When an opportunity came knocking at Isaiah Canaan’s doorstep after most recently playing for the Los Angeles Clippers G-League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, he broke the door down immediately.
After the Northern Arizona Suns first acquired Canaan from Agua Caliente for their upcoming G-League 1st rounder, Canaan played one game in Prescott Valley before being called up to the main roster in Phoenix.
Canaan has bounced around the league with the likes of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston after being selected in the second round out of Murray State, but he’s looking to make the most of his current situation alongside this young Suns roster.
After the Mike James experience started to sour over the past few weeks, general manager Ryan McDonough and Co. looked through the bargain bin to find another option to possibly run the second unit moving forward.
After Eric Bledsoe “Didn’t wanna be here,” James had been thrust into the starting lineup ahead of Tyler Ulis, who was still nursing an injury at the time. For the next 10 games, which began with James making a game-winning layup over De’Aaron Fox as time ran down, he patrolled the starting unit.
In those 10 starts, James averaged 13 points and 4.2 assists on 39-37-80 shooting splits with a plus-minus of +0.4. From there, once James was pushed back to the second unit for Ulis, it went downhill almost immediately.
Instead of getting the likes of Dragan Bender and Alex Len more involved, James continued to chuck up shots. He averaged nearly 10 field goal attempts per game over his span as the second unit point guard while tallying abysmal splits of 39-17-70.
We also saw James and Bender have a moment near the end of their blowout loss against Orlando in November. Down 128-112 with just under 10 seconds left, he passed the ball to Bender hoping he would shoot it. Bender didn’t see the point of it and threw it back, which made James throw his arms up in frustration.
Then, as the buzzer sounds, James tossed it at Bender’s back as he was walking away. Not exactly a good look, and Len walked over to him right after it happened.
Mike James wanted Dragan Bender to shoot at the end of the game. He didn't. pic.twitter.com/VUxznNPmOl— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) November 11, 2017
After Canaan took over for James following Dec. 13, the second unit’s flip in production was startling. Over their past four games, the Suns lead the league in bench points per game at 51.5, which ranks ahead of Golden State and Los Angeles.
Check out the discrepancy here between the James-led second unit compared to when Canaan is out there instead by plus-minus:
The bench unit has a plus-minus of +12.3 (!!!) since Isaiah Canaan took control. Under Mike James (11/11-12/13), the plus-minus was -3.4 in 16 games. Small sample size right now for Canaan, but something to monitor over the next few weeks.— Evan Sidery (@esidery) December 22, 2017
Speaking of Canaan, he has averaged 13 points (8.5 FGA per 25 minutes) and 5 assists per game on 41-43-95 splits over his first four games as a Sun. His individual plus-minus also currently stands at +11.8.
When examining how Canaan has helped the likes of Bender, Len and the rest of the second unit, it’s rather staggering when looking at how successful those lineups together are.
Excluding Danuel House Jr., who recently joined the roster alongside Canaan and has been rather impressive defensively (but likely to lose minutes when players return from the mend), let's examine some 4-man lineups, including T.J. Warren sometimes on the floor, via team efficiency.
James-Daniels-Bender-Len 4-man lineup:
175 possessions = -4.0 point differential, 51.2 efg%, 9.2 free throw rate (0 percentile per Cleaning the Glass)
Canaan-Daniels-Bender-Len 4-man lineup:
132 possessions = +28.0 point differential, 53.5 efg%, 30.7 free throw rate (100th percentile)
When including Warren into each lineup for both:
James - 63 possessions = -6.5 point differential, 46.9 efg%, 3.1 free throw rate (even worse)
Canaan - 41 possessions = +9.3 point differential, 44.6 efg%, 21.6 free throw rate (above-average)
When simply surveying through those numbers via nba.stats.com and cleaningtheglass.com, it’s pretty obvious why McDonough went ahead and let James walk over someone like Greg Monroe.
After possibly his best performance after being thrown into the Bledsoe deal to make salaries work — 8 points, 7 assists, and 12 rebounds in 27 minutes against Memphis — Phoenix might as well keep him around to build up value until February. Monroe has also had 6 games in a Suns uniform already where he has 3 or more assists. Last season for Milwaukee, he did so 33 times, and many around the league know of his passing ability.
James had a great debut against Sacramento and had proved to be a scoring punch when needed, but there were too many times in his short tenure where it seemed to turn into hero ball. A lot of possessions James would run down the clock and shoot 20-footers that could have resulted in a much better result if the roundball moved around more often.
As The Vertical’s Sham Charania reported when he broke the news Friday night, James and the Suns’ front office agreed to mutually part ways after he quickly was usurped by Canaan.
James might be able to find a home on an NBA roster soon, but, simply put, his tenure in the Valley of the Sun wore off rather quickly after a while.
It will be interesting to see if Canaan can continue his stellar play over the next few weeks, especially when guards Devin Booker and Davon Reed return from their respective injuries soon, but the numbers definitely show McDonough made the right choice in letting James go already.