Part of what makes the NBA season fun, or at least interesting, is the hardship that each team has to overcome just to finish a season with a competitive roster intact. Injuries and failure to build chemistry can sometimes crash a season’s hope shortly after takeoff. It’s been shocking, then, to see the Suns somehow take a leap while Devin Booker missed nine games due to a groin injury.
Yes, the same Suns that might as well have painted a few dozen lottery ping-pong balls purple and orange by now, won three games without their best player. They avoided a single blowout, with their largest margin of victory coming against the Clippers on the road. Three wins in nine attempts isn’t nearly the type of rosy outcome most teams cheer for, but considering the stakes, it’s a small victory.
By my count, we learned three things during the nine Booker-less games in December.
Alex Len is a fully-fledged NBA rotation player
In his fifth NBA season, Len has emerged as a dominant backup big, with the skills to stick around in the league for a long time. Over these nine games, Len averaged 8.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 64 percent shooting.
He also thrived with a simpler role on defense, staying near the rim and protecting the paint more effectively. Most importantly, he has rebounded like a man with, well, his future career depending on it. After signing a one-year qualifying offer in restricted free agency last summer, Len avoided a market that underpaid several quality big men and allowed himself to dive back in next year.
We’re almost halfway through the biggest season of his career, and Len is making the Suns look like the potential loser of the standoff last summer. It looked heading into the year like the team was in the driver’s seat heading into next summer, but now Len will be unrestricted with the stats to earn a sizeable deal.
However, Len has legitimately been the guy around whom the Suns’ hustle-rific identity has focused for the last month or so. He is important to them, and he’s never known another situation. His situation is one of the most important to monitor moving forward. Will he become the full-time starter at any point this year?
Dragan Bender is the furthest along of the younger #TheTimeline players
This has is difficult to argue. With Booker out, Bender posted a net rating of plus-5.5, which is huge for a guy who before December had really never put a quantifiably positive impact on a NBA game.
He’s now doing so consistently, all while increasing his shooting volume and maintaining league-average efficiency despite a recent cold streak. We saw flashes early in the season, but now he’s driving to the rim more confidently and consistently.
Whether confidence was truly an impediment to Bender’s development previously, it’s obviously a weapon he wields now. I found it telling that in one of his better defensive performances of the year, last Thursday at home against Memphis, he found the rhythm to shoot six threes despite not making a single attempt in the second half.
Bender looks like a new player, but also a really familiar player. In a desperately needed stroke of success, he looks a whole ton like the player the Suns drafted him to be. His arrow is pointing straight up.
Jay Triano’s system can get the most out of lesser parts
It’s not even the individual numbers for Daniels or the sudden team success that followed Canaan’s arrival in the Valley that stand out here. Most remarkable is the defensive efficiency this team has maintained with these two taking on bigger roles without Booker.
The Suns’ defensive rating has been 3.1 points better than their season mark over the last nine games, even with a rookie in the starting lineup and two journeymen with offense-first reputations carrying the offense for large stretches. Credit those guys for putting in effort and applying pressure, but more credit is due for Triano.
Even before Booker left the lineup and Canaan replaced Mike James on the roster, the defense was trending positive. Overall in December, the Suns’ defensive rating is 107.9, a full point better than their league average. And the stink of the first three games under Earl Watson will linger and cloud their numbers all year.
Where other coaches failed to draw consistent effort and aggression on defense out of players on this team, Triano has found a way. The Suns’ December success came as a result of their defense; the hope is that when Booker, their top scorer, returns and realigns everyone’s offensive responsibilities, they could show that their improvement is real.