EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Cam Johnson injury pushes Phoenix Suns’ depth to its limits

Nov 5, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: 10:09 pm
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the second quarter against the Portland Tra...
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the second quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on October 21, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns were in a problematic position with the Jae Crowder situation, and one of the issues was their depth if any serious injury came about on the wing.

Eight games into the season, his replacement in the starting lineup Cam Johnson has potentially suffered a torn meniscus, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania. We will see as far as a timeline and whether this will bleed into the tail-end of the regular season and potentially the playoffs, but it is an immediate challenge for the Suns to face.

The move for the Sixth Man of the Year finalist into the starting lineup had been a resounding success. Discounting the Deandre Ayton part of the equation to get the biggest sample size possible, the four-man unit of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Johnson was outscoring teams by 29.5 points per 100 possessions in 148 minutes thanks to a 130.8 offensive rating and 101.3 defensive rating.

That would serve as the No. 1 offensive rating in the NBA by over 10 points and nearly the best defensive rating.

Johnson is irreplaceable, one of the league’s top shooters with size who has great marks in all the game’s intangibles. The Suns have good players who can help pad the blow of Johnson’s absence but there are no good solutions.

Torrey Craig can help defensively and on the glass while Ish Wainright proved capable of NBA minutes last year. There are the options of going big with Jock Landale and Dario Saric or going small with Damion Lee and Landry Shamet.

But there’s no avoiding a huge drop-off. Even if Crowder returns, something I highly doubt happens unless he gets paid, it’s a hit to the offense and spacing.

Outside of those immediate replacements on the roster, let’s look at this from two different angles, the short and long term.

The short term wonder here is if this is what jolts Paul back to seeking out his shot like his former self.

For over a decade now, Paul has been the type to go through a quarter-plus and only take a shot or two. But what he has a keen sense for unlike anyone else in the league is when to take over pockets of the game, transforming into an unstoppable midrange maestro after playing the role of quarterback.

We have not seen the maestro yet. It is not unlike him to have slow starts to the season with scoring production but the 36.0% mark from the field entering Saturday’s game and the clear hesitancy to shoot when he has room has everyone emotionally invested wanting to just see that assassin briefly return to quell concerns about the 37-year-old.

In a jot that one down in the ol’ noggin for later moment, when Booker was double-teamed off the ball in Friday night’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers with five seconds left, Paul had no one near him on the left wing.

The ball, instead, went to Bridges on the elbow, where he was still in a position to make a play. But for Chris freaking Paul to not get the ball when he’s that open requires further observation on if he’s going to get back to scoring with his past frequency. The offense cannot afford to have anyone the defense is content with sagging off of like the Dallas Mavericks were with Paul last postseason. And especially when it’s such a good shooter like Paul.

It’s up for debate when it comes to the individual that needs to step up the most in the long term while Johnson is out. For me, I’m tabbing Bridges.

Through nine games, Bridges has attempted more than 10 shots once (13) and is averaging 9.2 per game. The latter number is actually down from last year, a bizarre turn when factoring in how Paul’s down from 11.3 to 8.3. The Suns said they wanted to give him and Johnson more chances on the ball in training camp. That has not come to fruition.

Bridges, now 26 years old, has the offensive skill set at this point in his career to comfortably put up 15 points a night and threaten for 20.

Last year he shot north of 70% at the rim for the third straight season, posting a bonkers best of 79%, per Cleaning the Glass. In the midrange, while more than doubling his attempts from the previous season of 146 to 314, his elite efficiency of 49% two years ago got even better to the tune of 51%. He’s proven to be a very good 3-point shooter for two straight years as well.

Bridges has elite touch across the floor, is the best finisher on the team and has improved his handle greatly since he arrived in Phoenix four years ago.

The tools are there for the logic to align on a higher usage role. Like Ayton, it’s on both Bridges himself to seek out the ball more and the Suns themselves to design more of the offense around him.

Ditto for all of that in regards to Ayton. The growth we saw from him offensively last year in the short roll and using his dribble is good reason to prioritize him more.

And beyond the development opportunity it is for Ayton and Bridges, those two becoming consistent secondary options will lessen the load on Booker during the regular season. Paul taking a back seat is fine, as long as the infrastructure is in place to where Booker doesn’t have to carry the offense. It is there. The Suns just have to trust it and use it more.

Lastly, there is the big picture of the roster itself.

Roster construction for championship contenders can be broken down into three basic components. There’s the stars and vital pieces that command the majority of the salary figures. Mid-level salaries come next, ones that are important to maximize in free agency since it’s the best way to sign good players when over the cap and also create some ease with maneuverability on the trade market. Lastly, there are players at or near the minimum, where good general managers will find a rotation-caliber guy or two.

Most of this is ironed out for the Suns. The problem right now is the mid-level salaries.

Crowder is one of them and isn’t with the team while he waits to see what his new one will be. Shamet is another and needs to have a bounce back season. Saric is the last one and he’s out of the rotation.

Crowder and Saric, in particular, glaringly stick out as to why Phoenix’s depth is in the position it is.

The Suns own all of their future draft picks and swaps. While finding the right deal this time of year is more difficult, moving one or both of them with draft assets attached for a significant player that would log 20-plus minutes a night seems straightforward enough. Even if Johnson’s recovery is longer than expected, this franchise still has the assets in place to contend, and wasting one shot at a championship seems foolish.

We’re still waiting on a deal involving Crowder or Saric, which personally has me convinced the Suns believe they are going to be able to move those salaries, picks and whatever else for a real game changer. It could be Kevin Durant. It could be someone else.

If that’s really what’s going on here, it’s s a dangerous game to treat it like a near certainty. And if the Suns remain overly patient while Johnson recovers, it becomes a gamble.

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