36 unbothered: Phoenix Suns have bountiful lineup options to work through

Sep 30, 2023, 12:00 PM

Devin Booker and Kevin Durant...

Devin Booker #1 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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.

To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 24 days away from Saturday, 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.

Previously –

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
Day 28: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role
Day 27: Deandre Ayton finally is traded
Day 26: Who is Suns’ biggest threat in Western Conference?
Day 25: Matrix and STAT in Ring of Honor

Day 24: Phoenix Suns’ most appetizing lineups combinations

Erik Ruby: The Suns addressed an area this summer that is critical to building an actual super team — depth. Phoenix’s second blockbuster deal of the summer reinforced just how much James Jones and Frank Vogel value having options.

There is a lot of talk about who is going to be the fifth starter, which is fair. But honestly, that question does not concern me that much. Whoever is starting will not be significantly better than the sixth, seventh and eighth men on this team.

That’s exciting!

It felt like the Suns ran out of options last year. If it wasn’t Durant or Booker carrying them, they just didn’t have enough to get it done. Replacing Landry Shamet, Jock Landale, Cam Payne, T.J. Warren, Terrence Ross and so on with Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, Grayson Allen and Nassir Little and beyond is a massive upgrade. Every single one of the players I mentioned, and probably some I did not, will be called upon to contribute this regular season.

Once you get down to the playoffs, only a select few should break through and solidify a spot in the rotation, but having so many players that could​ be a part of the postseason is an asset.

Last thing: It’ll be a blast to watch Frank Vogel mix and match different lineups throughout 82 games and figure out exactly what makes this team click. There is always the worry that they don’t have a standout fifth-best player and what could happen if the collection of minimum players can’t produce enough to be a championship contender, but Jones’ track record with signing cheap, impact players and the gravity of Booker, Beal and Durant helps ease that worry.

Kellan Olson: I’m just going to toss a few lineup combinations at you with my thoughts, using all 15 players projected to make the team. Let’s start with my favorites featuring just one of the Big 3. If we see one of these in the regular season, thank you Mr. Vogel.

Book’s bunch: Gordon-Booker-Okogie-Little-Eubanks. Booker likes to play the entire first and third quarters. If that trend continues, we should see some lineups featuring just him in the regular season, and these were the ones he used to have to carry. I’ll go with Gordon as the additional pop on the ball and the best versatile defenders with strength.

Chaos is a (long) ladder: Goodwin-Okogie-KBD-Durant-Bol. Let’s switch everything and mix in some traps on you, betting on the suffocating length and recovering ability of these athletes. Offense is a little light but let’s sprinkle on some Bol-Durant inverted ball screens to get super weird. Why not.

Bradley and the Jets: Beal-Lee-Little-Watanabe-Metu. The run-and-gun lineup. Three high-level shooters while Little and Metu fly around the court. And those two will take ’em too. Run off makes. Run off misses. Run off a freaking jump ball if it happens. Run!

Now I’ll go with my favorite duos to put alongside the Big 3. I’m naming the lineups after Pokémon moves because I am a nerd.

Reflect: Booker-Beal-Goodwin-Durant-Eubanks. I believe this is the best defensive pair to put around the trio. I’d want Goodwin and an appearance from Team USA Book hounding opposing ball-handlers full court. Eubanks gets to the level of the screen a bit more with Durant on the back line.

Confuse Ray: Booker-Beal-Allen-Durant-Nurkic. This emphasizes a half-court grind offensively and uses superior movement and playmaking. The Big 3 + Allen zooming around off the ball while Nurkic can set the screen to open one of those up and/or make the required pass after that. Allen’s a pretty solid passer as well, and the other 3 speak for themselves. Defenders will be confounded by what the proper rotation is supposed to be.

Hyper Beam: Booker-Beal-Allen-Watanabe-Durant. Put the two best shooters out there with the Big 3 and dare defenses to figure it out. It’s a three-guard look with two wings so it runs a bit small but functionally with switching it actually could work. Out of the six I went through, this is the one I gotta see. Just for 90 seconds at the end of a quarter, coach! All I ask for!

Can you tell I’m excited to see what all this looks like on the court?

Kevin Zimmerman: I’ll keep up with Kellan’s twist sans the Pokémon references by looking at hyper-specialized lineups for the reserve units.

Let’s start with talking corners: Lee and Watanabe were certifiably some of the most efficient corner-shooting role players in the NBA last season, and Allen isn’t too shabby himself. Doubling up with two of them on the court at the same time could be a hyper-aggressive way to break opponents out of certain defenses on the stars, such as utilizing heavy blitzing and recovering that forces the corner help defenders to leave their guys.

We can turn to defense now, where Phoenix is equipped to play bully-ball. Nurkic might push 300 pounds, Allen has a reputation that I don’t need to speak much on, and Little and Okogie have tree trunks for limbs. Toss three of those guys on the court, and the other team will have a tough time bringing the ball up — and will think twice about going over screens at full speed or attacking the paint without getting clobbered.

Need to deflect balls, get into passing lanes and run on some old heads? Toss out Bol and either Eubanks or Metu, and go jumbo on the perimeter with Durant, Booker and Beal to keep enough floor spacing while adding elite transition players.

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