Empire of the Suns: Picking Phoenix’s MVP, MIP and biggest concern

Oct 19, 2021, 5:37 PM
Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (3) talks with Devin Booker (1) during the first half of Game 3 of basketb...

Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (3) talks with Devin Booker (1) during the first half of Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, in Milwaukee, Sunday, July 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Two primetime, national TV games tip off the NBA season Tuesday before the Phoenix Suns debut for the 2021-22 season on Wednesday against the Denver Nuggets.

Now that Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman have made their very bold predictions for the league, they turn their microscopes to the hometown team.

Here are a few key questions for Phoenix as it attempts to make another deep playoff run.

Is Devin Booker or Chris Paul more important to this team?

Kellan Olson: I feel like the right answer is Booker on the court and Paul overall. Too many times last year we saw the offense nosediving as Booker rested. The highest offensive rating on the team was Booker’s 118.3, and the lowest offensive rating for any player while they were off the court was Booker at 109.6. With that in mind, Paul’s ability to lead and structure the team is too crucial to the overall success of the team. And that’s not to undermine what Paul does with his play, either. Monty Williams is never afraid to say how often Paul calls out from the playbook himself and I think his voice defensively played a big part in them being great on that end last year. It’s close, but Booker is the answer.

Kevin Zimmerman: Let’s frame it this way: The Suns survived without Chris Paul at 100% and at points without him at all during the playoffs last year. I don’t think the same could be said for Booker. Wins are the name of the game, and Booker is ultimately more essential.

The latter is among the NBA’s most gifted scorers, who gets his buckets within the flow of the offense and has also flashed the superstar ability to control the tempo by keeping his teammates engaged. He also can take over — no matter how aggressive a defense is.

So do we really downgrade Paul for the team succeeding when he’s out? He deserves credit for sharpening his teammates to be able to do that, for sure. He and Monty Williams create the bedrock of a winning culture. But on the court, Booker took a monumental step forward on defense during the team’s NBA Finals run. He can be legitimately good on that end when it counts. Quietly, Paul has been hidden on defense thanks to Mikal Bridges, among others. Here is a red flag of a stat that might hint at something about Paul’s defense — or maybe it requires more context.

Who is your pick to make the biggest leap this year between Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Cam Payne?

Olson: Picking Ayton almost feels like cheating since he’s made a mini-leap each of his first three seasons, and honestly, ditto for the other guys in their seasons for Phoenix. I’m going to go Bridges. The Suns made him a bigger part of the offense throughout the preseason and he was consistently aggressive with the extra opportunities he was presented. That’s not only important for Phoenix because Bridges’ improvement is something they should utilize, but if he shows he’s capable, that’ll take more of the load off Paul and Booker. Plus, Bridges can set those two up with his dribble penetration, something those two rarely benefit from.

Zimmerman: Bridges would be my answer as well after we saw flashes of succeeding with more responsibilities toward the end of last year. He’s got it in him and the Suns’ offense can fit it.

Ayton, however, is a more fascinating and complex talent when it comes to finding ways to expand his role. Throw in worries about his contract season here as well, I guess.

Do the Suns find ways to run the offense out of the post more often? That would require Williams putting a governor on Ayton’s mid-range shot that probably isn’t efficient enough to be utilized too often.

Can Ayton bump his scoring efficiency by getting to the foul stripe more or taking a trailer three or two per game? How do either of those things look within Phoenix’s offense? Does putting more on Ayton offensively come with speedbumps throughout the season? Do the Suns even need that?

How much will this team miss Dario Saric?

Olson: I’ll let Kevin handle the brunt of this because I wrote about it extensively. For the TL;DR crowd, Frank Kaminsky is very underrated for where he’s at on the depth chart and what he brings. They’ll sprinkle him in occasionally and he’s going to produce. I’m not as confident on Jalen Smith, but we know the skillset/talent is there and that could be a big-time bonus if he’s ready.

Zimmerman: Can believe our boyo Kellan forgot to mention JaVale McGee in the above (he did write about it). I am just guessing here, but McGee could get extensive looks to start this season, maybe ahead of Kaminsky. Many casual NBA fans might think about McGee as a goofy journeyman, while more attentive fans understand he’s already this team’s best rim-roller and shot-blocker. But as we’ve seen with a lot of players who have joined the Suns — Cam Payne, Jae Crowder, etc. — McGee has some ball-moving stuff to his game.

None of that is to say Kaminsky will be a bad option, but just a different ball-moving flavor. Remember, he reappeared in the NBA Finals and gave the Suns a boost in their final breaths. The Finals! All of this is to say that as helpful as Saric was last regular season, Phoenix has at least two very good replacement options who won’t gunk up the offense. McGee, though, has more defensive pop.

Among two folks who are quite high on this team, what is your biggest concern about the team?

Olson: The players they lost near the end of the bench. Torrey Craig was a luxury unlike any other in the league as a fourth wing who could change games the way that he did through an inconsistent role. It may not feel this way a half-year later, but there were times in the regular season where Williams had to turn to Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore, and both veteran guards for the most part were able to provide positive contributions.

It’ll now be on Abdel Nader, Elfrid Payton and Jalen Smith to give the team a spark on those nights in the regular season where they are shorthanded or the reliable first 10 guys in the rotation aren’t bringing it. I’m not saying that as a slight to that trio, because while I believe they are capable, it’s rare what the Suns got from the roster up and down last year.

Zimmerman: Man, as I expressed throughout last regular season and the playoff run, it was hard to identify glaring flaws on this team. Unless you consider an inability to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo as a major flaw, I’m not sure anyone found one last year.

General manager James Jones did address the lack of a rim-protector behind Ayton (McGee) and added more ball-handling (Payton, Shamet) for a team that had three players who made plays regularly off the bounce (Paul, Booker and Payne). I have sat here for three minutes thinking about a major concern.

I can only go with some lazy #narratives: Ayton plays shakily, due to his contract or desire to grow his game; Paul begins to show his age; and the team is in trouble offensively if Booker misses any significant amount of time.

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