Suns-Clippers series preview, Pt. 5: Answers coming on Phoenix’s 5th guy

Apr 14, 2023, 11:05 AM

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers fouls Josh Okogie #2 of the Phoenix Suns during the fi...

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers fouls Josh Okogie #2 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the game at Footprint Center on April 09, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The question wasn’t going anywhere.

When it was reported just a few hours before free agency started last offseason that Kevin Durant requested a trade and the Phoenix Suns were a preferred destination, a racing mind couldn’t get past 1) Mikal Bridges has to be a part of that deal for it to work and 2) How do you replace Mikal Bridges?

There was no plug-and-play option for a team potentially losing Bridges’ invaluable contribution of defending the best opposing perimeter player every night. That type of defensive versatility is rare, and most of the guys with it are too valuable to even consider trading.

A few days into free agency, Phoenix signed Josh Okogie, and a light bulb went off. That’s a pretty good answer!

The Durant deal didn’t materialize until the trade deadline, but once it did, Okogie indeed took the role that became open — it was the presumed reason Phoenix signed him in the first place. The trade involving not only Bridges but Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder added another question of who would start alongside Durant, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

The answer thus far has been Okogie.

That has held up through the regular season and into the playoffs, where Okogie will be that fifth starter in round one against the Los Angeles Clippers. But the conversation surrounding that spot and the offensive trade-offs with both Okogie and other choices will swirl again, certainly against a head coach like Ty Lue.

First, though, we should highlight the terrific season Okogie put together.

After initially not making the rotation to start the season, Phoenix’s various injuries gave Okogie a ton of playing time. He played 90 total minutes in November before jumping to 267 in December and 205 for January.

Across that stretch, Okogie solidified himself as someone head coach Monty Williams had to find minutes for. Whether it was as the first wing off the bench or the last in a more sporadic role, what he brought to the table with his energy as a reserve was something Phoenix sorely needed.

Then the Durant trade hit. It was only six games for the Suns in February after that, but Okogie’s minute total was a team-leading 213. Before Durant’s arrival, he was at 13.1 minutes per game. Since the trade, he’s averaged 28.9 minutes a night.

Okogie taking on Bridges’ defensive responsibilities has been the primary reason he’s out there and he’s done an admirable job for a top-10 defense.

“He’s been huge,” Williams said of Okogie taking on some of Bridges’ old role. “He’s a guy that guards multiple spots. He’s able to put his hands on guys without fouling, he can block shots. The ability to guard the ball fullcourt is something that Josh has been able to do and it’s helped us.

“And I think guys read off of his ability to guard and sometimes we allow him to stay with his matchup because he’s in that guy’s pocket. That’s what Mikal used to do at times.”

We should instead focus, though, on everything else because that’s where Okogie’s impact has really shined.

In a must for glue guys, he finds a way to score despite having virtually no offense run for him. His 11.5 points per game since the trade includes nine outings of at least 15-plus points. He had one of those in his previous two seasons.

Most of it comes from open 3-point shots (more on that later) but he fills in the gaps through dribble drives, cutting and offensive rebounds.

Thanks to his freakish athleticism, Okogie can get a first step by defenders squaring up on him, but thanks to the talent around him, he’s driving on a recovery closeout most of the time.

He’s got a good feel — and respect from the officials — to draw fouls in this area. Okogie attempted 3.8 free throws per game post-deadline, trailing just Booker and Durant for the most on the team.

When that’s not there, Okogie’s gonna use his steps wisely and can explode if the lane to the basket is open.

With a hat tip to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Okogie had a historical offensive rebounding season. At 6-foot-4, he produced an offensive rebounding percentage of 8.8%.

There were only four other guards in the NBA this year to qualify for the league leaderboards and crack just 5%, with second-place finisher Josh Giddey at 6.6%, not even close to Okogie’s leading mark, per Stathead.

If Okogie’s defender has left him and he’s got space to crash, he’s crashing. Early in the season, a consistent conversation between Williams and assistant coach Kevin Young was at last won by Young.

