Kevin Durant’s debut means Suns’ rotation choices begin getting answers

Feb 28, 2023, 4:26 PM | Updated: Mar 1, 2023, 8:54 am
Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns (R) watches play in the second half against the Milwaukee Buck...
Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns (R) watches play in the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum on February 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The job never gets easier.

The arrival of superstar Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns and his impending debut on Wednesday in Charlotte against the Hornets makes the Suns better, presumably eliminating the majority of the burning questions about the team.

That’s true! To an extent.

All of our discourse about the lack of ball-handling, scoring pop and so on fades into the wind with Durant in the mix. Ditto for any hesitancy on this team’s ceiling as a potential champion.

But the dynamics of the price to get him create different decisions for head coach Monty Williams and his staff to make, a new version of those burning questions, albeit more inconsequential. In something I’ll repeat across this space, the Suns win a championship if their four best players are performing up to their ability, gel together and stay healthy. It’s as simple as that. It does not come down to who gets 14 minutes as the second reserve off the bench.

To that point, though, most of the new questions have to do with the rotation and the defense. As we’ve covered, the offense and Durant’s implementation won’t be an issue there, plus his defensive strengths give them a new element on that end as well.

The question: Who starts alongside Durant, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul?

Let’s work backward to answer that and preview what to watch for inside the last 20 games of the regular season.

The (9.)5

Williams said earlier in the season he envisions his rotation being 9.5 players. That half-point accounts for a guy who has more of a situational variable surrounding his minutes.

We’ve got four players locked in already and there are a few more all but locked in.

Cam Payne, the backup point guard with no real competition, is number five. Buyout market addition Terrence Ross with his scoring and shooting makes six (more on him later, though). While there could be a playoff series when a backup center hardly plays (and especially if Williams plays Durant as a 5 at times), Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale will keep trading off playing time based on the matchup for seven.

That’s 2.5 spots remaining and we still haven’t penciled in the final starter.

Let’s crank the lever on the catapult just a few notches further back before we launch into there. I think a fair bit of this has to do with how Williams rotates Booker, Durant and Paul.

The Stagger

What we long discussed when Paul got to the Valley was the use of a stagger, making sure one of Booker or Paul is on the floor at all times for important games. That way, the offense always had a head of the snake out there to make sure nothing stagnated for too long. With Durant, The Stagger powers up and goes blonde into Super Saiyan mode.

Phoenix can maneuver in a way where two of those three on-ball threats are out there together at nearly all times. That can be partnered with the requisite amount of gravity, whether it’s from rim rollers and/or shooters.

The idea I’ve had in my head for a while is Durant having a quick leash, similar to how Suns fans might remember the Milwaukee Bucks used Giannis Antetokounmpo. Durant could check out after just a few minutes, entering again with a decent amount of time still remaining in the first and third quarters to command the second unit. Williams deployed something in this range when Cam Johnson was healthy, subbing him out early nearly alongside Paul so the duo could come back in by the start of the second quarter.

This way, Durant exits a few minutes before Paul’s mark around the four-to-six-minute mark and Paul’s comes prior to Booker’s near or at the end of the quarter. That’s the cycle. Shortly after Paul exits, Durant re-enters. When Booker comes out, Paul’s back in. When Durant gets his second quick rest, there’s Booker. And so on.

It’s a challenge. Durant is the purest of hoopers, and those guys love to get a rhythm for the game at the opening stages. I’m guessing he’d prefer something closer to Booker’s rotation pattern than Paul’s. Use this as more of an example to keep that thought active in your head of how Williams juggles them once they’re all off minutes restrictions. Booker was still on one in Phoenix and Durant will presumably work his way back with one too.

Which fifth starter best accentuates that, Torrey Craig or Josh Okogie?

The fifth starter

While different in stature, they are fairly similar players. The differences are still there, however.

This is Craig’s first full season with the Suns but his third straight ending in Phoenix, so he has a deeper understanding of the system. He’s bigger at 6-foot-7, and size in the lineup is always something Williams values. If Craig served as the “small forward,” that’s a big starting five that would provide bruising physicality and likely becomes a plus rebounding team, one of the few weaknesses for Phoenix the last three years.

Then again, Okogie has been overcoming a size disparity his whole career with his prowess on the glass and is the better overall defender of the two. Point-of-attack defense became the No. 1 need in the lineup when Mikal Bridges departed, the Ironman who took on any and every perimeter All-Star over the years. Okogie, one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, is an easy enough plug-and-play solution.

He’s also playing the best basketball of his career. Here are the averages for the two since the Durant trade six games ago:

Craig: 29.5 MPG, 5.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 TPG, 0.3 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 37.8 FG% (6.2 FGA/G), 43.8 3P% (2.7 3PA/G), 0.0 FT% (zero FTAs)

Okogie: 35.4 MPG, 18.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 TPG, 2.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 53.4 FG% (12.2 FGA/G), 48.6 3P% (6.2 3PA/G), 71.4 FT% (3.5 FTA/G)

Seems pretty cut and dry. Start Okogie, go from there.

I like the fit off the bench too. The initial injection of reserves gets a bit small if it’s Payne, Ross and Okogie as opposed to Craig.

