EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns’ latest poor loss spotlights need for immediate shakeup to roster
In the spirit of the great Olivia Rodrigo, the Phoenix Suns can’t help but take three steps back after getting one forward.
Even with all the injuries, the Suns showed real signs of progress in great efforts on Christmas versus the Denver Nuggets and a terrific blowout win the game after against the Memphis Grizzlies. But this just led to them reverting back to the problems that have plagued them in three bad losses that were all terrible for different reasons.
They played awful defense against the Washington Wizards, turned the ball over 27 times to the Toronto Raptors and then got boat-raced off the floor by the New York Knicks in the first half of Monday’s 102-83 final.
The Suns scored a season-low 11 points in the first quarter and season-low 83 for the game. After playing better defense than one of the five worst in the league since the second week of November, a barrage of misfires on jumpers led to its effort eventually waning. New York went on an 18-0 run in the mid-second quarter to have the Suns trailing by 32.
This was despite the returns of Cam Payne and Landry Shamet to the rotation, leaving Devin Booker (left groin strain) and Cam Johnson (meniscus) as the two names still absent due to injury. I will not waste our collective time on any other details from this game.
Phoenix has now lost 11 of its last 15 games and is 20-18. That loss total of 18 matches last season’s mark. The afternoon loss has them sitting seventh place in the Western Conference, 1.5 games ahead of the Utah Jazz for 10th.
While the standings are still quite jumbled up, with the Suns only 1.5 games back of fourth, they are going to be without Booker for at least three more weeks. That’s another 11 games, and he could be out longer, as is the case with Johnson right now.
Head coach Monty Williams told azcentral’s Duane Rankin that Johnson is only working through non-contact drills right now. It does not sound like he will come back in the next week, which would have Johnson pass the one-to-two-month timeline reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on Tuesday without a return.
While there are significant long-term implications to consider that I’ve written about previously when it comes to the outlook of this team across this stretch, there is the short term to think about as well.
This 2022-23 iteration of the Suns is not a good Booker-less team. They were able to at least comfortably tread water without him in the past two years but now the swells in this tide are pin-balling them all over the place.
Rotation changes should start coming more aggressively.
As Empire of the Suns’ Australian correspondent David pointed out, the Suns have a tendency to match size instead of trying to maximize their smaller lineups, in fear of severely losing the rebounding battle. Given how this negatively affects the offense and how Damion Lee and Josh Okogie are among the few bright spots this season, that should change.
Both of those guys should be playing at least 25 minutes a game until Booker gets back. While it won’t inspire a revolution, Lee and Okogie are two of the best on the team when it comes to rim pressure and their elite skills this season — Lee’s shooting and Okogie’s defense — are needed just as much as someone attacking the basket.
Beyond that and going big picture, is the notion of labeling it a panic trade fair if the panic is justifiable? Jetting past the fact that this group clearly needs a shakeup of some sort, the individual play just hasn’t been good enough, as has been covered.
The Suns are seemingly sitting on Jae Crowder’s midlevel salary as the most desirable of the three on their books in hopes of landing a true needle mover. Anything else doesn’t make sense, because if Crowder is traded for a draft pick and an eighth man in February, why wasn’t that done three months ago?
There is no reason to believe the Suns are capable of escaping the play-in range while Booker recovers. If Phoenix and the West keeps trending the same way through January, the Suns will be a few games below .500 and a handful out of a top-six spot.
Booker should be back with 30-ish games to go. He will fix a whole lot, but not everything.
Phoenix needs to see the multiple benefits in acting on trades immediately and act instead of waiting for the deadline in five weeks, even if it is more difficult to execute now.