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'Iron sharpens iron': How the Suns Big 3 will balance aggression and unselfishness on offense

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 19, 2023
The Phoenix Suns Big 3 of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal will fit together on offense by balancing aggressive play with unselfishness

For the last two weeks, the most common sight after practice at the Verizon 5G Performance Center has been Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal getting up shots together.

At the far end of the court from where the media gathers, the Phoenix Suns Big 3 take turns, one after the other, replicating the move of the guy before them. Cuts beyond the arc for a catch-and-shoot 3. Curls around invisible screens for a jumper. A pump fake and dribble into a midrange pull-up.

It’s nothing overly complicated, but those post-practice reps speak to the work ethic and chemistry Phoenix hopes will trickle down through the rest of the roster.

“It’s always good to get work in with some of the best players in the world,” Durant said. “It’s like iron sharpening iron over there, and we hold each other to a higher standard.”

It’s a cliche we’ve heard from Booker and even Chris Paul before. But it’s especially true with this new Big 3, a new coaching staff, and a gym full of new faces that are looking for three of the game’s greatest scorers to lead by example.

Booker has never had more talent on his side. KD hasn’t played on a team like this since the Golden State Warriors. And Bradley Beal hasn’t had a superstar to push him in practice like this since Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

“We just get after it every day,” Booker reiterated. “Iron sharpens iron.”

Suns Big 3
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Multiple players have mentioned that practices feel more rigorous than the actual games, thanks to an intense level of competition that starts with the Suns Big 3. Beal knew that would be the case from the moment his trade to Phoenix was finalized, and the first call from his new superstar teammates carried a simple message: Let’s get in the gym.

“You can see the hunger and the drive, and you can see the culture we’re trying to build and what this organization is trying to push for,” Beal explained. “It’s weird, it’s like a contagious effect. If you see one guy do it, the next guy’s doing it, and it just trickles down.”

Three superstars challenging each other in practice is expected, but that domino effect is critical for a team that welcomed 13 new players to training camp.

Keita Bates-Diop said it’s “noticeable” if anyone fails to match the level of intensity in practice, and simply going against those three on a daily basis is forcing him to elevate his game.

“Honestly, I have no choice but to be a good defender,” he said. “Whether they’re all on one team or going against each other, whatever it may be, you have no choice but to become a better defender. Those are three of the best scorers arguably in a generation.”

Jordan Goodwin confirmed the Big 3 are the hardest workers in the gym, which pushes him to exert the same effort in turn. As a third-year player and defensive specialist, he’s already studying their work habits, watching back practice film of the possessions where Booker, Durant or Beal scores on him.

“You’re just watching greatness every day,” Goodwin said. “So I’d be dumb not to just pay attention and just follow them, get on their hip and do whatever they do.”

There’s a certain level of hunger and drive that’s expected of NBA superstars. The Suns Big 3 are making it easy for a (mostly) new coaching staff to establish the right tone for the rest of the season.

“Well, that’s what I heard when I came here about these guys — and it’s been true — is they love to hoop,” Frank Vogel said. “They want to be in there, they want to practice. So for a coach, that’s like a dream.”

That’s not the only dream permeating through the Suns’ daily routines and high-octane workouts. This group has legitimate championship aspirations, and no one is shying away from them.

“You kind of get that feeling as a team, like, ‘Man, if we work, if we work hard, we got a chance to do something special,'” Grayson Allen said. “It’s much easier to get up and go in and do extra work and get your extra shots up when you have that external motivation of, ‘You have a great team with a chance to do something great.'”

Champions behave like champions before they’re champions. It’s a long journey toward NBA playoff basketball in April, May and June, but the Suns are trying to establish the right habits now as they build toward their ultimate goal.

“The sky’s the limit,” Beal said. “We can’t put a cap on it. I think that’s what I love the most about it, and our competitive nature always takes over.”

The adjustment process for the Suns Big 3

Kevin Durant has played with multiple superstars on every team he’s been a part of since his Oklahoma City Thunder days. As one of the most malleable scorers in NBA history, he understands what it takes for players of that caliber to come together…and he knows firsthand the value of playing with that type of talent on a daily basis.

“Being around talent with this game is always about putting yourself in position to be around the best of the best,” he said. “I think it’s important for my development as a player to constantly be around greats, and these guys have portrayed that in this league for a long time. So guys that can do multiple things with the basketball, without the basketball, on both ends of the floor, is only gonna make me better as a player.”

