EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

What does Frank Vogel’s hire tell us about how Suns build the roster?

Jun 2, 2023, 5:16 PM | Updated: 5:30 pm

Frank Vogel agreeing to become the Phoenix Suns’ head coach gives us a North Star of sorts for how the team will begin constructing a roster that fits not only Devin Booker and Kevin Durant but Vogel as well.

His most recent stint with the Los Angeles Lakers can be used as a guide for how he’ll operate with a roster built around two talented (expensive) superstars.

While we can’t write off Vogel’s failures that ended each of his three previous NBA head-coaching gigs, they also came with asterisks.

The Indiana Pacers in 2016 were stale and finding running-mates for Paul George before they moved on from him after one meh season with Nate McMillan. Vogel’s two years with the Orlando Magic included a front-office leadership change and roster mismanagement, and his stint with the Lakers included injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as well as more roster issues like the failed Russell Westbrook addition.

Fact is, when Vogel has stars under his watch, he does pretty well. In 10 NBA seasons as head coach, he’s got three first-place finishes in terms of defensive ratings and two top-three finishes, making for a top-three defense for half of his NBA head-coaching career.

There are offensive question marks that will depend on the roster and his assistant staff. But having Devin Booker and Kevin Durant to develop a philosophy around is a great start. So let’s look at the roster beyond that.

What did that 2019-20 Lakers team have?

True shot-blockers like JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard — Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol replaced them the next year — plus spacing provided by marksmen.

That helped open the lane as the Lakers led the NBA in field-goal percentage and defense.

While they didn’t have a high three-point rate, it put any threes taken under the spotlight even more. There was a reason Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the third-best player for that team, and why even an aging Danny Green and was so important. Notably, even guys like Rajon Rondo (40% on 3.1 attempts per game)  and Markieff Morris (42% on 3.3 attempts) were important three-point spacers in the postseason run in the bubble.

As it was before Vogel’s hiring, talk about the Suns’ roster construction begins with the two best players after Booker and Durant.

Shooting combo guards and wings are needed, regardless of CP3

Vogel’s best teams never had high-usage pure point guards.

In Indiana, Paul George and Lance Stephenson carried a lot of the playmaking load with George Hill acting as a secondary ball-handler.

From 2016-18, the Orlando Magic were center-centric, with Nikola Vucevic and forward Aaron Gordon burning a lot of possessions. They still had an on-ball pick-and-roll point guard in Elfrid Payton tapping in when needed.

The Lakers tended to start defensive players like Avery Bradley, Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for defensive reasons, but Rajon Rondo and Dennis Schroder got lots of run as well.

All of that is to say Paul’s status probably doesn’t change considering his reduced role from a year ago. Assuming he returns to the team on a partially guaranteed contract as reportedly expected, the Suns will have ways to utilize him. It’s just that there’s even more pressure on him to find more confidence in letting the shots fly.

Regardless of Paul being on the roster or not, the roster will need combo guards and 3-and-D types to fit around the ball-dominating stars.

Landry Shamet is back. Torrey Craig and Damion Lee deserve a look. Josh Okogie could return if Vogel finds ways to hide him offensively. Terrence Ross could if he’s hidden defensively.

Free agents on the market from mid-level exception to minimum contracts: Gabe Vincent, Schroder, Patrick Beverley, Josh Richardson, Terence Davis, Justin Holiday and Troy Brown Jr.

Deandre Ayton’s role probably won’t strikingly change

It almost felt that the relationship between Deandre Ayton and Monty Williams was a matter of who could outlast the other.

Now that Williams is gone, does Ayton and his max deal stick around?

Though Vogel coached Vucevic in Orlando, expecting anything close to the big man’s offensive output from Ayton is a long-shot for reasons beyond Booker and Durant existing. It seems unlikely Ayton would offensively take on anything significantly more than he did under Williams — unless he convinces Vogel that an occasional three-point attempt will open the floor for the stars to operate.

Still, Vogel’s history of favoring true centers gives you reasons to think Ayton will stick around. It was ages ago in NBA philosophy terms, but Hibbert was a monster before he got run out of the league as it diverted to small-ball in the Golden State Warriors’ era. Ayton projects much better to survive switching, hedging and more — something he did relatively little of under Williams.

Was Williams shy about trying more things with Ayton because that’s just how he like the scheme the defense? Or did he not trust the big man to comfortably flip between blitzing ball-handlers on screen-and-roles or switching completely?

The guess here is it’s the latter. Before Vogel in his Phoenix interview for the job touched on whether Ayton can expand his offensive game, you better hope that the Suns got a good answer from him on how he could take advantage of Ayton’s athletic talents on defense. The challenge is whether Vogel and the Suns believe they can teach Ayton how to do more, how to be confident in his coverages and how to not get in his own head.

Those were the issues where Ayton struggled the most.

Is it possible to simplify the game for him while simultaneously adding more variables to his plate at the same time? That is the biggest challenge for Vogel if Ayton is on the roster.

Beyond that, Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale (restricted) presumably would give Phoenix continuity and depth at reasonable prices.

Free agents on the market: Dwight Powell, Mason Plumlee and Cody Zeller.

Frank Vogel’s offensive, defensive and (net ratings) per season

Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 – 21st, 22nd (22nd)
2020-21 – 24th, 1st (8th)
2019-2020 – 11th, 3rd (5th)

Orlando Magic
2017-18 – 25th, 18th (25th)
2016-17 – 29th, 22nd, (29th)

Indiana Pacers
2015-16 – 25th, 3rd (11th)
2014-15 – 23rd, 7th (15th)
2013-14 – 23rd, 1st (6th)
2012-13 – 20th, 1st (8th)
2011-12 – 7th, 11th (7th)

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What does Frank Vogel’s hire tell us about how Suns build the roster?