Then again, the points per game disparity doesn’t matter all that much in the starting lineup considering who they are playing with. The shooting fit offensively is most of what matters but there’s not enough of a discrepancy there to declare it one way or the other.

Okogie is up to 34.5% on 3s after a huge uptick the last three months (39.8% since Dec. 5). Craig is having a more stable career year at 40.5%, but like Okogie, has been a below average 3-point shooter over the years.

Okogie’s numbers coming into Phoenix, however, have to get mentioned again because they were rough. Entering the season, of the 220 players to attempt at least 500 3s since Okogie arrived in the league in the 2018-19 season, Okogie ranked last in 3-point percentage at 27.5%, per Stathead. He has remained consistently aggressive with his shot in the last few weeks, avoiding hesitation, which is the most important part. When he’s not shooting, he’s making things happen for himself off the bounce around the rim.

That must continue but it’s not an end-all solution.

Another thought that has persisted in my head alongside Jennifer Lawrence’s insistent inability to pick a good movie in the last decade is of the first round in the 2020 NBA Playoffs when the Oklahoma City Thunder took on the Houston Rockets.

Houston was just leaving rookie guard Lu Dort open, clogging up other options for the awesome three-part-ball-handler attack of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. Paul correctly kept saying how Dort needed to keep shooting, and Dort did. But even after Dort went 6-of-12 from 3 in Game 7 of the series loss for the Thunder, he shot 18.4% in his five other games across 38 3-point attempts.

A player second-guessing/pausing in the Suns’ 0.5 offense is death for a possession. Just a momentary thought of shooting a semi-open 3 before passing off allows the defense to completely reset. Got enough space to attack a closeout but only take a dribble before kicking it out, never threatening the interior and not forcing rapid-enough rotations? Another killer.

With that in mind, Okogie (or Craig) not succumbing to those faults and remaining aggressive also has to yield enough positive results.

The Thunder did not have nearly the offensive arsenal the Suns do. It will not be that dramatic for Okogie (or Craig). But we’ve seen good teams play off Okogie to extremes this season. That will happen in the postseason. Keep an eye on what comes during the regular season examples we get.

The fifth closer

That’s an elongated form of getting to ultimately who closes games. I will toss another dart and say that’ll change by the game and how each guy is playing.

Some nights I think it’ll be Ross. Paul and Booker after Friday’s win both spoke to the dynamic of, “They are going to leave him open? OK!” The veteran can, as they say, shoot that thing and hasn’t been on a contender yet to get consistent good looks off the ball.

Through three games, Ross has also shown an intent to do the little things inside his role. The engagement and energy has been there defensively, the area of the floor where he struggles. It looked fine against the Thunder on Friday. It did not look fine versus the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, with the Bucks relentlessly attacking him both halves as Ross still works to pick up the system. In our bullet points of what to watch for in these remaining 20 games, Ross’ defensive impact is another.

Could someone else emerge? Yeah! After all the injuries the Suns somehow stayed afloat through, the back-half of the roster has deserved at least consideration.

Damion Lee is a smart player who has been an excellent shooter this year. T.J. Warren’s individual offense is appealing, and as we know from his earlier tenure with Phoenix, he can fill in some of the gaps elsewhere. Speaking of those gaps, Ish Wainright’s defensive play has rightfully earned him consistent minutes the last month.

With Craig and Okogie as guys eight and nine to nearly have us at 9.5, those are three of the four leading candidates for the final half-tick.

The other is Landry Shamet, who is still working his way back from a right foot sprain. The Shamet journey since the start of last season bouncing back and forth between tentativeness and pressing too much offensively has never found stability.

That has seen him earn the ire of Suns fans with his constant presence in the rotation this season. But whenever a player like Abdel Nader two years ago, for example, keeps getting minutes and you can’t understand why, that almost always means they are doing what the coach wants and bringing something they want to the table. Shamet is one of the best on-ball defenders on the team, and even though his sharpshooting hasn’t translated to Phoenix, he’s still a good overall shooter. We can’t rule him out.

I feel good in doing that for Darius Bazley, who there has also been a calling for from the fanbase for minutes. I can’t say I understand it, due to how Bazley slipped out of the rotation for a fine Thunder team and is a 22-year-old that would have to quickly pick up Phoenix’s principles to be the defensive plus he appears to be. Williams typically favors experience, and on top of that, the guys in front of Bazley are Durant, Craig, Okogie and Ross.

Could Warren crack that group? I’m not sure. He is our Aaron Holiday Award winner, the benched player by Williams that some fans constantly question the coach for. While unlikely, there are some lineups that could use a bit more offense, and if Warren is providing encouraging feedback in practice on how he’s picking things up defensively, a nod makes sense. His 3-point shot coming back to form would have to happen, though.

The basketball

Hopefully you gained from all of this that there are a handful of those aforementioned questions to come and results are gainable from this remaining 20-game sample size.

We already saw some smaller changes coming out of the All-Star break to account for Durant. Booker brought the ball up far more to start the game. Supplemental players were spacing out a couple feet further to the “four-point line” for extra room inside it.

More to come when the basketball begins!

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