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As currently constructed, the Phoenix Suns don’t feel like title contenders. “Feel” can be a tricky thing to get a proper handle on when so many key pieces have been in and out of the lineup.
This is not an excuse for the Suns’ current five-game losing streak or their ongoing slide down the Western Conference standings, nor is it a denial of the fact that something drastic needs to change with this roster’s genetic makeup if they want to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2023.
But perhaps the most frustrating part is how good this shorthanded stretch is for evaluating certain players on the roster…and how terrible it is for doing so with the lump sum of Phoenix’s parts.
When the Suns got off to a 6-1 start, they sported one of the best starting lineups in the league. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Deandre Ayton — their best five players and preferred starting lineup of the present and future — boasted a +33.1 Net Rating in 86 minutes together. The bench still had major question marks, but even with Paul’s dwindling shooting numbers, Phoenix had an elite defense and plenty of weapons on offense.
But then Johnson went down with the torn meniscus, and while Torrey Craig stepped into the starting role seamlessly, it wasn’t long after that Paul missed 14 games due to right heel soreness. Cam Payne took his starting job in stride once again, but he began to fizzle in recent weeks. Amidst losing two starters and never having Jae Crowder to begin with, the Suns also had to jumble their rotation when Ayton, Landry Shamet and Craig missed time.
In other words, every step of the way, coach Monty Williams has had to improvise, alter his rotation and generally try to throw proverbial shit at the wall to figure out what sticks.
“It just forces us to have to change up a little bit,” Williams said. “When you lose this many guys, again, it’s the pecking order thing. And we’re trying to not put too much stress on guys in these situations, trying to put guys in a position where they can keep their same role, but it’s hard when you have this many guys out. So it does affect the rotation a bit.”
Which brings us to this recent stretch, where the Suns can no longer just flush bad losses or ignore the fundamental truths holding them back. Things don’t figure to get better anytime soon after Ayton and Payne missed the entire second half of Tuesday night’s 111-97 loss to the Houston Rockets due to injury.
The Suns have now lost five straight games by a combined 76 points, after going 16-7 with a +192 point differential through their first 23 games. That skid reached a new low on Tuesday, when the Rockets beat them for the second time this season in a contest that featured the worst game of Bridges’ career, an ankle injury and 2-of-10 performance for Ayton, a foot injury for Payne, and a 32 percent shooting night for Phoenix overall. The Suns finished with more shots (103) than points (97) as a team.
It was as ugly as it sounds, and with Booker sidelined again by left hamstring tightness, Tuesday highlighted an inherent roster flaw that offers no easy solution: This is currently a one-star team, without a consistent No. 2 guy.
Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton are a combined 2-for-18 and the Suns are down by 17 to the Rockets.
I don't wanna talk or hear about who the real No. 2 guy is on this team for awhile
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) December 14, 2022
The last two years, that guy was CP3, who led the league in assists and earned All-NBA Third Team honors just last season. But ever since he turned 37, whether due to injury, a changed role or Father Time creeping in, Paul has been a shell of that reliable, go-to option who can take over games. He’s averaging just 10.4 points per game on dismal .366/.298/.884 shooting splits, and while the facilitation is still there, he’s largely struggled spending more time off the ball, rarely getting to his spots in the midrange.
This slight change was meant to give Bridges and Johnson more opportunities to create on offense and save Paul for the postseason. But with Johnson going down, more of the onus has fallen on the other “Twin.” Bridges may be averaging 15.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game (all career highs) on 40.9 percent shooting from deep, but the consistency of a reliable No. 2 option just hasn’t been there. Averaging 36.4 minutes a night probably hasn’t helped, but the last five games paint the portrait of a guy who’s going through it:
- @ Dallas Mavericks: 13 points, 4-11 FG, 2-6 3P
- vs. Boston Celtics: 4 points, 2-12 FG, 0-5 3P
- @ New Orleans Pelicans: 11 points, 4-12 FG, 3-5 3P
- @ New Orleans Pelicans: 27 points, 10-23 FG, 5-13 3P
- @ Houston Rockets: 18 points, 4-24 FG, 2-10 3P
Even in his best season yet, Bridges doesn’t quite have the consistency to be both an elite defender and a routine scoring threat.
As for Ayton, while he’s played much better lately compared to his underwhelming start to the season, he hasn’t done much to assure anyone he’s the answer as a No. 2 option either. While he’s scored 20+ points in four of his last seven games, the other three were all single-digit efforts. Those clamoring for Ayton to get more touches forget the skill-set that may always hold him back from being second-in-command on a championship-caliber team: DA needs to be fed. Most No. 2 options can eat any time they please.
With Paul only looking like the Point God sparingly and both Bridges and Ayton being miscast as second options, the Phoenix Suns rely on multiple third, fourth or even fifth options rotating in and out of that No. 2 slot — a method of team-building that rarely yields titles. There are some exceptions, like the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons or the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, but for the most part, the general formula for building championship rosters revolves around stars.