For most Big 3s, there’s an inherent adjustment process. All three of Booker, Durant and Beal have been No. 1 options for the majority of their careers. On a team like this, it’d be reasonable to wonder if Beal might have to take a step back and make the biggest adjustment. Right?

“Nope, not at all,” Vogel said. “All those guys are gonna fit in and be themselves. We’re not asking one of them to sacrifice or compromise more than the others.”

Having a three-headed superstar attack on offense is great, but with a new center in Jusuf Nurkic and the fifth starting spot still up for grabs, it’ll take awhile for the Suns to iron out their rotation and their roles for everyone in it.

“I feel like it will take everybody to accept their roles and to play the best ability of that,” Nurkic said. “I think we know what we can do, off the limit. Probably the best offensive team in the league with these three guys.”

In very limited preseason doses, that “best offense in the league” ceiling has on display:

Suns Big 3

The Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons are hardly formidable opponents, but scoring more than 70 in the first half of all three preseason games where at least two of the Suns Big 3 played is still encouraging. Even ignoring the quality of opponent for a second, Phoenix’s process on offense has looked seamless.

“Natural,” Beal described it. “It’s just playing basketball. It’s not anything significantly different. I mean, obviously it’s playing with two other guys who score the hell out the ball, but to me, it’s just playing fun basketball. It’s no different than what I’ve been preparing myself for and wanting.”

The continued comparisons to the Brooklyn Nets Big 3 are lazy for multiple reasons, but perhaps the most obvious one is how the Suns Big 3 just want to hoop. In a business where egos and pride can get in the way of success, Booker, Durant and Beal share a similar mindset, with personalities that mesh perfectly.

For Booker, Durant is someone he’s held in high esteem for years. To have someone like that want to join him in Phoenix made everything else fall into place easily.

“I was a fan first, and I’ve always looked up to KD,” Booker said. “To be here firsthand now and get to spend time and grow that relationship, it’s a full-circle moment in life. We have a great deal of respect for each other, and we continue to push each other. I know he’s always in the gym, he doesn’t take a rep off, he doesn’t take a day off. So those are the types of people I like to be surrounded with, and we have the same interests, so off the court is always a good time.”

Adding a third superstar into the mix always runs the risk of spoiling a dynamic duo with too much personality, too much talent, too many egos. But Beal isn’t that guy. His jovial side and like-minded approach to the game have paired seamlessly with Booker and Durant.

“He just has a high personality,” Booker said. “Likes to have a good time, likes to laugh, and at the same time, likes to kill on the court.”

Beal has been yearning for an opportunity to play meaningful basketball after spending the last few seasons on non-playoff teams. But fitting in on a team with drastically different expectations became easier once he discovered how low-maintenance Booker and Durant are.

“We’re all just three laidback guys,” Beal said. “We’re very competitive, we love the game of basketball. Got a lot of things in common. We love to just hang out, man. It’s been a really good bond. We’ve all known each other previously before this, but just to be here every day and just to get that experience on the daily is surreal in some ways.”

Staying aggressive on the court

The vibes feel immaculate in the Valley once again, but all that off-court camaraderie will only go so far if the on-court results don’t follow. Phoenix’s improved depth remains underrated, but a simple look at their cap sheet offers a reminder that this team is still a bit top-heavy.

They will go as the Suns Big 3 goes, and whenever this much talent assembles, the old “there’s only one ball” adage typically follows. Hesitating to avoid overstepping can be just as detrimental, and it’s something the Big 3 caught themselves doing early in training camp.

“I noticed a lot of times we caught ourselves a little bit just being too passive and sometimes giving the ball up a little too much instead of looking at the basket and being aggressive,” Beal said. “So I think just kind of keeping the mentality that we have as scorers, and our aggressiveness is what’s beneficial for the team. No matter who it is, we trust that each other is gonna make the right play, so it’s not a matter of, ‘Oh, it’s my turn, it’s your turn.’ We don’t have that. It’s a good flow of offense.”

Making the right play is an elementary concept, but it’s one the Suns will rely on — not only for the Big 3 to acclimate to each other, but for the other role players to stay involved.

As snipers who shot 37 percent or better from 3 last year, Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe provide Phoenix with extra shooters to space the floor. Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop are smart cutters. Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks are skilled rollers who can make plays in the short pocket. The Big 3 need to stay aggressive in order for those complementary skill-sets to shine.

