Phoenix Suns keep faith in continuity, take smart chance on Aaron Holiday

Feb 11, 2022, 2:59 PM

Aaron Holiday #4 of the Washington Wizards reacts alongside Landry Shamet #14 of the Phoenix Suns d...

Aaron Holiday #4 of the Washington Wizards reacts alongside Landry Shamet #14 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 16, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Wizards 118-98. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It was a great trade deadline for the Phoenix Suns. Let’s get that out of the way.

But if there was one need for the team, it was another threat off the bounce, solely due to the fact that both Cam Payne and Landry Shamet have underperformed as the reserve backcourt.

Title windows are not times to mess around, which is why I was among the voices providing my two cents on that needing to be addressed. It was not, and to repeat a constant theme in this space, it is difficult to find the right guy for the right price in the right deal at the trade deadline. The hope is that the price, whether it was draft picks or a looming luxury tax bill, wasn’t the reason why.

The Suns picked up wing Torrey Craig and guard Aaron Holiday on Thursday, but the latter is more of a depth piece at the end of the bench than someone who could get minutes in the playoffs. More on him in a minute.

None of this will matter if Payne and Shamet figure it out. The Suns are betting on their continuity and sustainable basketball ecosystem getting them right before mid-April rolls around. There is plenty of logic behind believing in that.

I broke down the duo’s struggles in detail last month as a way to preview that need ahead of the deadline. Since then, Payne improved while Shamet regressed.

We will see how both look once they come back from injury. General manager James Jones told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo that Shamet could return from his right ankle sprain before the All-Star break, while Payne is still progressing after spraining his right wrist.

Payne’s postseason numbers were fairly standard, but they do not come close to representing his awesome play last year. He swung a handful of moments in the first round, was steady against the Denver Nuggets and then was tremendous replacing Chris Paul in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals.

Phoenix does not make it to the NBA Finals without the play from Payne that made him one of the league’s best backup point guards. Do not marginalize how important those minutes are. It is unlikely they make it back unless he gets close to that level again.

Payne is adjusting after coming into the season as a known man. He is no longer the lost former first-round pick clinging onto a roster spot. The scouting report is out, and he’s had to figure out adapting to that.

“It’s kinda tough,” Payne said on Jan. 22. “At the beginning of the season it was more tough than it is now. Because I’m like, ‘Man, they taking away everything I’m good at!’ Coming in last year, I wasn’t on the scouting report, and now I am. Gotta find different ways to score.”

On top of that, he was playing pick-and-pop with Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky last year before now working alongside strictly roll men like JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo.

After Payne sprained his wrist, he had been shooting 44.6% from the field and 40.0% at 3-point range in his last 13 games. That is an encouraging bump from his overall numbers that sit at 40.4% and 33.6%, respectively.

There is a precedent for Payne last season to get back at the level he needs to be at. Shamet, on the other hand, does not have that.

Like Payne, it’s as basic as Shamet’s shooting percentages of 37.0% overall and 35.3% from deep not being good enough. That deep dive included both guys having uncharacteristically low numbers on 3s that NBA.com’s tracking data classifies as “wide open.” Those should go up.

Shamet, however, is not like Payne, who will remain downhill and aggressive through this stretch. Despite possessing a more-than-apt skillset for making decisive actions with the ball that Monty Williams’ system demands, Shamet was still performing like a guy who is trying to get comfortable.

These two possessions from a win against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 20 may not seem like that big of a deal but they stick out like a sore thumb in the Suns’ offense that always keeps things moving.

Off dribble penetration, Shamet receives the ball in the corner and gets his defender to bite on a pump fake. From there, he needs to make the defense pay. Instead, he’s unable to get anything out of having two feet in the paint and the possession has to reset with half the shot clock gone.

It’s not great spacing, but in those moments, it can’t be a hard reset to make Devin Booker bail the offense out.

Later in this shift, Shamet gets the ball in semi-transition for a 4-on-4 break. Biyombo flies down the floor to help make the situation even better. Shamet can either hit him, drive himself with all the space or find Payne benefitting from Biyombo’s rim run.


A few times this season, Williams has alluded to the Suns trying to help Shamet with his confidence.

This is what Williams had to say the day after Shamet had his best outing of the season, 17 points in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 28.

“Landry’s stuff is just let it go. Stop thinking about it,” Williams said on Jan. 29. “Shoot the ball (and) if you miss, so what? We have so many guys on our team that get upset when he doesn’t take shots, from the coaches to the players. He has the ability to make shots (and) he also has the ability to put the ball down and get to spots on the floor and find other guys.

“For us, it’s like, ‘Landry, shoot the ball. Let it fly. Don’t worry about the consequences. We believe in you.’ It was just good to see him shoot the ball without hesitation last night.”

Perhaps the fourth-year guard Holiday can assimilate himself enough over the next few months to get spot minutes for important moments if Payne and/or Shamet don’t bounce back.

Holiday has some scoring and shooting pop to his game, and while his size doesn’t allow for stellar defensive play, he sure likes pestering.

He’s alert and plays hard. In this clip, a Washington Wizards loss is all but certain down 10 with under a minute left. Holiday rips two straight steals off the Indiana Pacers to make ’em sweat at least one more possession.

Remember when Chris Paul was impressed by McGee going hard in garbage time last year? Similar vibes.

If you’re smart, have good habits and work through a high motor, you’ll be fine in the Suns’ defense. Holiday looks the part.

Offensively is where Holiday will have to provide some value to stick.

His shooting percentages inside the arc for his first three seasons with the Pacers were rough until there were some nice upticks this season with Washington.

He’s up from 45% to 62% at the rim and 35% to 47% from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass.

That includes a 40-for-80 (50%) knockdown rate from 5-14 feet, that short midrange area where good touch conquers all.

Holiday shot 40.3% on his 335 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts with Indiana before a dropoff to 32.7% on 49 total attempts for Washington this year. Phoenix will surely get something closer to the Pacers’ sample size given its strong ball movement.

The UCLA product has yet to prove he’s anything beyond a depth guard at the end of a bench, which is why Washington was happy to save some money and let go of him for nothing. But given Phoenix acquired Holiday for essentially nothing (Dario Saric’s injury exception) as well, it’s a good swing.

Holiday is a restricted free agent this offseason, providing the Suns control if they want to bring him back, another reason why it was a smart deal. Things like this are going to be crucial for Phoenix in the future because of their near-certain reality of becoming a luxury tax team and the restrictions in place for teams over the cap already.

Getting Craig under contract for next year too is another example of this. The back-half of the rotation becomes harder to fill out the longer you operate over the cap.

To make room for Holiday, the Suns waived Abdel Nader. He had his faults on the floor but is a certified NBA player who knew the system and was their type of guy in terms of workrate and such. He just couldn’t stay healthy.

When Payne and Shamet heal up, a fascinating decision presents itself of whether or not two-way wing Ish Wainright can find a roster spot to be on the playoff squad. He has more than earned it and proved he belongs. If you’re optimistic enough about the 27-year-old rookie, you could say the Suns should pull the trigger on that through a minimal long-term deal with some non-guarantees along the way.

The question is, if Holiday fits in enough, does Wainright’s spot become Elfrid Payton’s? Payton has been unable to remain consistent as the third-string point guard, and if that becomes Holiday, he would be expendable to create room for Wainright. If that’s the case, it’s another plus for the Holiday acquisition.


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