The Phoenix Suns began the season with a number question marks across the roster, perhaps none bigger than the bench unit that was assembled. Mirza Teletovic was coming off a mulligan 2014/15 season in which his shot deserted him before it was discovered that he was suffering from blood clots in the lungs. Sonny Weems was finding his way back to the NBA after four seasons spent playing in Moscow. Jon Leuer was squeezed out of a crowded frontcourt in Memphis. Archie Goodwin had yet to prove he could contribute enough to warrant regular playing time. T.J. Warren had seen only 614 minutes of court time. Ronnie Price's limitations were already well-known to Suns fans. Devin Booker was entering his rookie season as the youngest player in the NBA.
Thirteen games into the season the bench has found ways to contribute, but in unanticipated ways.
NOTE: The bulk of this article was written before Sunday's loss in New Orleans
Weems' experience gave him the leg up as the first guard off the bench, but he has been unable to make an impact of any kind, registering five scoreless games in his eight appearances and scoring only three field goals in his 73 minutes of court time.
With Weems out of the picture, Jeff Hornacek has turned to a hot-hand system between Goodwin, Price and Booker. In Friday's win over Denver, Price soaked up 20 minutes off the bench as he contributed a 3-5 shooting night from behind the arc to complement his usual on-ball defense and hustle.
In the previous game, a loss at home versus Chicago, it was Booker who led the backcourt bench mob with 15 minutes and a pair of 3-pointers. Unfortunately, he also suffered his "welcome to the NBA" moment, as Jimmy Butler suckered him into a pair of cheap fouls that led to three-point plays.
In Wednesday's win at home over the Lakers, it was Goodwin who came off the bench with 12 points and 6 rebounds in 24 minutes as Price sat out with a concussion and Booker received only a couple garbage minutes.
Will one of the guards eventually separate himself from the pack? Or will Hornacek continue to rotate the three vastly different players depending on the situation from game to game?
Stay tuned on this one.
Things are just as interesting in the frontcourt, as the well-documented struggles of Markieff Morris have led to increased time for Mirza Teletovic, who temporarily seemed to have fallen out of the rotation in favor of Jon Leuer. After a string of six consecutive games with fewer than ten minutes played, Teletovic has played an average of 21 minutes over the previous five games, partially due to Morris missing time with injury.
In those five games he has scored 9.8 PPG while shooting 40.8% from 3 on a robust 6.4 attempts, providing the Suns with that all-important frontcourt gunner. He also has proven to be a bit more than just a 3-point launchpad, showing awareness on defense and even hitting the offensive boards (6 ORebs during the same five-game span).
Leuer has also given the Suns valuable minutes, both off the bench and in the starting lineup during Morris's absence, chipping in 10.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes and providing the team with smart play on both ends of the floor. While he's a bit more bashful from deep than Teletovic (who isn't?), he has knocked down a ridiculous 47.8% of his 3's on the season, offsetting his struggle to score from anywhere else (37.9% on 2-pointers).
The Suns showcased their unusual brand of depth in their comeback win in Denver, as they took the lead with an unorthodox lineup of Bledsoe-Knight-Price-Teletovic-Leuer. Not surprisingly, it's becoming more and more clear that the Suns are at their best with as many shooters on the floor as possible. As the season wears on and the rotations begin to settle, look for this to be a key factor of deciding who winds up playing and who winds up sitting.
Monday, November 16 vs LA Lakers: W 120-101
Wednesday, November 18 vs Chicago Bulls: L 97-103
Friday, November 20 @ Denver Nuggets: W 114-107
Sunday, November 22 @ New Orleans Pelicans: L 116-122
The Suns continued to take care of business against inferior opponents, racking up a pair of entertaining wins against the Lakers and Nuggets. Unfortunately, they also continued their early-season habit of failing to seal the deal against stiff competition, dropping one at home to Chicago and another on the road to the Pelicans, who are a much better team than their 3-11 record would lead one to believe.
In another entry to what has been a bizarro season so far, the Pelicans might have uncovered a key weakness in the Suns' improved defense -- neither Tyson Chandler nor Alex Len are much use against a small-ball lineup. The Suns have used their dual paint-protectors to climb all the way to 9th in the league in Defensive Rating, but after New Orleans went with a frontcourt of Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson, forcing both big men to the bench, that number had dropped to 12th.
That's right, the Phoenix Suns are now a team that relies on its center rotation to stay competitive, and are vulnerable to small-ball lineups.
Stat Lines of the Week
The Good: Brandon Knight
I would say it's getting difficult to choose which monster game from the Suns' backcourt to highlight each week, but when a player achieves a triple-double that has only been rivaled by Magic Johnson, Pistol Pete Maravich and Russell Westbrook, there really is no decision at all.
The Bad: Brandon Knight
The problem with high-volume shooting guards that live on the perimeter is that most of them will turn a few stinkers along the way. Knight is no exception, to which his 3/12 shooting night from inside the arc will attest.
The Ugly: Aaron Brooks
Brooks seems like a nice guy, by all accounts. He has carved a niche for himself in the league, worked hard to overcome his deficiencies, and theoretically he should be fun to watch. Thing is, since the Suns' ill-fated trade back in 2011 in which they shipped out promising youngster Goran Dragic and a first-round pick that became Nikola Mirotic for just 25 games of the diminutive point guard, we'd really like him to just go away. Nothing personal; he's just so Lance Blanksy, for lack of a better word.
And yet, he pestered the Suns for a handful of timely buckets during Wednesday's matchup, showing that bad karma from bad trades takes a long time to wash out.
On the horizon
Monday, November 23 @ San Antonio Spurs
Wednesday, November 25 vs New Orleans Pelicans
Friday, November 27 vs Golden State Warriors
Sunday, November 29 @ Toronto Raptors
The Suns' schedule picks up with a date in San Antonio tonight, followed by a revenge match with the Pelicans on Wednesday. Then the Suns get to see how far their defensive ranking will fall after hosting the unbeaten Warriors on Friday night.
If they survive all that, they get the luxury of kicking off their first Eastern road trip with a matchup in Toronto.
Don't be surprised to see the guys fall under .500 this week.