“That’s what a lot of teams struggle with is not wanting to step on toes, but just playing the game as it’s presented to you,” Durant said. “I think just making the simple and easy play can always help a team not think too much out on the floor. So if we could try to be simple and efficient on both ends of the floor, it’ll make our lives easier.”

Sometimes, the simple play is letting the Suns’ elite scorers play like elite scorers. Vogel has encouraged Booker to take more pull-up 3s off the dribble this year. Beal said earnestly that the first thing he’s looking for in pick-and-roll situations is whether the defender in front of him can stop him. And Durant explained how Vogel is making it a point of emphasis for everyone to stay aggressive.

“There’s times where coach may call the play, and he’ll stop practice and say, ‘Look, that was a chance for you to go break it off and go get a basket right there,'” Durant said. “So him giving us that confidence to be aggressive when the ball touches our hands is always key, ’cause when you’re on a team with good players, you tend to try not to step on toes and be a little timid out there and figure it out.”

Once again, it’s a trickle-down effect that starts with the Suns Big 3. The BBall Index ranked all three of them in the 93rd percentile or better in points per possession as pick-and-roll ball-handlers, so any one of them is comfortable operating in that environment. If the defender goes under the screen, it’s an open pull-up jumper. If the defense switches, it could be a mismatch. If they blitz the screen and double-team the ball-handler, all three are capable of making the right pass to capitalize on 4-on-3 advantages. They have the shooters, passers and ball-handlers to hunt for the best available shot.

“They’re guys that command respect out there,” Durant explained. “Book drives to the rim, there’s gonna be guys coming over and converging on him. Same with Bradley. Same with myself, and on different areas of the floor. So that could open up everything for everyone. You can’t guard all of us at once, especially when guys like Book can command a double-team, myself, Brad could command double-teams. It’s gonna be tough on the backside.”

Durant played on some of the best passing teams and all-around offenses in NBA history with the Warriors. Beal spent the last few seasons refining his playmaking abilities. And Booker, who was surrounded by G League talent early in his career, spent years learning how to run point against double-teams, even when he didn’t have capable outlets to feed. Those experiences will make this transition process a lot smoother.

“I think the unique part about us three is that we all have the capability of scoring at the highest level, but we’ve always played the game the right way,” Booker said. “Even when we were kinda — not on our own teams, but on different teams, we still continued to play the game the right way. So it hasn’t been an adjustment, for real. Only thing I tell them to do is be more aggressive. That’s gonna open everything up for everybody else.”

The unselfishness of the Suns Big 3

Booker has long preached “take what the defense gives you,” but now the Suns have more weapons than they’ve ever had during his first eight seasons. Just a few days into training camp, Nurkic marveled at how difficult it’ll be to stop this group.

“I’m running and playing pick-and-roll with D-Book,” Nurkic described. “But out in the corner I got KD, and then Bradley Beal, I’m saying, ‘God damn.’ It’s kind of crazy when you think about it, but the spacing and everything, as a big and as someone who loves passing, it’s just really fun to be out there.”

Having that kind of free-flowing offense is impossible without unselfish stars running the show, but Beal said this group of guys genuinely enjoys seeing their fellow teammate succeed. Durant has played on selfless, highly successful teams before, and while he doesn’t like to compare his current squad to those all-time Dubs teams, he agreed this group has similar DNA in that respect.

“I’ve been blessed to play on teams my whole career that have been unselfish, that want to see each other succeed, and this is no different,” Durant said. “We got guys that have been through so much and achieved so much individually; now they want to see what it’s like to achieve success in a team aspect, and that’s always the best version of each player is when they’re playing for one another.”

According to Vogel, it’s not a question of whether they can sacrifice, or which member of the Big 3 will need to sacrifice the most.

“They’re all gonna sacrifice,” he explained. “We’re gonna play extra-pass basketball, and everybody on the team is gonna play with the mindset to sacrifice for the greater good of the team.”

That seamless playing style has been apparent so far. Preseason is preseason, but a team with 13 new players and a new Big 3 to implement shouldn’t look this well-oiled this early on. The stars’ selflessness is contagious, and Allen believes it’s setting the tone for the whole offense.

“It’s a fun way to play basketball,” Allen said. “We’re not going seven possessions in a row where someone’s just filling the corner not touching the ball. So even if you’re not scoring the ball, you’re in the rhythm with the offense, you’re in flow, moving, passing, cutting. You’re doing things to help guys score so you’re always into the games, and that makes it that much easier when it’s your time on that possession to get an open shot.”

