36 unbothered: Suns’ change of pace in the post-Chris Paul era
Sep 25, 2023, 4:55 PM | Updated: Sep 26, 2023, 7:56 am
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.
He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.
Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.
A lot happened this offseason. NBA-wide, all eyes are on the Suns with massive change and great expectations.
So to keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 29 days away from Monday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will be joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby to dish on 36 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season.
Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry
Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul
Erik Ruby: Last season, the Phoenix Suns ranked 22 out of 30 in pace of play. That, by itself, does not make it impossible to win an NBA championship. For example, the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic were two spots lower in the rankings last year and we all know how their season ended. Another good example of success is the 2021 Finals team for Phoenix, which was even slower than the 2022-23 squad.
Phoenix’s problems didn’t stem solely from the lack of urgency it played with but with the effectiveness of the players whose style it catered to. I’m talking about Chris Paul. There is no denying that the Point God brought a ton of valuable, winning attributes to Phoenix. However, in his final year on the team, it felt like his refusal to push the pace, shoot open looks and unlock a more dynamic version of offense caught up with his impact on the game.
Pace wasn’t always a problem with this Paul-led offense. Phoenix was top-10 in his second-to-last year, but that seems like more of an outlier as it was in the middle of two seasons on the opposite spectrum. There was also a lack of offensive creativity with Suns — they became somewhat predictable in the halfcourt, despite having Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. Now that the Suns will be entering a post-CP3 era, expect their offense to have a new creativity to it. Let’s look at one way their halfcourt offense will change, and one way their transitional offense will.
In the halfcourt, Phoenix will surely see more off-ball movement from Bradley Beal than it did with Paul. Beal knows that his role is different this year than it was in the past. He should be determined to not only use his movement to create a distraction from whoever has the ball but also to get himself as many good looks as possible. Booker can do the same, and ditto for Durant. Those are your best players.
That leads me to transition offense.
As the season goes on, anyone not named Booker, Beal or Durant will understand that their best opportunity to put the ball in the bucket will be in transition. Assuming the ball finds its way to a star’s hands to push the break, whoever ran down the floor the hardest will have a great opportunity at an open three or an easy layup. No playmaker on this team plays like Paul, but with their current roster, that may empower the role players. Knowing you must play hard and fast to get a look, not just be in the right spot on a set play, will create chaos that caters to the offensive styles of the Suns’ best player. In the past, Paul would sometimes deliberately slow down a fast break, wanting to set up a play and pick apart a defense that way. This year, that should happen less.
I say all of this not to hate on what CP3 brought to the team all those years. There will absolutely be moments when Phoenix will miss the calming, steady hand of Paul.
Kevin Zimmerman: One of my hotter takes came after Paul injured his groin in the Western Conference semis against the Denver Nuggets last year. Phoenix had fallen behind 0-2 in the series by scoring 107 and 97 points. They responded by losing their point guard with two straight wins to tie the series, and the feel of the Suns offense took on a flow and a rhythm that just felt better.
Booker was the reason for that, and his greatness as a superstar shined in those moments, even if the Nuggets ultimately adjusted to win the next two games. But as much as it said about Booker, it indicated Paul just didn’t have that extra gear.
The problem had dated back to 2021, when in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers, then-assistant coach Willie Green finally got the point across to Paul. Pace needed to be pushed, at least selectively. It had reared its head as an issue then as Paul’s stint on health and safety protocols list saw the Suns find immediate success with the speedier Cam Payne at the controls.
How much will Phoenix miss Paul?
Probably a lot. There’s a reason the Golden State Warriors’ No. 1 reason for adding Paul has been about his apprehensive game being necessary at points. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has said Paul can pull Golden State out of sixth gear when the game is getting out of hand, something that even stars like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green struggled to do over the past few seasons.
Without a true point guard, the Suns will lean more on Booker, Beal and Durant to handle such things. The question is how much losing Paul will hurt them. Or how the team led by a defensive-minded head coach will be selective in pushing the pace versus accepting a halfcourt battle.
Kellan Olson: I always thought the discussions surrounding the lack of pace Paul’s teams play with were rather overblown. Part of how he does what he does on a basketball court has to do with the cadence he maintains throughout a game. With that said, there were specific moments where the pace was a point of emphasis, he mentioned how it was a point of emphasis from the coaches and all of that still wasn’t translating to enough of a shift in mentality. Certain playoff matchups called for it and the Suns still weren’t getting it done in that department.
That should change now that he’s elsewhere. But the conversation shouldn’t actually draw the most there, the first place you think. It should turn toward how the Suns still control pace without Paul, and without a traditional point guard in general. Because Paul didn’t just control pace. He manipulated it to his liking. Every night.
The Suns won’t have that anymore and it will be an adjustment, as it was whenever Paul was injured. There’s an innate feel the great point guards have for it and Paul is one of the greatest. They will have to figure out when to hover above the floor and whip out the puppeteering equipment, fine-tuning everything to the speed that bests leads to advantageous positions offensively.
The difference is a quicker pace will be more of an option this year. I’m interested to see who chooses to be that guy, the Cam Payne of this team. It’s probably someone off the bench but someone from the Big 3 could very well emerge.
Durant is a good guess given the grab-and-go capabilities off rebounds. For Beal and Booker, it depends on how full the plate gets in a two-way sense. Booker has done it in the past. I’m not familiar enough with Beal’s game to know his tendencies in that department. Given his proficiency in getting to the basket, I’d presume he enjoys speeding it up when he can.
Don’t expect a drastic change. I’ll go out on a limb and forecast a defensive-minded head coach with a top-heavy Big 3 wants it rather plodding, exploiting defensive weaknesses in the halfcourt like a specific matchup or a poor schematic decision to get the most out of the trio. But on other nights, the Suns are going to need to go, and I’m curious to see the frequency in which they decide to do so.