’s battled hand, rib and hip injuries since the new year began. While opponents have targeted him more intensely as the year has gone on, Booker’s field goal percentage has fallen off every month this season.
He shot 45.2 percent in seven October games and in January hit 41.0 percent.
Injuries, refined opposing defensive schemes and more emphasis running the Suns’ offense as a point guard have contributed to Booker’s shooting numbers. How he looks with less ball handling responsibility and how cautious the Suns are with their future star after the All-Star break will be a thing to watch.
If Booker continues putting up below-par splits alongside Payton, it will be a talking point.