The Suns are obviously a lot better when they’re healthy but there will be no fooling yourself with this roster anymore. It’s a single star in Book, with role players. The ceiling for that is different than when you could squint and call one of the other guys a star.
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) December 14, 2022
Booker is undoubtedly that, despite how poorly he played in his last three games before his latest injury. He’s good enough to be the best player on a title team, provided that team is constructed properly around him, but even in his best season yet, he’s not quite in the god-tier of NBA superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry or Luka Doncic, who can take over games at will on a nightly basis.
This is no knock on Booker; every star in that echelon is a surefire Hall-of-Famer. But the biggest reason the Suns’ title prospects feel so underwhelming is not because of any five-game skid in December or the bench or even the lack of a Jae Crowder trade.
It’s the unmistakable fear that Chris Paul can no longer serve as Book’s right-hand man like he has for the past two years, and without him in that role, Ayton and Bridges have been unable to fill the gaps. Because of this, the Suns lean too heavily on a top-10 player who’s not quite in that most elite group of NBA superstars, with very little chance of trading for his first 20-points-per-game-scoring teammate since Eric Bledsoe.
2. Historically, you don't win NBA titles without a top 5 guy. The current Suns build got about as close as you can going against that trend.
Maybe I'm in the minority, but I'd prefer to continue to build than tear things down.
— David (@theIVpointplay) December 14, 2022
That’s a flawed formula, and it’s compounded by the Suns’ perceived inability to upgrade the roster. While general manager James Jones and interim governor Sam Garvin have maintained that Jones has the authority to make moves to improve the team, Phoenix’s track record amidst a fluid ownership situation suggests otherwise.
Aside from Ayton’s messy contract situation, which was only handled after he signed an offer sheet and the Suns had no choice, Johnson didn’t receive a rookie-scale contract extension by the deadline. That decision may look good in hindsight after his torn meniscus, but one source told PHNX Sports the Suns were unwilling to offer four years and $70 million, and AZ Central’s Duane Rankin reported it was a four-year offer worth $60 million — both well below his market value.
Throw in the fact that Kevin Durant wanted to play for the Suns and no deal was ever reached, along with continued silence on the Crowder front, and the whispers that Jones is restricted from offering first-round picks in trade talks become harder to ignore. If that’s the case, Robert Sarver’s final flip of the bird to this fanbase may be leaving the Suns in a state of flux while he sells the team, turning what should be an all-in season to a transition year, hamstringing the front office as it waits for a new owner to invest.
But even if that’s only speculation, and even if Jones can act with full autonomy to get any kind of deal done, historically speaking, trading for a game-changer midseason doesn’t happen very often anyway.
These above-board issues were well beyond the Suns’ control as they fell to the Rockets Tuesday night, but that on-court struggle speaks to how much longer this skid could continue. Phoenix has reached the toughest portion of its schedule in December and January, and if the cavalry isn’t coming in the form of a significant move, this weary, shell-shocked group will have to look internally for answers.
Booker returning to action is the obvious and most immediate boon, and it appears he could be back for Thursday’s game.
I'm told Devin Booker is doing much better and baring any unforseen setback should return to action on Thursday vs the Los Angeles Clippers. The injuries keep piling up with Ayton, Payne & Bridges all getting hit tonight. Tough times right now for Suns but these things happen.
— FLEX From Jersey (@FlexFromJersey) December 14, 2022
Johnson is the next domino to eventually fall, though it’s currently unknown how close he is to returning. He’s already passed the one-month mark since his surgery, which came with an unofficial projected recovery time of 1-2 months. So far, he’s been seen taking standing free throws and even a few jump shots at practice, but little else.
The final domino is Paul relieving the pressure on Bridges and Ayton to be what they’re clearly not at this point, or one of those two finally rising to the occasion and proving everyone wrong. Neither seems likely at this point.
This brutal period will ultimately benefit for the Suns. They’re still in the thick of things out West, with the league’s eighth-best record and fourth-best point differential. It’s unfair to fully evaluate this team when so much of the preferred rotation has been unavailable, constantly throwing players into larger roles and forcing guys to “play up.” That allowed Williams to get a better look at what guys like Josh Okogie can do compared to Shamet, Jock Landale compared to Bismack Biyombo, Payne compared to Duane Washington Jr., and Ish Wainright compared to Dario Saric.
But other than Lee, the bench guys haven’t reassured anyone about this team’s playoff rotation, and the answers to the question, “What can they do and what can’t they do?” only provide meaningful insight for a team with a first- or second-round ceiling, not a group that fancies themselves as title contenders. The Suns have their main figurehead in place with Booker, but Paul’s regression, Ayton’s lack of self-creation, Bridges’ inconsistency and Johnson’s injury woes are all pre-existing concerns that have come to the forefront during a stint when the Suns needed each one of them to put those doubts to rest.
Injury-riddled stretches are the worst time to evaluate a team as a whole, but for a roster relying on four different players to be interchangeable in that No. 2 spot, the questions each one raises indicate a final outcome that falls well short of a championship.
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