He insisted on allowing an extra player to pursue offensive rebounds to gain more possessions. Williams was wisely worried about the way it could hurt Phoenix’s transition defense, but the results on both sides of the coin have been great.

The Suns finished tied for fifth in offensive rebounding percentage and tied for 10th in transition defense, per Cleaning the Glass.

A lot of that has to do with Okogie and Torrey Craig as that extra guy. Okogie’s highlight reel in this part of the game is fun to watch.

“He can hit the open shot, also he can catch and drive, make a play for somebody or he can get in there and be athletic, too,” Booker said of Okogie on Thursday. “When you’re helping off a guy like that and a shot goes up, it’s kinda hard to box him out when he’s going full speed at you. Josh has been making his extra money on those.”

With all that said and the clear positives Okogie brings on the court, his offensive efficiency was low. He shot 53% at the rim, 30% from midrange and 33% on 3s, all marks that rank poorly among players at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Teams in the playoffs are going to leave Okogie in that corner, and that’s before taking into account them helping off to give extra support for the defense taking pressure from Ayton, Booker, Durant and Paul.

Okogie will need to knock down his shots or have consistency with his dribble drives to make the defense pay enough for the trade-off to be worth it.

Okogie, a career 27.1% 3-point shooter coming into the year, was up and down with that shot in Phoenix. Looking at just catch-and-shoot opportunities across January and February, his 56 attempts went down 44.6% of the time, an awesome number for any caliber of shooter.

In the last five weeks of the regular season since March began, he was at 33.3% on 72 attempts, per NBA.com.

The Clippers are going to give Okogie room and it’ll play into their scheme as a whole. Personnel-wise, they could get weird.

I would not recommend giving Kawhi Leonard, by far Los Angeles’ best perimeter defender, that assignment against a team with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. Feels like that is overthinking it. Then again, Leonard could be an ace helper from that spot and it would save his legs for portions of the game.

Do the Clippers get nutty enough and throw center Ivica Zubac over there? They’ll at least play some zones that leave Okogie alone.

Those are extremes. It might not reach that point. It’s more likely the Clippers hide a weak defender on Okogie the majority of the time he’s on the floor. Phoenix will occasionally use Okogie as a screener in those scenarios to not let L.A. get away with it.

But defending the quartet of Ayton, Booker, Durant and Paul in a somewhat straight-up manner is going to be a futile effort. Teams are going to have to embrace getting weird, and we know Lue is going to mix in some tweaks as the series goes on.

When Phoenix beat Dallas on March 5 for Durant’s third game, defensive treatment of Okogie could be described as “ignored.” Left open, he shot 3-of-13, going 0-for-8 on 3s. He was subbed out with 7:47 left in the third quarter and only returned again for a defensive possession at 11 seconds remaining.

If that type of situation develops, Phoenix has options. And quite a few of them actually have proved themselves at some point this season already.

To be clear, the Suns want their fifth guy to shoot. They get mad when he doesn’t. If Okogie or someone else starts hesitating, they will get in their ear. The let-it-fly mentality is part of the team’s DNA and helps establish confidence.

Torrey Craig (40.0% on catch-and-shoot 3s), Damion Lee (47.1%), Terrence Ross (38.8%) and Landry Shamet (40.4%) all put up good-to-great shooting splits.

Craig is the purest two-way option. Lee and Ross are more all-out offense. Shamet helps the most with his underrated defense. If size is needed outside of Craig, T.J. Warren (36.2%) and Ish Wainright (33.1%) provide certain offensive and defensive offerings as well.

But to go back to where we started, none of them can replace Bridges like Okogie can. If Paul George returns for the Clippers, Okogie would be a bit undersized but that’s never stopped him before and having a defender of his caliber would be huge. He will get some time on Leonard as well.

All the time in the regular season, we talk about what will happen for certain teams once they face “playoff defenses.” It gets rather annoying after a while. You just want to see what it finally looks like. For this Suns team, now we do.

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