With the deal dead and the dust settled, the Phoenix Suns roster looks significantly different than it did a week ago.
A week ago, the Suns had a lot of swappable small forwards and not enough stars. Now the suns have that stellar power at the expense of a black hole at Small Forward.
Kevin Durant joins the Suns, knocking everyone down the pecking order. Durant is a top 3 player in the league, Devin Booker is a top 10 player, and Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton are top 50 players at worst.
But after those four, who is now Sun’s fifth best player?
With Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges gone, the Suns lost most of their depth of rotation at the small forward and undersized power forward positions. The Suns are reportedly trying to bring a player into the buyout market to bolster their wing depth, such as: Like veteran SG/SF Terrence Ross after he was released from the Orlando Magic, but you can’t expect someone else’s putdown list to be your 5th best player of a championship contender.
While it’s obvious Kevin Durant will start at power forward (he’s a long way from playing small forward at this point in his career), who will start at small forward and what the Suns’ rotations will be is less obvious, once Durant, Cam Payne and Landry Shamet recover.
Cameron Payne has missed longer stretches of the season with foot injuries and attempts by the Suns to fill the role of backup point guard from the inside have failed. Landry Shamet is a frequently injured shooting guard who cannot shoot. Duane Washington Jr. (aka Langston Galloway Redux) is no longer on the team due to his inability to lead offense and abysmal defense. Saben Lee was miserable in his final stints as he attempted to lead the second unit offense. That has forced coach Monty Williams to bring 38-year-old Chris Paul back into the game sooner than he would have liked, sending the injury-prone star’s minutes skyrocketing.
Reggie Jackson was rumored to have attracted the Suns’ interest after being traded from the Clippers to the Hornets, but he unexpectedly chose to sign with the Denver Nuggets instead. That leaves the Suns with options like John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker to replace Saben Lee. The Suns need better insurance for the often-injured CP3 and Cam Payne. While Westbrook has an ugly history with Durant and Walker has been available for months, Wall has been reported to have attracted some interest from the Suns. Hopefully the Suns will find a way to improve here given the risk of injury either CP3 or Payne could derail their playoff run.
As a shooting guard, the Suns have Damion Lee and Landry Shamet as backups. Lee has led the NBA with 3-point shooting percentages for much of the season, including a paltry 60-plus percentage in the fourth quarter. Shamet has been very fickle in both passing and shooting, although he has improved on defense and is good at creating distractions. However, he failed to provide the kind of playmaking ability the Suns were hoping for from a combo guard. I expect Lee will be the primary backup behind Booker during the playoffs. Terrence Ross, if he does sign with the Suns, will also be another shooter off the bench.
Backfield rotation: I expect Payne to remain the number two on the team and Wall (if signed) to be a situational player to play alongside Booker when the Suns need a defender on the ball against the opposition’s point guard or smaller shooting guards. My expectation is that Damion Lee will be Booker’s primary replacement even if Shamet returns as long as the Suns have a healthy backup PG alongside Saben Lee. We can also expect to see some CP3/D. Lee/Booker/KD/Ayton line up in crunch time, especially when playing from behind.
Assuming the Suns don’t sign a starting-quality wing (like Will Barton) as part of a buyout (like Will Barton), the Suns have a mishmash of faulty players who can play small forward and backup in both forward slots . What the Suns most need from their incipient small forward is a point-of-attack (PoA) defender to protect their opponents’ best players on the perimeter. Scoring is just a nice to have when playing alongside CP3, Book, Durant and Ayton. When it comes to backups, they need a combination of players to continue providing PoA defenses without the offense collapsing. Let’s look at the players and how a functional rotation based on available players could work.
Torrey Craig has spent his NBA career as a dependable combo forward known as a 3-and-D player who rushes for transition blocks and fights for rebounds. He’s no shot master, and sometimes as a tweener he struggles with being too small to guard some PFs and too slow to guard some of the faster little forwards. He’s still arguably their best defender among the plethora of no-name guys the Suns can play small forward. Although Craig is third overall in minutes played for the Suns this season, he won’t cause problems unless he comes off the bench.
Josh Okogie is a 5th year SG/SF who is an incredibly athletic, strong, fast defender who can defend 3 positions. He ranks in the 97th percentile for creating deflections, averaging 1.7 steals per 36 minutes, and generating a surprising number of blocks and rebounds for a 6-4 SG/SF. He lacks Bridges’ ability to use length to recover on defense but has amazingly fast feet and hands. His offense leaves a lot to be desired with a 31.1% 3-point rate and an overall true shooting rate of 52.1% (although it’s been improving lately). His shots to the basket produce free throws, but if he is not fouled, this often results in ugly lifts as often as high-flying dunks.
TJ Warren has returned to the suns. He’s injury prone, not that athletic and his defense is terrible. However, unlike everyone else on the Suns bench, he can generate his own offense. In fact, he doesn’t give you much besides points: His rebounds, steals, assists, and blocks are all well below what you’d expect from a 6-8, 220-pound small forward. In recent years he has shown that he can hit three-pointers at close to 40% and he is another mid-range champion. Below the three-point line, he has insidiously good “old man” play and an overwhelming range of tricks. He’s only 29 years old and it’s easy to forget that he left the 2020 bubble with 53 points.
