EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Davis Bertans’ high-level shooting could make Suns’ offense elite
NBA free agency is less than two weeks away, set to begin on Nov. 20.
Empire of the Suns will run through some of the names you need to know before then. Kellan Olson’s three-part offseason preview is a good starting point to get a full understanding of what the team could look to accomplish this offseason, especially when it comes to cap space.
The short answer is that there are plenty of intriguing possibilities.
All statistics via NBA.com, Basketball-Reference and Cleaning the Glass.
Davis Bertans is so good at what he does that I feel like we need to start off this piece with a disclaimer stating just that. If you’ve never heard of the Washington Wizards forward, it might be a bit of a shell shock. And even if you have, you probably still didn’t know he was this good.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old unrestricted free agent is the best shooter on the market and is top 5-10 in the league. He is also very much a specialist, which makes him fascinating to discuss as an unrestricted free agent and a curious case to see how much money he winds up getting.
After being drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft, serving as a fun trivia answer for the extra asset the San Antonio Spurs picked up in the draft-day trade for Kawhi Leonard, Bertans spent the next five years overseas.
He signed with the Spurs in 2016, earning under 15 minutes a game in his first two NBA seasons before a consistent role of 21.5 minutes a night in the 2018-19 season. Bertans rewarded the Spurs by giving them reliable, terrific shooting, clocking in 4.4 attempts per game from three-point range and making 42.9% of ’em.
This is to explain to you who this basketball man is, but also to point out that even the Spurs make bad mistakes, as they then traded Bertans in a three-team deal that netted them … DeMarre Carroll. Whoops!
With Bertans in Washington and having more of an opportunity as the true sixth man, he proved those shooting numbers were no fluke, posting 42.4% on 8.7 attempts per game. He was still on just 29.3 minutes a night, which means per 36 minutes the attempts were at nearly 11 a game.
Bertans upped his points per game to 15.4, which is kind of remarkable considering what he is.
Remember the part where I said Bertans is very much a specialist? I sounded pretty sure about that, didn’t I? Well, Bertans only attempted 2.6 two-pointers a game. Yes, that’s right. He attempted over three times as many 3s than 2s. What a mad man.
Now, I can hear you asking, “Kellan, what a bizarre statistical factoid. Has that ever been done before?”
The answer is, over the course of a full season averaging over 10 shots a game and under three two-pointers, no! Gerald Green in 41 games of Moreyball for the 2017-18 season shot 7.3 3s and 2.8 2s, while a very strange 1998-99 Dee Brown run for the Toronto Raptors also came up with 3.0 2s and 7.1 3s over 49 games. That’s it!
If we increase the two-pointers to under five a game, there are 27 of these seasons in the last five years, so it’s a bit more common than you think. Still makes him a specialist, though, but don’t let that term make it seem like I’m implying he’s a limited or bad player. J.J. Redick, Marcus Smart, Eric Gordon and Robert Covington also pop up on that list.
Where does Bertans fall?
Let’s quickly strengthen the shooting argument even more before getting to the rest of his game, because after all, that’s why a team like the Phoenix Suns would be paying him.
Bertans is not just a stationary catch-and-shoot guy. He has improved in those nine years since being drafted, increasing his capabilities in off-ball movement and even taking a dribble or two when required.
Remember, this is a guy we’re talking about that’s 6-foot-10. So with this quick of a release, even with the defender near him, it’s done.
And Bertans has range. He was 18-of-24 from 30-34 feet last season. Yes, he shot 75% from 30-34 feet.
If Bertans is coming down in transition and gets a look with any space at all, he’s firing.
Shabazz Napier’s reaction as Bertans pulls this tells you that he wanted the extra pass. Nuh-uh. Not with Bertans.
Bertans hasn’t shot much from the corners in his NBA career yet, but that’s certainly where the Suns would slot him a lot, and he shot a hilariously awesome 56.5% there the past two seasons on 85 total attempts.
If you think about the Spurs from 2016-18 and last year’s Wizards, that’s not nearly the amount of off-dribble creation the Suns have through Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio, or the interior presence of Deandre Ayton. More on that in a bit.
