EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Rally vs. Kings explains why Suns don’t have obvious need ahead of NBA trade deadline

Jan 17, 2024, 10:14 AM | Updated: 3:32 pm

Phoenix Suns fans want an easy fix for why this superteam project hasn’t started smoothly.

Fair.

They’re not wrong that a true floor general would help better match up against elite point guards and control the pace before the wheels fall off like they have so many times. Easier said than done to find a rotation point guard without many trade assets to work with.

A report last week indicated the Suns more direly want a functional wing with Josh Okogie, Chimezie Metu, Nassir Little and Keita Bates-Diop not filling the void for different reasons.

Lower on the list: The Suns may not miss Deandre Ayton, but they do miss a center who won’t be easily played off the court.

Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks, despite their best efforts, won’t match up well every night, and the 119-117 win Tuesday against the Sacramento Kings that required a 22-point comeback in eight minutes might illustrate that point.

Phoenix made that fourth-quarter run without a true center on the court, relying on Metu and Kevin Durant as small-ball 5s. But that should illustrate a more important issue.

The Suns are at their best — and pretty darn good — when their best players are on the court and capable of switching and simplifying the defense. Beyond that, it’s unclear how adaptive this roster can be, and that will matter if this team before and after the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline starts showing sparks of being a serious playoff contender.

Phoenix Suns lineup data for the Big 3 and beyond

Against the Kings, the Suns closed with Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon on the court, spacing out Sacramento.

That unit held its own defensively despite Durant covering the much bulkier Domantas Sabonis and Allen having the primary challenge of tracking one of the fastest players in the NBA, De’Aaron Fox.

With 8:22 left in the game, Phoenix was down 22 and proceeded to rally with the following lineups:

— Booker-Allen-Durant-Okogie-Metu made up five points in a few possessions.

— Booker-Allen-Beal-Durant-Okogie lost a point in a brief period together.

— Booker-Allen-Beal-Gordon-Durant went on a 23-5 run over the final 5:11 to win the game.

It tracks with the season-long lineup data. We’ve learned a few things so far in a 22-18 start.

The Big Three has held up well on both ends and has a +14.5 NET rating in 175 minutes played together. It’s Phoenix’s best three-man lineup that’s played at least 100 minutes together. Problem is, that’s just 77th league-wide of units that have played 150 or more minutes together.

Regardless of Big Three “chemistry” narratives, it’s what the Suns build out around combos of the trio that will matter more.

Allen is playing out of his mind. He got up 14 threes and hit nine on Tuesday for 29 points, six assists, plus effortful defense. For the year, he’s shooting 50% overall and 48% from three on 5.8 attempts per game.

Gordon has been hot and cold but a huge plus when he’s in attack mode, while Okogie despite his offensive minuses has been needed to junk up games with his physicality.

And center Jusuf Nurkic has been solid when he’s not in a matchup bind.

Suns’ top 7 has been clarified

Here’s how the season-long data reflects on that group of seven:

The Suns’ best 5-man lineup by NET rating (50 minutes or more): Booker-Allen-Gordon-Durant-Nurkic ranks 14th NBA-wide at +20.7 (143 minutes)

The Suns’ second-best 5-man lineup by NET rating (50 minutes or more): Booker-Beal-Allen-Durant-Nurkic ranks 27th NBA-wide at +14.4 (126 minutes)

The Suns’ third-best 5-man lineup by NET rating (50 minutes or more): Durant-Gordon-Allen-Nurkic-Okogie ranks 32nd NBA-wide at +12.7 (74 minutes)

No other five-man lineup has played 50 or more minutes together.

And that’s the hard part of judging the Suns at the moment.

It’s dizzying to determine the reasons why the Suns allowed the Kings to shoot 51% with 30 assists through three quarters Tuesday night. Or why Phoenix opened the door for Sacramento to begin the fourth quarter on a 13-3 run. The start to the fourth included a dead-ball turnover that led to an open transition layup by Sasha Vezenkov that was simply a result of multiple Suns not getting back on defense.

Back to the topic at hand: The Suns’ superteam roster is built to morph around its stars based on the opponent. On Tuesday, it was about going small and asking Durant for a spirited defensive effort to make up for a matchup problem facing Sabonis.

It could be something different at other points, against other teams.

The problem is the Suns just don’t have the ability to shapeshift the lineups to attack opponent weaknesses. After you get past the Big Three, Allen, Gordon, Nurkic and Okogie — the latter two of whom are limited — it’s just hard to trust anyone else.

And even within that group of seven, it’s been a grind to find groupings that are elite before we get to what this team’s biggest flaws might be.

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