Isch Wainright has a two-way contract and has just 10 more game eligibility before the Suns have to sign him for the rest of the season. To describe his game, he’s a poor man’s Torrey Craig who does a lot of the same things but not quite as well. 3-point shooting, defense, problems on D as a combo forward, rebounds; he’s kind of a Xerox of a Xerox. That means he’s a third-row player who can see a few minutes during the regular season but probably won’t get any significant minutes in the playoffs unless something goes horribly wrong.
Darius Bazley joined the Suns in a trade deadline deal that sent Dario Saric to OKC Thunder. Bazley is an evil twin of sorts from TJ Warren’s mirror universe: he’s a long, athletic, defensive-minded combo forward who’s utterly unlucky on offense. Bazley has some great defensive skills: he’s long and fast enough to routinely leap at perimeter shooters and block their shots (and generate quick breaks in the process). He’s also a capable rim guard with enough speed to defend either small or power forwards. He’s also great at avoiding contact: he was once the only player in the NBA with more blocks than fouls. On offense, his cover is a 3-and-D type that gets a few poster dunks. If you see him trying to do anything else on offense (including a pick and roll) it’s best not to look as nothing good will happen.
Terence Ross is reportedly on his way to the Suns. He is an athletic 6-6 206lb swingman who has the ability to play either SG or SF. He’s 32 years old and clearly on the downturn in his career, but he can still shoot 3’s at a relatively high percentage (38.1%). Beyond that, though, he doesn’t offer much: the rest of his stats look more or less like TJ Warren’s, aside from his actual shooting rate, which sits at a paltry 51.5% this year. His defense is also bottom-line (4th percentile per advanced stat source), though he was under-motivated for two years sitting on the bench on poor Orlando teams that are in player development mode. It’s hard to see Ross pushing past Damion Lee, TJ Warren and Torrey Craig, although he could be an option if Coach Williams decides he needs Ross’ shot more than Okogies’ defense.
Frontcourt rotation: The most sensible rotation is to start Okogie and get Craig and Warren off the bench as a pair when Durant isn’t on the court. Okogie’s Ultra Pest defense allows the Suns to put him on the opposition’s best player at PG, SG, or SF and hide Chris Paul from whoever poses the least threat. His mediocre offense isn’t a huge disadvantage against four other guys who can rack up 20-30 points a night and generate their own offense. Okogie plays everything all the time so you can keep his minutes.
With Durant off the floor, the Suns still need the front court defense and a willing PoA defender, but they also need another shot creator. The Suns have the luxury of only playing 16 minutes a night without Durant (if he’s healthy), and Monty will likely buffer that with a combination of CP3, Booker and Ayton. Bazley is a situational player who’s available when the Suns need someone with better length and shot blocker to play behind Durant or Craig gets into dire trouble. Wainright is mostly there as insurance for Craig or Okogie.
The Suns options in the backup center weren’t great. Jock Landale had the most minutes in the backup center and the results were mixed, partly because the Suns’ depth was decimated so badly by injuries and trades. His three-point shooting doesn’t keep defense honest, and he’s not a rim guard or a great rebounder. He has some nice moves on offense (sometimes), but that’s not enough to prevent him from being a net negative on defense.
Bismack Biyombo has the opposite problem: all defense and horrendous offense. Bizzy is shooting a whopping 31.4% from the free throw line this year, making him all but unplayable in the fourth quarter. His touch around the basket is okay (56.6% on two-point shots), but his range is limited to hooks and lay-ups. Still, Biyombo might make more sense than Landale if both Durant and Booker are on the ground together, and there’s no need for that.
It’s possible the Suns will experiment with Bazley in the middle for short stretches, such as using Tom Chambers 92-93 or Channing Frye 2009-2010 as a stretch 4 in the absence of a competent middle. Still, Ayton gets 30 minutes a game, and the Suns have three or four options to choose from. As such, I suspect backup center minutes are situational based on who else the Suns have on the court and opposing match-ups (e.g. oriented 5s like Christian Wood).
I believe the Suns (normal) playoff rotation should be CP3/Book/Okogie/Durant/Ayton, with Payne, Damion Lee, Warren, Craig, and Landale as the main off-bench rotation players. Bazley has the greatest potential to be a surprise player based on his defensive versatility in three positions, dunks and respectable 3-point shooting. I could see a backup PG getting spot minutes (if the Suns sign them) if they’re a better option than Payne. Shamet, Wainright and Biyombo are likely situation players due to injuries and foul problems. I believe Saben Lee will likely be cut if the Suns get another point guard in the buyout market.
Phoenix doesn’t have the bench depth to do a “hockey rotation.” Instead, they have to throw in backups with two or three of Paul, Booker, Durant and Ayton mid-game to avoid massive drops in game quality at either end of the court.
Let’s have some fun. Who do you think is the fifth best player on the Suns now?