The rest of Bertans’ offense, as one might expect, is light. The most two-pointers he made in a game last season was four. I’m serious.
He knows what his bread is butter is, and you know what, you kind of have to respect it.
He’ll make a smart cut every now and then. This is a good read on the ocean of space in front of him.
The assist numbers are low, only 1.7 a game last year, but he’s pretty close to a “0.5” guy. He understands when his space is gone, so he’ll keep the ball moving if it is.
Don’t run stuff through him attacking the basket, ignore the fact that he looks like your dad throwing a pass and you’ll see he’s fairly competent.
The right play is usually a basic one and that’s really all Monty Williams’ system asks for.
And before we get to Bertans’ defense, which is bad, something to understand on him is that he competes.
Here, down 20, he jostles with Carmelo Anthony for a steal, knows Anthony’s slow getting back and then sprints down the floor to beat him to the spot.
It was semi-intentional to include a clip of Bertans running to highlight the type of athlete we are covering before we arrive at the defensive end of the floor.
But that was to also show his energy. Bertans’ defense might surprise you because he’s actually rather attentive and understands where he needs to be, which, actually, shouldn’t be surprising considering the time overseas and in the Spurs’ system.
There’s only so much he can do, though, because Bertans is obviously not athletic, strong or big enough to be a rim protector, so he’s a de facto wing.
When he’s on the weakest cover of the night, a non-scoring threat off the bounce at forward, he can hang and help in the team defense. But if you want to switch with Bertans, which Washington did, that’s where him on legitimate offensive players can present trouble. And when playing a team that’s got enough gusto offensively, he’s absolutely a liability.
Harrison Barnes will go right through him.
Again, Bertans is trying and knows what’s going on, but the foot speed just isn’t there.
Ball-screen defense is a tough ask on Bertans, and that’s where a team making a long-term commitment is obviously worried about him getting picked on in the playoffs.
Bertans’ defensive metrics, which I will not bore you with, were awful. The Wizards were one of the worst defensive teams in the league and that didn’t help him there.
The on-off court statistics weren’t nearly as damning, though. Bertans sported a 113.9 defensive rating compared to the team’s 114.7 mark, and his 113.6 offensive rating (the best on the Wizards) meant his net rating was only -0.3, the top number among season-long Washington players.
Which is basically the entire point on Bertans.
Shooters always provide value in today’s NBA because of how they space the floor, but that analysis has a bit of fatigue these days and should only be reserved for the truly great marksmen.
Bertans is one of them and defenses know that.
Two years ago, Booker had completed the understanding of his most important skill as a primary initiator: how to consistently force defenses into a choice, what that choice was and how to punish them for that choice. There’s a certain level of mental comprehension and talent required to do so. Booker has been perfecting it more by the game, and with a competent supporting cast in Orlando, proved it.
Bertans would put Booker on an accelerated learning program of sorts on the road to his master’s degree. Along with Ayton, it would give the Suns three black holes of gravity, and if Bertans is out there with Cam Johnson, forget about it. The true value in Booker is that he makes his teammates more valuable. Suns fans are more than familiar with what that looks like after what Steve Nash achieved in Phoenix, and a signing like Bertans would be taking advantage of Booker’s ability to do that.
As you hopefully understand at this point, the Latvian is quite a unique player, so it’s difficult to pin down a price point. He’s definitely going above the full mid-level exception at $9.3 million, but how about $15 million a year? Even more than that? Who knows.
Phoenix’s overall versatility would take a hit if it added Bertans. Defensively, they’d lose a step or two. Bertans would probably be best suited coming off the bench still, used instead in the closing of games like he was in Washington.
But the Suns could threaten for a top five offense with Bertans alongside Ayton and Booker. There’s just no way to really defend that consistently, especially if Kelly Oubre Jr. sticks around to provide additional slashing and last season’s encouraging shooting numbers from Mikal Bridges and Rubio hold.
The central talking point around the Suns’ offseason is if they do something truly bold, charting higher on the magnitude scale than one might assume, all in an effort to make the playoffs right away. Bertans isn’t the biggest name, so signing him doesn’t feel like it would qualify, but creating one of the NBA’s elite offenses would.