2022-23 season preview: Are expectations setting for the Phoenix Suns?
It has been an eventful offseason ahead of a new year of Phoenix Suns basketball.
Empire of the Suns co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman reset where everything stands.
Kellan Olson: Kevin, this has been a weird six months. I went from wondering how much water and sunscreen I would need to cover a championship parade in late June to wondering what exactly is going on here, a question I started asking back in New Orleans. I haven’t landed on a good answer yet.
From the unrecognizable performances across a befuddling 13-game playoff run to the Deandre Ayton saga to the Kevin Durant saga to the Jae Crowder saga to the total lack of needle-moving transactions this offseason, a lot of fans (based on my own interactions) are drenched from a cloud filled of pessimism for how this upcoming season will go. (And hopefully, we don’t have to add the Cam Johnson saga to this list. Extend him now!)
Let’s do our best to shove those things aside and just look at this basketball team for what it is. When factoring in the expectations of championship or bust given the current window of the team, how do you feel about the 2022-23 campaign?
Kevin Zimmerman: I think it’s an overreaction to assume the team is crumbling despite a lot of evidence that it is crumbling. But tensions and bad relationships happen when you’re in the spotlight — I have heard the reigning champion Warriors had a fight in practice recently. However, that’s not to say there are not concerning flaws that cap this team’s potential at, well, a conference semifinals exit. We have talked about the same ones since before the NBA Finals run way back when.
It starts with Monty Williams making a comparison of Chris Paul to the Denver Broncos version of Peyton Manning. It was good to acknowledge that the team must treat the point guard differently, put some support systems in place and change how he’s used on the court. Players of that age must adapt. That admission is also not great because those Broncos teams were built to survive on Manning throwing ducks, and this Suns team is not prepped for Paul to be limited in any comparative degree.
Who is the third ball-handler after Devin Booker and Paul? Third? Cam Payne and Landry Shamet couldn’t combine to carry nearly enough weight last year.
It doesn’t matter if Ayton shoulders tons more of an offensive load and succeeds. Or if Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson can do a little more initiating.
Kellan, what are your big concerns about the construction of the roster and the limits that could stop the team from making a decently long postseason run in a Western Conference that, by the way, is probably stronger at the top compared to last season?
Olson: It’s the lack of balance and depth that you covered.
To set it straight, I think this is going to be an awesome team in the regular season again.
The new starting lineup is going to annihilate its opposition. The boost Johnson’s shooting will provide from an efficiency and spacing standpoint is going to open even more up. Defenses are only going to have bad decisions to make with how it rotates. No more getting an extra five feet off Crowder. And if Ayton, Johnson or Mikal Bridges elevate their game to reliable third options as individual offensive creators, whew boy.
If Payne lands somewhere between the last two seasons, that’s an above-average backup point guard. That’s all the Suns need from late October to mid-April. Shamet had the worst year of his career and I doubt that was the beginning of his decline. He should return to being an elite shooter at the very least and showed last year he’s a good defender.
That is a strong enough base for the likes of Jock Landale, Damion Lee, Torrey Craig, Dario Saric and others to consistently impact winning in a positive manner north of 50 wins.
But the same problems offensively from the last two postseasons will arise if this roster stands as is.
The blueprint is out. Force Paul to defend as many actions as possible and pick him up full court. You’re wearing him down while also getting the ball out of his hands more. From there, trap Booker to dare everyone else to beat you. Booker did the superstar thing in Games 4 and 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals, and it still didn’t result in a victory. It is unrealistic to expect him to do that for the majority of a postseason and he was unable to do it coming off the hamstring injury against Dallas.
On top of that, we can’t say for sure this is a top-five defense without Crowder. Yes, he’s not an All-Defense guy. But he was the glue of this team. He was the bridge between the older and younger guys. He held everyone accountable. And by everyone, I mean everyone. He shaped the winning habits for this group defensively more than any other player. I think this team can still be the defensive force it was for the last two years. I just want to see it first.
When looking ahead to potential playoff matchups, beginning with the real possibility of facing a formidable test in the first round like the Mavericks, Pelicans or Timberwolves, this roster feels short at least one guy, and probably two.
How do you analyze the state of the trade market, how the Suns should approach it and where the patience level should be at?
Zimmerman: There’s just not much that moves the needle beyond concocting a fantasy of the Suns landing Jordan Clarkson in a Crowder deal. The good news is that this is the NBA, and general manager James Jones’ patience will be rewarded by the time your “___ days since last trade request” whiteboard is wiped clean to zero.
It could take as few as 10 games into the new season, when the Brooklyn Nets flub up against an easy peasy start to their schedule and Kevin Durant remembers why he didn’t like the direction of the roster just a few months ago.
Certainly, it’s not unrealistic to not monitor that situation carefully. Do the Suns, with all their own future draft picks, keep their armory locked up in case Durant wants out? Speaking of wanting out, Ayton’s weird offseason will be in the minds of fans and the Jan. 15 date where he could be traded until the deadline a month later will surely include lots of rumors, big or small.
It seems the Suns are as aware as the fans — and us two — that they need to swing for a big upgrade. It’s just hard to tell what that entails.
What do you think this team can really end up doing to improve? And does it need to be done now or can it wait for the 2023 calendar year?
Olson: All of this depends on your mindset of how aggressive the Suns should get with the draft picks. I think they should go for it.
The problem is 80% of the league, and probably more, is content with the shape of its team right now and wants to see how the opening stretch of the season plays out before considering any trades that would decently alter its rotation. The timing was a whole lot better one season ago, as in summer instead of fall.
In the same vein of the posts that Suns fans will hold down the fort for on Nets Watch, I touched on a few power forward options back in June like the Sacramento Kings’ Harrison Barnes and Washington Wizards’ Kyle Kuzma. Both of those teams could go south quickly too, and if either guy is cool with a sixth-man role on a contender with chances to close some games too, that’s the type of offensive firepower and serious top-six addition to replace Crowder with a different skill set. Keep an eye on which ball clubs tailspin in November and December.
Even then, will that type of deal materialize? Will the Suns give up what they need to if it does? Will the current ownership situation get in the way of taking on long-term money beyond this season? I’m skeptical, but then again, the Suns’ backs are against the wall. Surely they cannot just sit on their hands and hope a star falls in their lap, like it almost did with Durant. Or settle for nothing less than a near-perfect fit to the roster rather than risking it with someone not as cushy.
You mentioned Clarkson in the tanking teams category to find that extra ball-handler source — how about Eric Gordon? No? Why? Don’t you walk away from me!
We’ve got some basketball to watch soon, friend, and I have absolutely no idea how this is all going to shake out. Let’s see how it goes!