EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Your post-World Series catchup on the Phoenix Suns’ season so far

Nov 2, 2023, 8:34 AM

We don’t blame you! It’s OK if even after all the hype this offseason, you were too preoccupied by an Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series run to check in on the start of the Phoenix Suns’ season.

If you only caught one or two of the games, maybe even none at all, I’m here to help!

Let’s get you caught up nine days into the 2023-24 campaign ahead of contest No. 5 on Thursday night against the San Antonio Spurs. Here’s what you need to know:

Devin Booker and Bradley Beal are injured

I know! What a bummer, huh?

Booker was dealing with a toe injury coming into the season opener and played through it, starring in crunch time as the point guard in a win over the Golden State Warriors. In that victory, though, he sprained his left ankle and went on to miss the next three games. His status has gone from doubtful from those to questionable for Thursday, a sign he is doing better. He joined the TNT broadcast on Tuesday and said he’ll be back “pretty soon.”

Beal was a late scratch due to low back tightness for an Oct. 12 preseason game, played on Oct. 16 and then hasn’t played for the Suns since. The listing has since changed to low back spasms.

As far as information or an idea of when they are coming back, head coach Frank Vogel has been very tight lipped. All he’s been willing to say so far is both are working as hard as they can through treatment to return to the floor. He declined to share a timeline or indicate which guy is closer to coming back.

The Suns should be 4-0 (but are not)

Phoenix is 2-2 but both losses came via some terrible execution in the fourth quarter. A defeat via the Los Angeles Lakers came in a game the Suns were +27 in through three quarters when Kevin Durant was out there, and Phoenix scored just three points in the first 10:05 of the final frame before losing.

After cruising to a blowout win over the Utah Jazz in the home opener on Saturday, a similar script emerged on Tuesday when the Suns led by 20 early in the third quarter. The Spurs, however, just kept hanging around and eventually got the deficit down to five a few minutes into the fourth quarter.

Phoenix continued to lead the game by a possession or two before a maddening end-game sequence cost them what should have been a fairly elementary win.

The team sinks or swims based on Durant’s presence

With only one member of the Big 3 available, Phoenix has been forced to be put in a position where lineups without any member of the trio will be played. They have not gone well and that is a Grand Canyon-sized understatement.

In the three games Booker and Beal have both missed, the Suns score 120.4 points per 100 possessions and give up just 99.1 when Durant is on the court, per NBA Stats. In simpler terms, they are +51 across those 106 minutes. When Durant has been resting in the other 38 minutes, the offensive rating is an unbelievably bad 75.9 with a rough 119.5 defensive rating, good for a -43.6 net rating. That’s a -35 in 38 minutes. Even in a tiny sample size, that’s insane.

This roster was designed to have at least one of Beal, Booker or Durant always on the floor, and probably two at all times in the important games. There’s a reason it doesn’t have a traditional point guard. But the lack of on-ball pop outside of those three and maintainer of offensive flow is supremely evident in those minutes with Booker and Beal out and Durant on the bench.

Vogel’s defense has been as advertised

I think you will love the way this team plays. The Warriors and Lakers matchups were very physical affairs, games in which you could feel Phoenix’s imprint on the game ultimately deciding it. Everyone is playing their asses off, especially on defense. Vogel’s desire to create an identity around that has been effective to begin the year.

Durant has been a big part of this, taking on the top defensive assignments the last two games, All-Star Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen and first-year phenom Victor Wembanyama. Vogel said Durant told him in their first conversation this summer to not hide him so he’s preserved for a high offensive workload like many other stars, and that he wanted to take the challenging defensive matchup if he made the most sense for it.

Outside of a 70-point second half for the Spurs on Tuesday that can be attributed to Phoenix not putting an energetic young team away, there have been plenty of signs this can be a competent defensive team. And if the Suns are good, watch out, because we know this will be an elite offensive team.

Growing pains bringing turnovers

It hasn’t so much been an initiative from the coaching staff to play with a higher pace but the players are doing so organically. It’s a group that wants to play quick, unselfish basketball. As you could guess, this has led to some disjointed assist and turnover numbers.

It was 39 assists and 39 turnovers in the first two games before Phoenix corrected it nicely to 60 assists and 30 turnovers over the last two fixtures. The Suns did have 19 turnovers on Tuesday, though, which was made up for by another high assist tally.

Keep an eye on how the Suns nip this slight issue over the next dozen or so games.

Shooters, shooters everywhere

A roster not so much deep but filled with options for Vogel led to plenty of discussions this offseason on who would ultimately make the rotation.

With Josh Okogie earning the fifth starter spot, next up have expectedly been Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon, who both have started in place of Beal and Booker. After both had rough shooting performances away from home, they got it going here in the Valley. Gordon through four games is averaging 16.5 points per game on 45% shooting with over eight 3-point attempts a night while Allen is at 10.5 points, 41.9% shooting and nearly six 3s per contest.

Beyond those two, the first wing off the bench has been Yuta Watanabe, competing amongst Keita Bates-Diop (who is out of the rotation) and Nassir Little. Watanabe’s a fantastic shooter who, as Durant and others say, just knows how to play. His defense has been more than solid and he is 7-for-16 (43.8%) from 3 to begin the year.

The ball movement and spacing with Allen, Durant, Gordon and Watanabe all on the floor together has been sensational, particularly on Tuesday when Phoenix hit 18 triples. Generating 3s was a huge issue the last couple of years, a part of the game the Suns simply have to improve so the math isn’t automatically working against them like it did versus Denver last May. The shooters will help with that.

Darkhorse for key role emerges

A name to get to know is Jordan Goodwin, a stocky combo guard who was a part of the Bradley Beal trade and is showing he was very much not just a throw-in.

Goodwin is a terrific perimeter defender, solid decision-maker in quick windows and awesome rebounder for a guard. The minutes with both he and Okogie have been a joy to watch defensively. Goodwin does, however, have to start knocking down shots. He’s 12-for-35 (34.3%) from the field. But despite that, it’s no surprise to see him holding the fourth-best net rating on the team (with Okogie right ahead of him in third).

There is a need for a secondary guard of sorts on this team and the tenacious energy Goodwin plays through is right up Vogel’s alley. If he can keep making the correct choices on the ball and hit shots, his presence will be a huge plus off the bench all year.

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