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Williams: Injuries have prevented Suns from finding best wing fits

Phoenix Suns' Kelly Oubre Jr. (3) and Mikal Bridges (25) celebrate after coming back late in an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic during the second half Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

The Phoenix Suns’ best five-man lineup includes both Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges.

But head coach Monty Williams can’t play them together until a game’s closing minutes because of injuries to the team’s second unit. At this point, the Suns coach can’t even determine how Oubre and Bridges fit best with different assortments of teammates.

Injuries to center Aron Baynes (hip), wing Cam Johnson (quad) and forward Frank Kaminsky (knee) have made that difficult.

Williams admitted to Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station that he’s thought about bringing Oubre off the bench and starting Bridges. It’s just not going to become a reality for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve talked about that as a staff. I’ve thought about it,” Williams said Friday. “The thing I always go back to is they’re both going to play the same amount of minutes, either way, and does the four- or five-minute start in the game give you an opportunity to be that much better?

“It’s something that I’ve thought about. The problem I have right now is we’ve been so depleted from an injury standpoint, anytime you throw the rotation off, it may give Devin (Booker) too many minutes to start Mikal and bring Kelly off the bench.”

Williams values both of Oubre and Bridges greatly — though it took a little longer for him to trust Bridges this year.

Averaging 18.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, Oubre brings a unique energy, an attacking mentality and off-the-bounce scoring. You would think he could help the current bench rotation that lacks shooting and individual offensive creation.

Bridges provides disruptive lockdown defense, off-the-ball movement and the ability to swing the ball. He’s averaging 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds with 1.5 steals in 29 minutes per game during the month of January, and you would think he could bolster the defense of the starting lineup.

When Oubre missed consecutive wins over the Knicks and Celtics due to a concussion, Bridges stepped in and Phoenix didn’t miss a beat. The functionality of it might’ve led to wondering what Oubre off the bench would look like once he returned a game later.

That didn’t happen though, and Oubre started in his first game back. Depth problems haven’t allowed too much tinkering.

Still, Phoenix has been searching for less drastic answers to improve the team once it gets six or so minutes into the game. Lately, Williams has been ushering all the starters except Booker off the court by the end of the first quarter, allowing the team’s potential All-Star to carry the subs.

Then, in the second quarter, starters like Ricky Rubio, Deandre Ayton and Oubre have returned to the lineup as Booker takes his first break, putting the onus on those three players to carry more offensive weight.

A loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday was a good example.

Booker played the entire first quarter and attempted to buoy a bench unit of Elie Okobo, Jevon Carter, Bridges and Cheick Diallo.

Once the second quarter began against Indiana, Booker was out. Rubio, Ayton and Oubre were back in with Carter and Bridges.

Another symptom of the injury-caused depth problems: Williams has been unable to roll with his best lineup until closing time. Rubio, Booker, Bridges, Oubre and Ayton have shared the court in the final minutes of close games lately, and in 50 minutes together, the lineup has a NET rating of 38.9.

That figure will surely come back down to a less outrageous figure, but the floor-spacing, athleticism and switchability have played a part in the group’s early success.

Problem is, a good deal of the team’s recent woes have to do what happens before that.

By elementary math, it’s hard to play the best players all at once — their minutes must instead be spread out over the course of a game — if Williams can’t trust his bench players to share the court with mostly bench players.

As they determine their identity in the first year under Williams, the Suns have put a lot of thought into which players fit best together to get over those hurdles. For now, that process is stagnated: there isn’t enough depth to experiment. The risks are too great.

“There’s going to be a fallback somewhere in the rotation when you’re missing Frank, now Aron, now Cam,” Williams said. “And Cam’s the big one for us. Not having those wing minutes, it’s going to hurt one of those (closing) guys.”


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