The Phoenix Suns have assembled a prodigious crew of scorers, but with postseason failures stacking up, how will this motley crew of mid-range maestros fare when the chips are down?
The saying ‘out with the old, in with the new’ usually refers to changing trends in fashion, politics, music or economics, anything where existing tastes or structures are pushed out as the next spoke in the wheel creaks into the zeitgeist. But the Phoenix Suns have interpreted this quite literally, committing to an offseason retool so dizzying that the Suns brass are doubtless still walking around practice calling their new signings ‘mate’ and ‘feller’.
Still in tow are Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Josh Okogie and bench option Damion Lee, who will miss the rest of this year after knee surgery. Gone is literally everyone else, spread like dandelion seeds to the far reaches of the league.
Trades for Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen and Nassir Little and a slew of shrewd minimum signings in free agency have completely remade this roster, and with new head coach Frank Vogel taking the reins from Monty Williams, this team is almost unrecognisable. Devin Booker is the only Suns player to have completed two seasons with the team.
GM James Jones’ gamble is that star power and the rejuvenation of a full-scale roster shakeup will combat the inertia that has gripped this club since the ill-fated Dallas Mavericks series in the 2022 playoffs. Booker, Durant and Beal’s offensive credentials need no elaboration, and with an interesting cast of scorers and defenders filling out the rest of the roster, it’s not hard to imagine the cards falling in a way that gives the Suns a solid eight-man rotation.
But there are structural issues with this team that even star power might not be able to overcome when it really matters. Wing depth, Durant’s ability to play power forward at age 35 and point guard – starting point guard, backup point guard or any point guard anywhere – loom as issues that could derail this squad as they quest to win 16 postseason games after winning an agonising 14 just a few years ago.
The answer to the point guard question is that they have two, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker, but to borrow an old adage from the NFL: “If you have two quarterbacks, you got none.” The thing here is that both Beal and Booker are definitively not point guards, despite what anyone connected to the team is apparently keen to tell you. They’re actually both… shooting guards! And while sometimes positional terminology fails to capture the diversity of modern skillsets, in this instance, it’s extremely apt, because both Beal and Booker excel at shooting, not playmaking, not controlling the pace, marshalling every element of an offence and acting as an extension of the coach on the court.
For what it’s worth, Durant, probably the best ball-handling seven-footer ever, isn’t that either. And here’s the issue. Point guards are important. They don’t have to be 6’0” flat, as Nikola Jokic can attest, but having the mind and the skillset of a point guard on the floor (in whatever body package they come) in high-leverage scenarios is crucial.
This won’t be much of an issue in December games against Orlando or February games against Utah, but once the playoffs roll around, the importance of a late-game organiser can’t be overstated.
The Suns’ regular season offence will have Booker and Beal split primary ball-handling with Durant pitching in here and there, but neither Booker nor Beal are at their best without a dedicated ball-handler next to them. The Suns teams of the late 2010s experimented with Point Book, and while it allowed Booker to expand his game, range and handle, it also showed that he’s not at his best in that role.
While he has great passing dexterity and vision, it’s his feel that lets him down sometimes, forcing passes where he should wait just a second longer. The peak Point Book season, 2018-19, saw him set career highs in usage percentage, assists and… turnovers. Averaging 6.8 assists per night with 4.1 turnovers is not great from a lead guard, and Booker’s assist-to-usage rate had him slotted neatly into the 46th percentile among all guards per Cleaning The Glass.
Beal, meanwhile, has been inconsistent as a playmaker. Faring well in a secondary role next to John Wall but struggling since the former Wiz guard’s departure for pastures way, way worse, Beal’s case is hard to evaluate since he has been licensed to shoot first and ask questions later on bad teams for half a decade. What is clear is that he’s far more comfortable coming around a pick looking to score than he is to facilitate, something he has in common with both Booker and Durant.
The Suns’ dynamic scorers will need to find a way to accommodate each other. Durant and Booker are just about the most accurate and active mid-range shooters in the league, and despite not being nearly as effective as his All-Star peers, Beal also loves to shoot from the mid-range. Despite his reputation as a marksman, Beal takes less than a quarter of his shots from three, while Durant takes almost no shots at the rim. Low three-point attempt rates and a lack of rim pressure aren’t usually ingredients in a top-five offence.
There are some problems here! The big three all love the same spots on the floor, and although the ‘only one ball’ rhetoric has proven to be a tired and misguided protest against assemblies of stars, not everyone can be in the mid-range at the same time.
All three are elite shooters, in theory, and should be able to space the floor well enough, with some help from Grayson Allen, Yuta Watanabe and, nominally, Jusuf Nurkic. If Beal or Booker enter a lean spell from deep, there should still be enough firepower to readjust. The real issue, though, might be the total absence of anyone even remotely resembling an interior threat.
None of the stars like to get all the way to the cup, the role players are primarily shooters or defenders and Nurkic’s at-rim shot chart is filled with blue, blue and darker blue (you’re aiming for red). This team has struggled to score inside for years, but past teams could at least rely on dunks from JaVale McGee types and the ever-reliable Deandre Ayton four-foot hook shot. Even those minimal forms of interior scoring are gone.
These are issues that can be overcome with sheer talent during the regular season, but contenders need answers down the stretch come playoff time, and Booker as a primary initiator in late-game situations has been a bumpy ride in the postseason. Jrue Holiday snatching the ball from Booker as he attempts a drive to seal the NBA championship in 2021 stands out, but even last year’s postseason saw an uneven equilibrium stuck between Booker and Durant.
With such prodigious mid-range shooting, both stars settled for deep twos (!) off the dribble, and in a gummed-up playoff game against an elite opponent, that’s just not going to cut it. There’s a long way to go before then, and it’s safe to say that the sheer offensive talent this team has amassed gives them a headstart in solving these issues.
Head coach Frank Vogel is known for his defensive strategy, rather than his offence, which means this team’s success or failure offensively is going to come from the players, not the scheme. The very same mid-range excellence that propels the Suns to a top seed might just be what sinks this team when it’s winning time.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Booker, Durant and Beal averaged a combined 80 points per game last year, so that’s a pretty good place to start. But, as we’ve seen with this team each of the last three seasons, it’s not how they start, it’s how they finish.