The Suns’ biggest red flag: They’re not doing what they said they’d do

Dec 20, 2023, 3:19 PM | Updated: Dec 21, 2023, 2:37 pm

At a macro scale, the Phoenix Suns’ biggest critics can complain about the swing of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Kevin Durant setting off roster imbalance. Injuries to stars Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Durant have pushed that imbalance into the spotlight.

At a micro level, the lack of a pure point guard and the juggling of getting defenders on the court versus getting shooters on the court has shown up as a flaw that few people expected as the roster came together around the Big Three.

Excuse me for sounding a little alarmist, but the Suns’ biggest problem as they sit on this Wednesday with a 14-13 record and 10th place in a deep Western Conference is a lot simpler.

Phoenix is not doing the things that head coach Frank Vogel and his players talked about in the preseason.

The Suns are straying far away from forming the identity we all assumed would bubble to the surface from the moment Booker got into a low defensive stance and the Big Three helped the team shoot the lights out in the opening quarter of the preseason.

“Our guys are going to hear that our number one habit we develop all year is that we have to play harder and tougher and with more hustle than our opponents every night,” Vogel said at his introductory press conference. “Because if you develop that habit over 82 games, boy, come playoff time when every team is trying to ratchet it up, it’s already going to be there for us. It’s going to be a way of life of us, from the beginning of training camp into the playoffs.”

There have been frequent communication breakdowns down to the basics of switching rules.

The rebounding rates, deflections and loose ball possession stats don’t tell the entire story. The Suns have been so erratic by the quarter and more than a handful of their losses can be traced back to a single bad stretch such as the third period in Portland on Tuesday.

Phoenix fouls at the second-highest rate in the league, a sign it’s too physical in the wrong way. More likely, it’s a symptom of a team too often out of position on defense.

The Suns sit 17th in defensive rating as of Wednesday before games.

There’s a case to be made that Vogel’s schemes have been slow to take, and injuries haven’t made cohesion easy. The head coach’s comments upon his introduction were about Deandre Ayton manning the middle. Regardless, what Vogel suggested from there hasn’t been close to clicking as 2024 nears.

“I think it starts with the big fella,” Vogel said then. “I’ve always had elite rim protectors, and you can get the job done without that but, boy, when you got a guy like that in front of the basket deterring everything that comes to the rim, you just get stronger in everything because the perimeter can push up more and be aggressive. I have a scheme that I believe is the best in the league of tailoring those strengths into the group.”

Even with Jusuf Nurkic managing to be consistent in what he’s capable of doing, it’s been shrug-worthy in terms of team perimeter defense. Jalen Brunson’s 50-piece for the Knicks last Friday was emblematic of the entire team’s struggles.

Speaking to Arizona Sports’ Kellan Olson this preseason about his past coaching against Beal, Vogel put his defensive philosophy this way: “There’s line of scrimmages all over in basketball. … It’s physicality in everything you do.”

It’s a dope metaphor and approach. But the Suns have yet to put that into practice.

Speaking of putting things into practice, Phoenix players at media day spoke often about wanting to run more. That in theory negated the requirement of having a traditional point guard.

“Like, if we had a traditional point guard, he’s not going to be slowing our offense down, holding it,” Beal said in October. “Get the ball to Kevin, get the ball to D-Book and let’s get that thing going.”

The Suns haven’t got going.

To be fair, the defensive issues have presented fewer opportunities to run, but Phoenix is the fifth-slowest-paced team in the NBA. Even in the halfcourt, the sluggishness getting into initial actions is something Durant referenced Tuesday after losing to the Blazers.

There’s still time for the issues to be resolved.

The Los Angeles Clippers this season are the easy team to point to in terms of snapping a roster loaded with stars into place out of nowhere. They’re on an eight-game winning streak.

Remember this: The majority of talking heads, blog boys and former players and coaches agreed this team’s offseason looked pretty good.

Beal’s health, more time on task communicating Vogel’s vision and even a roster move could swing the Suns back in the right direction. More than a traditional point guard, the Suns could most urgently use an enforcer- and tone-setting wing in the P.J. Tucker or Jae Crowder mold to 1) hold the rest of the team accountable and 2) give them consistent physicality.

Right now, it’s just concerning nobody can say whether this is a roster construction issue or something deeper. The red flags aren’t about whether the Suns should have traded Bridges and Johnson for Durant; or swapped Ayton for Nurkic; or gambled on Beal’s contract and injury history.

The concerns aren’t about the Big Three’s operation — we’ve hardly seen them together.

Right now, we all just didn’t expect that a Vogel-coached team with a Big Three would be searching for an identity.

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