EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Questions for Suns’ 2nd half of the season, Pt. 1: Finalizing the roster
Mar 10, 2021, 7:30 AM | Updated: 7:33 am
(AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)
The Phoenix Suns are 24-11. Hot dog. How about that?
This team is for real. It’s a legitimate playoff squad and the expectation should be that Phoenix will give anyone in the Western Conference a hard out. There are a few key developments to monitor that’ll shape those expectations as we creep closer and closer to the return of Suns playoff basketball.
With the second half of the season beginning on Thursday, let’s run through ’em. Here are the first two.
How does Monty Williams solidify his rotation ahead of the postseason?
Ahead of the playoffs, discourse surrounding playoff teams will often lean toward “Do you trust ____ in Game 7 of a series?”
In short, how many players does a team have it can trust in playoff basketball? Right now, the Suns have seven dudes you’d say “yes” to when posed with that question: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric and Cam Johnson.
This is not to take a slight at the depth of the team, which definitely exists, but at a certain point in postseason basketball, rotations get cut and decisions have to be made.
Williams is already thinking about that process that will start in the second half of the season.
Well, sort of. He said last Thursday with a laugh that he hasn’t found a “comfort level” with either Cameron Payne or E’Twaun Moore as the definitive choice as the backup point guard, noting Payne is “still looking for him to be more solid in moments.”
When the playoffs come around, even if Williams keeps a super-tight rotation, he will still need to play another guard after the two All-Stars.
Payne has exceeded all expectations. As a flyer for the bubble, he took what was maybe his last NBA opportunity and has flown with it. At the beginning of the season, it was the bench carrying the Suns, something Booker even admitted at a certain point.
A lot of that was Payne. Phoenix outscores teams by 9.1 points per 100 possessions when he plays, a net rating that has mostly held steady through the year and is third on the team.
Payne gives the Suns something no one else on the team can as a change of pace ball-handler who uses rapid bursts of speed to get in the lane and either sc0re in the key or make the right pass.
There’s unique downhill juice he provides.
(We see you on that Klay-esque release Book!)
Per 36 minutes, Payne is averaging a second-best 7.8 assists per game. Because he busts his tail defensively and his stellar three-point shooting from Orlando has maintained at 42.1% on 5.2 attempts per game, Payne’s become such a team-friendly piece.
That’s further accentuated by the smart extra passes he can make, where the 26-year-old sees the game playing out at a calm tempo:
Note a pair of things about those last two clips: Payne is setting up Booker for open threes and doing so in low-clock situations.
More often than not, Payne has given off the vibe that he’s trustworthy.
Sounds like our eighth guy, right?
Well, Payne had a ankle thing that he tried to play through in late January, didn’t look the same coming back from it and then sat out with the then-listed foot thing (uh oh!) until he was fully healthy.
That opened the door for E’Twaun Moore to get cozy in the rotation.
Like Payne, Moore has been an impact guy by consistently making little plays here and there.
The 32-year-old veteran has been a pleasant surprise defensively. Any smidge of lateral quickness he had earlier in his career is gone, but the dude works hard and knows where to be.
Where Payne is unique as an agile playmaker, so too is Moore in that he is a Bucket. Yep, capital B, Bucket.
As Suns color commentator Eddie Johnson will attempt to relay to Suns fans who don’t know Moore’s game, he can score.
Moore has one of the best floater games in the league.
You need guys like that, because when you’re pressed for a bucket with the offense slogging around, you can do weird things like feed Moore in the post.
Yes, in the post, where he’ll slap the ball before giving a smaller Trey Burke that old-man-game work to snap the team out of its funk.
After that Jan. 30 win in Dallas, Williams shouted out that specific field goal from Moore, and Paul said the Suns wouldn’t have won the game without that third-quarter stretch that Moore was a part of.
Moore’s net rating is 5.7, another great number. He’s shooting only 24.0% from deep, a percentage that will rise because of the past precedent Moore has as a reliable catch-and-shoot threat.
He played well in Payne’s place, and when Payne came back, two shaky games was enough for Williams to yank him for Moore again.
And when the inverse happened, Payne was great in the last two games before the break.
Payne is the point guard of the two and has been the better player when at his best, but the question ultimately might be how Williams wants to work his rotation. If he wants to stagger Booker and Paul, which he should, Moore is the better combo to play off Booker or Paul.
In the playoffs, it should be Booker or Paul running the offense all 48 minutes. That doesn’t neutralize Payne’s value, though, as previously stated on some of the ways he helps the Suns win basketball games. It’s not an easy choice.
“That’s going to be a huge decision in the second half of the season,” Williams said Thursday of who to go with.
The head coach knows that building continuity with postseason basketball in mind is something that needs to be a priority.
“We have to settle on a rotation in the second half so we can have some consistency as we move forward in the season,” he said.
That applies to more than just the backup guard minutes.
Big man Frank Kaminsky has been a huge success off the bench this year, and bizarrely, so has starting him. But that’s not cutting it in the playoffs. The Suns need to work out the kinks ASAP with Crowder in the starting lineup, a group that somehow is still managing a -4.9 net rating despite 16 wins in their last 19.
How about a ninth man in the rotation? Williams loves him some Abdel Nader.
The fourth-year wing gives Phoenix some off-the-dribble slashing gusto on the wing and is one of those coach’s dreams that plays with energy while being in the right spot almost every time. That had Williams saying Thursday he believes Nader will be “a huge player” for them in the second half of the season.
An extra body defensively on the wing that is quick enough to hang on some guards is never a bad thing to have in the playoffs. Expect to see more of Nader.
The reserves as a whole have been great this season and they’ve earned a hard look as key pieces for a potentially deep playoff run.
What’s interesting is if Phoenix doesn’t quite like what they see after that hard look and/or has other things in mind, which takes us to….
Does GM James Jones find the right move?
The head honcho is never satisfied with his roster. That isn’t changing with the NBA’s second-best record. Jones has always stated that he will explore possibilities at the trade deadline and you can bet your bottom dollar he will be doing the same this March.
So what’s he looking for?
The back-and-forth movement at backup point guard suggests a certain lacking of confidence in that position. Three wings are enough for the playoffs, and Nader as the fourth is perfectly acceptable. Saric as Ayton’s backup has been one of the best bench players in the league, and in emergency depth, Kaminsky is there and has played great.
The assets worth exploring to move are iffy. Hitting the eject seat on Jalen Smith as a No. 10 pick a half-season in would require a certain amount of value in return. He’s the only contract above $2 million that Phoenix would conceivably receive interest on that isn’t one of those key seven guys.
The Suns own all their second-rounders after this year, but because of the restrictions on the future first-round pick they sent to Oklahoma City in the Paul deal, the earliest first-rounder they can send in a trade straight up is 2027. That’s a tough ask to an opposing front office for a pick six years from now.
All of that adds up to a trade being a tight squeeze and the buyout market being more preferred.
‘Sup with savvy combo guard Garrett Temple in Chicago? How about the Knicks’ Alec Burks? Those are two dart tosses of guesses of who could be available.
A large portion of whoever is, though, will have interest in the Suns. Guys want to play for Williams, with Paul and Booker, and for a team currently holding the second-best record league-wide.
We learned that last offseason and probably will again by the end of the month.