The 5: Questions for Suns’ new-look depth chart heading into next season
With the Phoenix Suns agreeing to a new deal with Kelly Oubre Jr., the time for expectations begins.
The Suns’ roster is just about finished, with 14 of the 15 spots filled and a pair of two-way contracts open.
There are several clear themes within the depth chart, chief among them adding experience and addressing needs.
Here’s a look at the five biggest questions for the roster.
Is Devin Booker ready to win?
The biggest criticism, rightfully so, of Booker’s young career is the lack of winning to a frightening degree. He has yet to win 25 games in a season, and with the point he is at as a player, that is now beyond unacceptable.
The Suns’ roster is set up to accentuate Booker. They could have looked for some upside plays in the draft or free agency, but instead, they appear ready to bet on Booker and Ayton carrying them now and in the future.
Booker’s year-to-year growth into an All-Star caliber guard suggests he’s ready to do so.
But now there are no more excuses through names like Marquese Chriss, Tyson Chandler and Tyler Ulis starting alongside Booker. The projected lineup of Ayton, Dario Saric, Oubre, Ricky Rubio and Booker provides enough of a proven pedigree and talent for Booker to show he’s a star and lead the team beyond a realistic win total.
That goes for the defensive end of the court as well, because while Booker is still going to have most of the offensive load on him, the Suns can’t drastically improve with a bottom-five defense in the league. Booker being competent there, as he has shown capable of being at times, would be a huge start.
He has to stay healthy, too. After playing in the first 20 games of the 2017-18 season, Booker has had only one streak of playing in 16 straight games or more. His stretches of games missed last season were three, one, six, three, two and three. That included a stretch in the first half of the season where Booker clearly wasn’t playing at 100% and admitted as much.
If Booker can avoid missing time and all the pieces around him at least meet the expectations set, the Suns should easily clear 30 wins. Booker is that good.
Is a jump in year two coming for Deandre Ayton?
To continue on from Booker, Phoenix is doubling down for gradual improvement coming out of Ayton.
Ayton was both historically productive as a rookie while failing to consistently impact games.
The good came with the bad. His highs and lows were so memorable you’ll remember the opponent and context.
In Orlando, Ayton flashed his defensive upside like never before.
At home against the Los Angeles Lakers, Ayton showed he could be the number one option offensively by taking advantage of mismatches and getting to the free throw line, also spending stretches defensively guarding LeBron James.
His form on both ends in Brooklyn was the one game Ayton played where he definitively looked like the unstoppable No. 1 overall prospect he is supposed to be over the course of the entire game.
There was also the home game taking on the Nets, where Kenny Atkinson had his big men giving Ayton five-plus feet of space and it clearly got to Ayton. Rudy Gobert’s domination of Ayton in a game against the Jazz led to him calling the two-point outing the worst game he’s ever played in his life.
We all know by now what the former looks like. It features Ayton being relentless on the offensive glass. Ayton’s top seven scoring performances of his rookie year all had him grabbing at least four offensive rebounds.
In the 21 games Ayton scored at least 20 points, he averaged 4.3 offensive rebounds. In the other 50, he grabbed 2.7, including his 12 lowest-scoring games of the season not featuring one game where he grabbed more than three.
You could argue Ayton exploding with that energy night in and night out is more important than any other changing variable in year two, such as an increase in his post touches or more efficiency and range on his jumper.
It starts with him making his presence known every game, and if he can check that box with some decent growth elsewhere as a sophomore, that’s all the Suns can ask for.
How much do a proven point guard and power forward really help?
Rubio is a starting-caliber NBA point guard. Ditto for Saric at the power forward spot. The Suns didn’t even have a natural power forward or point guard on the roster last year, let alone one each that you can trust with 24-32 minutes a night.
Rubio and Saric are not going to be difference-makers defensively, and, well, not really difference-makers regardless. It’s more about having smart, tested players who can play their role and won’t try and do more.
There’s no telling how much that’s actually worth to the Suns’ win total. Given how the last two years went, one would guess quite a lot.
Rubio’s the best defensive guard the Suns have had since Eric Bledsoe cared in a Suns uniform and there has been no better passer since Steve Nash. There’s less pizzaz with Saric but he plays hard and makes heady plays consistently.
Competency from a full rotation would go a long way for the Suns this season and it’s going to start with what Rubio and Saric bring.
Sup with the wing and rookie minutes?
Mikal Bridges should start opening night. Oubre got the bag and that probably makes him the starter but Bridges’ shooting and basketball sense across the court feel like a much better match for the likes of Saric and Rubio than it does mixing in Oubre as the third scorer with Booker and Ayton.
Regardless, head coach Monty Williams will need to find at least 30 minutes a night for both guys, and he’s only got 48 at small forward to work with.
There are the 12-16 leftover shooting guard minutes Booker won’t play to fill out as well. Is that, though, where two-guard minutes come for Tyler Johnson or Ty Jerome when they aren’t backing up Rubio? What about Cam Johnson?
Going small at power forward with regularity seems like the safest bet. We can already cancel out doing that at center with Ayton and Aron Baynes, which, sigh. Frank Kaminsky’s fit on the roster is even more confusing when you consider crossing off him playing as a center because of Baynes and the need for Oubre, Bridges and Cam Johnson to get some spot minutes as small-ball fours too. His signing on a $10 million deal point towards Phoenix not running with two wings, two guards and a big that often.
The value in drafting Cam Johnson and Jerome is their ability to contribute right away but it doesn’t look like there’s much room for them.
Can Williams instill his principles and figure out the players he can trust right away?
This was the biggest downfall of the Igor Kokoskov era.
He had to spend half the season sorting through veterans who sucked while Booker was hurt before finally figuring out his rotation. Then, Oubre and Tyler Johnson were acquired and more injuries to T.J. Warren, Ayton and De’Anthony Melton came. Kokoskov couldn’t even come close to getting a grasp on the team because of it.
Williams should be luckier and has a roster far more suited to a quick assessment than Kokoskov’s did.
And unlike Kokoskov, Williams will have the respect of the locker room from the jump. His ability to hold it while figuring out what to change and tweak on the court through the first 20 games of the year will be the push this roster needs towards a season worth building off of.