Suns Big 3
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As for the Big 3 themselves, the concerns about whether there’s enough touches to go around feel silly. Allen joked about how those guys are still getting to 10, 15 or 20 points in a half while playing “passive,” but it speaks to how complementary their skill-sets are.

All three are tidy isolation scorers, with Durant (99th percentile), Booker (80th percentile) and Beal (77th percentile) all placing in the top quarter of the league in points per possession on isos last year. But all three can be effective off the ball too: Each one shot 40 percent or better on catch-and-shoot 3s, and they all ranked in the 89th percentile or better in points per possession on spot-up looks, with Booker (99th) and Durant (100th) being absolutely elite.

Because he, Booker and Beal all grew up playing as spot-up shooters before expanding their games, Durant says they’re always capable of going back to basics and playing off-ball again. It’s something their teammates have noticed in practice too.

“They’re all elite scorers, but they’re unique in that they don’t necessarily need the ball to score,” Bates-Diop observed. “They don’t need to iso a whole lot to score. Obviously they can, but they play off-ball and come off screens and shoot catch-and-shoot shots.”

As cutters, all three ranked in the 83rd percentile or better in points per possession off cuts and dump-offs, as well as the 84th percentile or better in movement points per 75 possessions. And all of that interchangeability and unselfishness feeds into the offensive game plan Vogel and Kevin Young have devised.

How the Big 3’s strengths feed into Suns’ playing style

On a team where Booker, Durant and Beal will take most of the shots, keeping everyone else engaged will be key. Vogel’s offense emphasizes pace and off-ball movement to keep things interesting, and so far, it’s allowing everyone to eat.

“I think they recognize that, as good as they are, they’ve got great targets around them as well,” Vogel said of the Big 3. “So we want to play, as much as possible, a no-force, no-stress offense. Attack for a great look or attack for good look, but if there’s a better look on that possession, our guys are all make-the-right-play types of guys.”

The Suns have been drilling that concept in practice, which makes sense for a team that will feature multiple ball-handlers. They no longer have a true floor general like Chris Paul to set the table, so pushing the tempo off turnovers and rebounds is Vogel’s preferred method of avoiding having to rely on half-court sets.

“We want to make it difficult for them to be double-teamed, and we want to make sure that we’re spaced appropriately when they are,” Vogel explained. “We do want to play with an up-tempo mindset to get those guys in the open floor, and then in the half-court, we want to get them moving and not just stationary, waiting for double-teams. But if they’re in movement and utilizing their scoring abilities, they’re gonna be really hard to guard.”

Booker, Durant, Beal, Okogie, Gordon, Allen, Goodwin, Watanabe, Bates-Diop — anyone except the centers can get the hit-ahead pass and force the issue to get into actions quicker and attack scrambling defenses. Those favorable cross-matches usually allow someone to break loose, whether it’s the Big 3 with the ball in their hands or a weak-side shooter sprinting to fill the opposite corner.

The Suns’ multple ball-handler system embraces the interchangeability of the roster, and because the Big 3 can function on or off the ball, the possibilities are endless. It’s the reason Vogel wants to push the pace, why James Jones targeted so many shooters and cutters, and why the Suns felt a passing big like Nurkic was a better fit than Deandre Ayton.

Suns Big 3
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The role players around the Big 3 are optimized to feed off their gravity, and vice-versa.

“It’s good to have shooters that can command the respect of the defense, but we also have guys that can move off the ball as well, cut to the rim well,” Durant explained. “That opens it up for us. Josh, [Chimezie] Metu, KBD, guys that can cut to the rim and finish — that opens up for the shooters as well. So a movement offense where the ball’s moving and players are moving is good for the shooters.”

For all the talk about offense, however, the Suns are perfectly aware that the defensive end will decide their fate this season. It’s been an even stronger focus in training camp (and one we’ll cover in full detail next week), but Phoenix understands that getting those stops is what will fuel their up-tempo playing style and make them one of the most high-powered offenses in the NBA.

“Once we got multiple stops in a row, then you start seeing them outbursts,” Durant said. “We get out in transition, we start swinging that ball two or three times in transition, I think that’s where we’re dangerous. So it all starts on our focus on the defensive end. I know that’s cliche, but that’s really what it is for us if we want to be a good offensive team.”

If iron really does sharpen iron, the Suns won’t just be a good offensive team; they might just be the sharpest in the NBA.

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