EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

What problem areas will Bradley Beal’s return for the Suns fix?

Dec 11, 2023, 6:05 PM

Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles against the Chicago Bulls during the first half at the...

Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles against the Chicago Bulls during the first half at the United Center on November 08, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

We’re not quite there yet. But the stop we all want to arrive at is within our view.

The Phoenix Suns expect to have Bradley Beal (low back strain) available for Tuesday’s game against the Golden State Warriors after he missed a dozen. Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) is questionable after sitting for Friday’s loss and this will be Grayson Allen’s second straight time out due to a right groin strain. Nassir Little (concussion protocol) will not play after suffering an orbital fracture on Friday.

Beal’s return along with Durant’s status signals we are close to the debut of the Big 3, and the full force of the team will be felt more prominently once Little and particularly Allen are back. Either way, this is the closest the Suns have been to full strength since before training camp.

While we’ve been through variations of Phoenix’s different absences, the weight of Beal’s arrival is different in justifying that claim. And more so, it coming soon alongside Devin Booker and Durant. It has been difficult to properly analyze the team over this stretch and putting the right amount of stock into what has gone wrong across a 12-10 start, hence the aforementioned excitement from this perspective to see what it all looks like.

Beal individually will make the Suns a lot better inside some of those focused-on areas. Here are a few.

Phoenix Suns’ shot profile will improve with Bradley Beal

When it comes to what Beal contributes to the Suns beyond the simplicity of adding a very good player and high-level scorer, the spaces he operates in as a bucket-getter are projected to be the most beneficial.

Despite his identity as a shooter at the start of his career and having one of the league’s better pull-up games off the bounce, Beal wants to get to the rim. Over the last five seasons, over 30% of his shots have come around the basket, a great rate for a guard, per Cleaning the Glass.

For comparison, Booker is at 22% this year and Durant 20%, below average rates. Rim pressure for both of those guys is often about generating playmaking opportunities, so it’s less of a negative than you’d think. Regardless, a consistent slashing threat anywhere is something a defense has to take into account, and Beal’s providing it as a 20-plus point-per-game scorer.

Entering play on Monday, the Suns are actually tied for 19th in the percentage of their total attempts at the rim, not too bad considering the two primary scorers aren’t top-line producing there. Beal will get that number up and that’s only a good thing.

He will also help Phoenix’s strong free throw numbers get even better, which is another place where Booker and Durant in the key are making things happen. Cleaning the Glass has the Suns at a 26.2 free-throw rate (free throws made per 100 possessions), the second-best in the NBA and a dramatic rise in last year’s 27th-best 19.0 mark.

Durant’s 8.3 free tosses are a night are his most since the 2013-14 season while Booker’s got a career-high 8.2. Beal will be in the 4-6 range, a third banana rate any team would want that will further solidify what has become one of the team’s biggest strengths.

Lastly, Beal should help the Suns take more 3s. They need to. Right now, 3s are 34% of Phoenix’s total shots, tied for 18th. Bizarrely, it ranks 23rd from the corners, which is where the optimism comes in with how Beal improves the numbers. That indicates the Suns’ spacing and movement off the threats Booker and Durant present hasn’t been imposing enough to consistently create those shots.

Beal on his own takes six triples a game over his career, so that’s an automatic boost.

Booker on/off splits

In a tale as old as time, it’s two different Suns teams based on when Booker is present or not.

The Suns outscore teams by nine points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor and get outscored by -3.7 when he isn’t, a net rating difference of 12.7 via NBA Stats that is problematic.

Booker is very much a point guard this year in how his presence gets the offense moving in the right directions, as it did in the past. When he sits, Phoenix either hard focuses Durant or finds inconsistent flow through alternative options. This makes the offensive system’s development feel a bit behind but we have yet to even see what the system looks like at full strength.

We’ll see what head coach Frank Vogel does with his rotations but the expectation is for one of Beal or Booker to be on the floor at all times to run the offense. The reason why the need for a reserve point guard has been so glaring across the start of the season is because the Beal-Booker stagger has yet to be in effect. Limitations for other guards like Jordan Goodwin and Eric Gordon have flashed over this time and it will aid them to be free of those responsibilities once the team is fully healthy.

This serves as an example of the biggest challenge Beal faces joining the Suns. He in many ways is going to be this Big 3’s version of what Chris Bosh was in Miami. Being Chris Bosh is not easy. Beal is going to have to simultaneously impact the game positively through limited chances on the ball, and in other moments, channel the awesome player he is that can singlehandedly win games. Most of his time to do the latter will be when he’s out there without Booker, so keep a close eye on those minutes specifically.

Opening up others

When thinking of Beal and Durant making things easier for their teammates, Chicago comes to mind. In a strange coincidence, especially when taking in how Phoenix only goes there once a year, it’s where the duo through their initial regular season impressions to the Valley showed how much they can make an offense zip.

In the Nov. 8 win, Phoenix scored 24 points in the first six minutes. Even while Booker was out, it was our first “whoa” moment when watching what it could be capable of.

Four of the Suns’ first five field goals were scored by Allen and Jusuf Nurkic. Pay attention to what Beal and Durant are doing to set them up.

Then Beal got to benefit off it.

We should see more of this all year. While we’ve gotten sprinkles of the way the stars open up the floor for their teammates, it has not come close to the level we will expect going forward. There have been some defeats this year when the Suns haven’t gotten enough contributions all the way around, and a lot of the time that comes down to how the top players are helping facilitate that.

Pace

This is less of guarantee and more of a question. Even though Chris Paul has moved on, the Suns still play slow.

Cleaning the Glass has them down at 81.7% of their total plays coming in the half court, second leaguewide. Phoenix is 27th in transition frequency and off live rebounds, which is surprising when watching how much the Suns liked to move the ball up quickly off misses early on in the year. Booker has referred to it as the “kick-ahead action” and that’s something Phoenix has to be doing more of with the talent at its disposal.

Some of this does make sense. The Suns wisely choose to use Durant in the mid-post a handful of times a game since it draws a double-team almost every single time. That takes slowing it down, as does both he and Booker breaking down the defense and getting it into scrambling rotations. Booker is still deployed quite often off the ball like he was under Monty Williams and that’s where Durant has cemented himself for over a decade. Durant also had patches of the season without Beal and Booker.

But what Beal said during his introductory press conference in regards to he and Booker sharing the backcourt was whoever gets the ball, go. The flow of the game will dictate it. That indicated a desire to play fast. The Suns by no means should be the Indiana Pacers but improving their pace will make an elite offense even more potent. Perhaps Beal unlocks that next branch of the skill tree.

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