EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The 5: Questions in Suns’ quest for dramatic improvement this season

Oct 15, 2018, 8:35 AM

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)...

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The Phoenix Suns say they are done being, well, the Phoenix Suns.

One of the winningest franchises in league history has only 68 victories in the last three years.

This season, they want to win half that.

A double-digit win total improvement from 21 last season isn’t impossible, but here’s what will need to go right in order for that to happen.

Can the wings adapt to the offensive system?

Head coach Igor Kokoskov’s system relies on ball-handlers to make sound decisions, whether that be making the right pass or taking a shot they’re comfortable with. This presents a challenge to the Suns’ group of wings, who all have their unique qualities.

Josh Jackson has been granted a terrific opportunity to thrive in his second season. He could average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists a game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field if all goes according to plan. The problem is, Jackson loves a bad mid-range jumper, his decision-making is still coming to shape and even as a rookie his defense was shaky. Instead of doing an Andrew Wiggins impersonation, him focusing primarily on attacking the basket and playmaking while he fills the stat sheet and defends well would mark huge strides.

T.J. Warren isn’t the snazziest fit for the offense, but he has a great scoring touch and nose for the basketball. If he can defend better and assist teammates above the historically terrible rate he’s at in his career, there’s some functionality there.

Trevor Ariza can’t simply be a catch-and-shoot guy in this offense, which applies to every wing. He has to embrace attacking off-the-dribble, but luckily for the Suns, he’s done that in the preseason and looks good doing it. It’s not hard to imagine he has an itch to do so after standing and watching James Harden dribble for an eternity the past two years.

Mikal Bridges seems like an ideal “give him 15-20 minutes right away” type of rookie with his shooting and defense. If the Suns’ execution and effort as a team is good enough, a role player like Bridges will be maximized and makes the team even better. If the execution and effort is shaky, like it has been in the preseason, the team won’t get much out of Bridges.

Those four players as a collective can be the Suns’ biggest strength or weakness. Either the team is versatile and that can be the best plus playing off Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, or they prove to be limited in what they do (good and bad), and can’t capitalize on the opportunity to expand their games enough to play solid team basketball.

How close can Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker get to what Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons did last year?

No one expected the Philadelphia 76ers to win 50 games — even in the Eastern Conference — last year because their best players were 21 and 23 years old.

No one is expecting the Suns to win 35 games because their two best players are 21 and 20 years old.

Ayton has looked terrific in the preseason. He’s going to be productive, but it’s more than that. He’s doing little things well, like establishing himself in the post often, showing great instincts for block opportunities and operating well within the offense.

With his athleticism, motor and reliable mid-range jumper, he’s nearly a lock for a double-double every night. If he can push beyond that by being an average defensive player and creative offensively in the post, he could be a top-50 player in the league as a rookie.

Watch this sequence here from the preseason against the Sacramento Kings.

Ayton kills a possession on defense by moving his feet in pick-and-roll and then fronting the post entry to Marvin Bagley III. Off the miss, Ayton sprints down the court to beat Bagley and makes himself immovable under the basket to draw the foul.

That’s game-changing stuff, albeit in the preseason against the Kings.

As for Booker, he’s a borderline top-25 player in the league already. If you can’t recognize that yet, I’m sorry but that’s on you. Watch him more.

Anywho, Booker is rapidly reaching the point I wrote about in August where he might be too good for the Suns to be a 25-win team anymore.

To repeat myself, if he has a very slight uptick in his stats, he will post a season line of 25-5-5. Only LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady have done that before they turned TWENTY-FIVE in the last 15 years. Booker turns 22 the day before Halloween.

There’s a level of play he hits where the Suns have to win if he’s that good. The Suns’ roster doesn’t exactly set him up all that well, especially at point guard, but if he and Ayton are good enough, it won’t matter who is around them.

Is Igor Kokoskov a good NBA head coach?

To extend on that point, this is a more simplified question and answer that directly impacts how many games the Suns win.

After Kokoskov called out his team’s effort for two straight preseason games, the Suns responded with a good win in Golden State. Kokoskov getting that type of response is a good sign, as is the gradual improvement shown by his players to learn his concepts.

Still, they are behind from where they need to be to project as a 35-win team. Half his roster is new, as is Kokoskov’s status as an NBA head coach. His roster is also young and inexperienced. He’s asking for a lot out of Ayton, Jackson and whatever he winds up with at point guard.

A bad NBA coach would spiral in this situation. Kokoskov doesn’t appear to be one, and if he’s actually good, the Suns can actually trend upward for the first time in what feels like decades.

Can the Suns sustain a winnable defense behind a frontcourt of Ayton and Ryan Anderson?

Another by the books one here.

Anderson struggles to move his feet enough to survive as a power forward in … *clears throat* … today’s NBA. The numbers in Houston back up his dip in playing time. When Anderson sat, Houston’s defensive rating dropped from 105.9 to 102.1. He plays hard and knows what he’s doing out there — it’s just a matter of the athletes he is going to have to guard at forward. Some nights he will have to guard P.J. Tucker or Al-Farouq Aminu and it will be fine. Other nights he will have to guard one of LeBron James or Brandon Ingram and it’s not going to be fine.

As for Ayton, drill the fact into your head that rookies are VERY rarely average defenders. Most of them suck. A lot. Especially centers.

Ayton came out of Arizona known to be lacking in his defensive instincts. Watching courtside in the preseason as Damian Lillard ran one pick-and-roll, realized Ayton’s recoveries were off and then capitalized on this every time he could afterward was concerning. Lillard looked like a kid skipping down the street home from school as he punished the Suns with pocket pass after pocket pass after pocket pass.

Rim protection is tough and Ayton could be busy there. Booker, Jackson and Warren were very bad perimeter defenders last year. Trevor Ariza is good but has declined as of late. Bridges and De’Anthony Melton should be good, but again, they are rookies who may not even play much. Plus, all of them are learning a new system, which will lead to miscues where they have to hope Ayton bails them out at the rim.

Where is the point guard?

No, seriously. Do you know? Is James Jones reading this? James, can you tell me? I promise — I won’t turn you into a “team source” who “informed me.” I just want to know as someone who doesn’t want to start December by dissecting whether Nassir Little or Cameron Reddish is the right switchy wing for the Suns to pick in the 2019 draft. I want to wait until at least February for that. Please.

Ayton would have to post one of the best rookie seasons in the past decade and Booker would have to be an All-Star for the Suns to threaten anywhere close to 35 wins if this is the current point guard rotation.

I like those guys. Isaiah Canaan is an NBA player who knows how to run a system and move the ball. He can hit threes at an average rate and knows how to defend a pick-and-roll. Shaquille Harrison has game-changing defense. Elie Okobo and Melton both have long-term promise as starters.

None of the four are starting-caliber or even backup-caliber floor generals at this point and boy has it shown in the preseason.

The Suns need to make a move for a point guard if they want their win total to start with a 3 instead of a 2.

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