With the start of the new season less than a month away, it seems more and more that the Phoenix Suns have decided to restart it. They matched Deandre Ayton’s contract offer from the Indiana Pacers, keeping him on the team for at least another half season.
They couldn’t trade for Kevin Durant, and so they kept several other key pieces on the roster. There have been quite a few moves made at the back end of the roster to enhance their depth, but the Suns will stick to the core of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Michal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Eaton for the time being.
Given that the Phoenix Suns bring back pretty much the same team that lost in the second round last year, it’s fair to wonder how they could improve on that score.
I think the answer lies in the flaws of Suns in that series. There have been a number of reasons for the Suns’ collapse in the past few games, but the main ones being the lack of creativity outside of Paul and Booker, Paul’s performance after his injury, and playing guard on the bench. Fixes for these issues go hand in hand, and Suns can improve these weaknesses through experimentation during the regular season.
In the series against the Mavericks, the trio of Eaton, Bridges, and Johnson averaged 36.2 points per game. Bridges and Johnson in particular had trouble composing themselves because their unsupported basket ratios of 10.7 and 8.7, respectively, were below their regular season marks of 18.1 and 14.7. With Paul handicapped and unable to get the ball as much as he normally does, their points per game dropped sharply.
On the other hand, Eaton did well in the self-creative department of that series with his unsupported percentage of 30.6 well above the regular season mark of 18.8. However, his touches in the series were much less than in the previous series. In that stellar streak against the Pelicans, Eaton touched the ball 52.0 times per game, but that number dropped to 38.1 against the Mavericks, dropping his points as well.
Much of that was due to Booker’s return, but there’s no scenario in which iTunes should have had the slightest touch of Jay Crowder in a playoff series. For Bridges and Johnson, the Suns should see this regular season as an opportunity to make them more comfortable creating their own attack. For Ayton, they must make sure he becomes a more consistent focal point of the offense.
If the young Suns trio manage to take on more offensive responsibility, it could have hidden benefits for others on the team. Reducing the usual and post-season burden on Paul may be the key to keeping him healthy. With Booker injured in the first round, he was asked to score far more goals than he used to.
This rise in use at his age could have been the reason why he suffered a quadruple injury in the following series. Taking some of the pressure off Paul isn’t a tricky way to keep him healthy by any means, but if the team becomes less dependent on him, they’ll be better prepared in case another injury strikes.
The last bit of failure against the Mavericks was the guard play that the Suns knocked out of Cameron Payne and Andre Schmitt. Both players are still on the roster, but the Suns brought on Frank Jackson, Duane Washington Jr., Josh Okoji and Damion Lee this season. While there is a comfort level with the current Suns, a long test of the standby point-off season could bring out the best in one of them. It would also be helpful to get some new cast for the new players with the rest of the Suns team in case someone gets stuck in post-season again.
Using this upcoming regular season as more of the testing grounds isn’t without a lot of risk. There will be growing pains as players try to become comfortable in new roles, and losses will surely follow because of that. This, in turn, could also damage the sun’s seeding, which is huge given how good the west is to come again.
As we just saw last season, higher seeding does not mean automatic progression. If the Suns can give themselves a better chance in a playoff at the expense of some regular season wins, they simply have to do it.