Halfway through Deandre Ayton’s suspension, Suns’ talent well is tapped
Roster stress reached its limit for the Phoenix Suns this week.
Knicked up point guard Ricky Rubio (back spasms) and big man Aron Baynes (hip contusion) each missed a full game during their team’s two-game losing skid, leaving the fresh bricks holding up the redone roster exposed to the elements.
Phoenix’s loss on Tuesday to the Sacramento Kings marked the 12th game without suspended center Deandre Ayton. The 7-6 start has already made clear that the Suns need Rubio and Baynes to properly support Devin Booker, but Phoenix’s flaws have stood out more harshly over the last three games.
The Suns are a jump-shooting team without enough on-ball playmakers to survive a defensive off-night. Problem is, they’ve also crashed back down to earth on that end, ranking 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions (105.4) as of Wednesday.
A few themes to throw at you: Phoenix is top-10 in percentage of points scored off threes, fastbreak points and points off turnovers.
They take a league-leading 29.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game and also lead the NBA with 68.2% of their field goals scored that are assisted.
That all sounds nice, in theory.
But it also means Phoenix is wildly reliant on defense and passing to score. And without its two best defensive players and best creator via the pass, it spells trouble.
Even three games back against Atlanta when Rubio and Baynes were playing, Phoenix head coach Monty Williams wished aloud that he had Ayton’s agile frame available to stop the Hawks’ athletic rim-runners.
Without them over the two games since, many of the Suns’ defensive breakdowns have been communication issues.
A week back, Williams credited Baynes specifically for calling out switches depending on situation.
You can assume Phoenix had urgency coming out of halftime in Sacramento trailing 62-45 on Tuesday. But over multiple early possessions, it didn’t show. They flubbed up whether to switch or not on an off-ball screen, leading to an open Nemanja Bjelica three.
Starting Frank Kaminsky at center against the Kings showed just how much the Suns miss an elite athlete in Ayton or even an intimidating body like Baynes.
Below, Kaminsky can’t cut off a drive by Bjelica, who is a skilled, undersized and less-than-explosive power forward. And though Kaminsky stays in front of him, he does little to bother the floater.
Kaminsky is far from the only Sun who struggles with on-ball dribble containment.
Against the Kings, Williams wasted no time ditching a few of his regular rotations entirely, instead turning to better athletes that the Suns haven’t called upon much.
For defense, he needed the little-used Cheick Diallo to contest bigs Richaun Holmes and Dewayne Dedmon. Offensively, Williams jumped second-year pro Elie Okobo ahead of Jevon Carter to give Phoenix a pick-and-roll threat.
Booker was the only other creator off the bounce. He scored 30 points to go with eight assists, but that second number didn’t represent the volume at which he got his teammates open.
They just couldn’t hit.
According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Phoenix made just 39.3% of its uncontested shots — starters Dario Saric and Rubio went a collective 0-for-9. The Suns hit 40% of uncontested shots in a 99-85 loss to the Boston Celtics a day prior and 35% against the Atlanta Hawks last Thursday.
But while making and missing open shots can ebb and flow, the roster can’t change much.
Like Phoenix did against Trae Young and an injury-plagued Atlanta team last Thursday, Suns opponents are blitzing Booker and clogging the lane.
Floor-spacers like Saric, Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges must take and make threes off Booker-centric defensive gameplans, but Phoenix is also being limited by a lack of shooters.
Baynes’ 44% three-point accuracy isn’t going to last. Kaminsky (29%) and Bridges (24%) are not shooting even close to expectation. And teams are just fine forcing the ball away from Booker and allowing non-shooters to let it fly.
Here is Booker drawing, well, everyone, and passing out to Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre makes a nice swing, but that’s Rubio sitting in the corner.
About a minute later, Booker is at it in the pick-and-roll again with Diallo.
Maybe Booker missed an alley-oop pass — he probably isn’t used to looking for that without Ayton — but Bridges dribbles out of an open three and ends up giving it to Diallo for a 17-footer. That’s not his game.
The comeback in Sacramento at least gave Williams something to think about.
Diallo puts more pressure on the rim as a roller. While undersized, he’s at least a threat to block a shot.
Bridges may have gotten out of a slump thanks to a 20-point performance littered with strong defensive possessions. Johnson’s shooting impressed again as he hit four threes.
Okobo also provided a creation boost with five assists in 18 minutes as Rubio sat out the second half and Tyler Johnson struggling to provide pop.
It’s a one-game sample size that might lend reason to think more options exist. But the Suns won’t likely make any major shakeups after a 7-6 start. Enough worked to stay with it.
As it stands, Phoenix needs Rubio to be on the ball, slithering into the lane and kicking it out open shooters like Baynes. Both need to rattle some opponents around to get them out of offensive sets. They need their talking.
The Suns need that duo healthy to keep the forward momentum until Ayton’s return in mid-December.