EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Will Devin Booker’s injury turn Phoenix Suns’ patience into urgency?

Dec 28, 2022, 2:45 PM | Updated: 2:56 pm
Devin Booker #1 and Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns watch from the bench during the second ...
Devin Booker #1 and Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns watch from the bench during the second half of the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Footprint Center on December 23, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It is impossible to pin down a consensus on what to believe with the 2022-23 Phoenix Suns.

Some very high highs in the last two years followed by injuries, regression by a star and the pending Jae Crowder trade this season results in varying answers.

What everyone can agree on is this roster needed retooling in the offseason, a shakeup in the form of legitimate additions to help First Team All-NBA guard Devin Booker avoid the same fates of losing in the postseason after singlehandedly carrying the offense.

This, by the way, is exactly what he was doing to a dramatic degree before he got injured.

Phoenix stood pat, content prioritizing patience secured tight by the flexibility of its assets. The indecision of that decision has all come back to bite the team in its current state, putting the front office in a strenuous position to make a midseason gut call instead of the obvious one in the summer.

Each bullet point of the Suns’ offseason has a direct effect on why they’re stuck in this position with a 20-15 record, a murky vision of if they’re a clear-cut title contender. It’s a more mysterious forecast after Booker was ruled out for at least four weeks on Wednesday due to a left groin strain.

Phoenix dealt with the Deandre Ayton situation by matching his offer sheet. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to what both sides ultimately wanted entering the restricted free agent process.

Ayton has been good this year. He is right on the edge of being a top-five center in basketball. He is also making more mistakes than he usually does as a rock-solid player on both ends, to the point where Mikal Bridges of all people snapped on him at the end of a bad loss to the had-just-lost-10-in-a-row Washington Wizards.

The big man had to adjust with Chris Paul’s arrival creating a more simplified role, and now with Paul’s regression this season, another adjustment is challenging him. More on that in a minute.

Phoenix halted any other semi-major business to remain in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. As a frontrunner at one point for his services, the Suns either didn’t take matters seriously enough with a high-end offer for a perimeter player shooting FIFTY-SIX PERCENT this season as an MVP candidate, or it misread the situation and should have moved on to other potential moves sooner.

It is patently obvious watching the Suns how limited their offensive options get outside of Booker.

Whatever magic the 37-year-old Paul was using to look just as graceful as a decade ago when playing the role of game-managing puppeteer mixed with midrange assassin has faded in the same way it did the last two postseasons.

I’m not ruling out its return, as Paul is like Ayton and taking on a new role by exerting himself far less with more of a role off the ball. But when we watch that Point God we’ve all been slack-jawed at seeing the way he scores and manipulates defenses, it’s just not the same. His signature moves, like step-back jumpers and floaters, look far more arduous on his body.

This has positioned Ayton and Bridges to take on more prominent offensive roles. Thirty-five games in, it is a mix of both them and the team not being ready for it.

Finding Ayton consistently in the post and his midrange areas throughout four quarters remains a chore. The count of games when Ayton has a huge first quarter and then only takes a shot or two in his following shift is rising. I will avoid pointing fingers at whose fault that is and focus on what is the most important, which is that it is still a problem five years into the first overall pick’s career.

Bridges’ premium efficiency has dropped off with more shot attempts. Entering Wednesday, his 13.9 shots per game over his last dozen has him at a field goal percentage of 36.5% across that stretch. He is much better about remaining aggressive when finding his shot, but you can see him still figuring out how to do that without pressing if shots aren’t going down right away or the ball hasn’t come his way for a few minutes.

Enjoyers of watching Cam Johnson play basketball were excited to see how his untapped potential could factor into this equation as a starter, and we only got eight games into that new starting lineup before Johnson tore his meniscus.

In a shared point, the Suns did not trade Crowder. His absence caught up to them a few weeks ago.

From just a sheer point of looking at roster construction, you cannot lose a top-six player in your pecking order without a direct replacement and then not expect a drop-off in the team’s performance to come at some point.

And when we talk about the edge and relentlessness that Phoenix developed in the last two seasons that is no longer a core attribute of this year’s team, it would be foolish to believe the void left by Crowder has absolutely nothing to do with it. The vocal leader of the defense, a veteran so precise in the tiniest of details, made sure everyone stayed connected. Without him, the defense has been in the bottom-10 of the league’s defensive leaderboard since the 10-game mark.

While news of Crowder’s unhappiness did not emerge until right before training camp, it’s hard to believe that’s when everything really came to light. Making a trade in October (or November or December or January) is exceedingly more difficult than it is in June or July.

Now let’s arrive at the present.

The Suns need help. Now. Johnson should return in a few weeks at the latest and that feels safe to say for Cam Payne with his right foot strain as well.

Even then, they are a different team without Booker. A far worse one.

The Suns are less than two games out from a play-in spot and less than four games out from having lottery balls. Booker’s injury comes during the roughest part of the schedule, and if he returns on the four-week timeline in late January, that’s two weeks from the trade deadline.

Simply put, Phoenix isn’t going to learn much more about its team while Booker is out, nor have enough time when he’s back to have a satisfying enough full scan of their roster at full strength before decision time at the February trade deadline.

And that’s what we’re really talking about here. Decision time.

How much of his chips is James Jones willing to push to the center of the table for this season? A season that is more and more looking like the Suns’ last serious chance at winning title with Paul.

Paul has $15 million of his $30 million salary for next season non-guaranteed. Assuming the Suns retain Johnson, a restricted free agent, I doubt they could use that $15 million in a productive way besides reducing their tax ball. Then again, they’d be reducing the tax bill. Paul’s contract the year after that is completely unguaranteed.

That is a different decision the Suns knew they had a possibility of making because, well, they signed him to that contract. I heavily doubt the thought process even gets this far, but if the Booker-less stretch goes south, would the Suns consider trading Paul in February?

They shouldn’t. What I’m not sure about is how they should fill the gaps from there.

I was Team Trade Two First-Round Picks For Kyle Kuzma (or someone around his caliber) in June and even a month ago. Can we agree that moves the needle far enough for Phoenix to be the favorite or near-favorite in the West again?

I am now skeptical of that. It feels like the Suns really need to go for broke and find a co-star for Booker. This team quickly went from Paul’s two years ago to Booker’s and Paul’s last season to Booker’s this year. They have all the mid-level salaries (Crowder, Landry Shamet and Dario Saric), draft picks, swaps and a good young player if necessary to make a huge deal happen.

But with Booker, Ayton, Bridges and possibly Johnson under long-term contracts, what’s the rush right now?

It was the championship window with Paul. Some believed that was slammed shut after the Game 7 nightmare in May. Some believed there was still a cool breeze filling up the room.

We will find out what Jones and company believe in six weeks.

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