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Suns change starting lineup, insert Cam Johnson for Jae Crowder

Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets guard PJ Dozier defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams teased a potential starting lineup change after his team’s last game, and he has pulled the trigger.

Williams is starting second-year wing Cam Johnson in place of veteran forward Jae Crowder for Monday’s matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. It is the team’s first game in a week after three straight were postponed due to contact tracing. That puts Johnson alongside the usual foursome of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton.

In the Suns’ first 11 games, the starting lineup has struggled to build cohesion offensively. Shooting guard Devin Booker admitted after a blowout loss to the Washington Wizards that the team has been carried by its bench in most of its wins.

The success of the second unit through Johnson, Cam Payne and Dario Saric has been one of the stories of the young season thus far. In Johnson’s 11 games, the Suns are outscoring teams by an average of 13.2 points per 100 possessions. On the flip side, Crowder’s net rating is -2.9, the second-worst in Phoenix’s rotation behind Ayton (-7.1).

Eventually, a change was going to be necessary if the trend continued. In 184 minutes together this year, that starting lineup has a net rating of -6.5, one of the worst in the NBA for an opening five.

The biggest change that Johnson brings is shooting. Johnson on the season is shooting 38.4% from three-point range on 6.6 attempts per game, as opposed to Crowder’s 35.2% on 6.5 attempts a night. Those numbers don’t indicate a large difference, but Johnson is certainly the better shooter.

Johnson brings more speed off the dribble and through motion, but Crowder is more versatile and trustworthy as a playmaker in reading defenses. Johnson is no slouch there, though, and the same can be said for his defense. Crowder, however, is a great overall defender, specifically rotating as a team defender. Johnson will need to prove he can be in the right spot on his help nearly just as much as Crowder.

The Suns undoubtedly lose their best on-ball defender when it comes to strength, as Crowder’s shown an ability to bang with the NBA’s elite perimeter forwards and not lose ground despite being undersized. That will not be the case for Johnson or Bridges.

Johnson has closed a game or two in place of Crowder this season, so Williams has shown a willingness there already.

The second unit was already a group to watch for with Saric out due to health and safety protocols, and now this switch emphasizes it even more.

Monday’s 3 p.m. start can be heard on ESPN 620 AM.


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