Veteran guidance like that of Jared Dudley over the last month for the Phoenix Suns is the most vital and overlooked ingredient in a successful tank job. His performance keeping this team focused and competitive is the only thing making the shutdown decisions by upper management palatable.
This will become clear soon enough, but let’s get one thing straight: Devin Booker is clearly the statistical, narrative and inspirational player of the week. When you become one of six players ever to reach a scoring threshold at only 20 years of age and turn the whole league toward a tanking Suns team in the last week of March, you’ve really done something. But Booker has been featured in this space three times this year, and he didn’t do anything against the Boston Celtics that we hadn’t yet seen, just more of it.
The real cog that spurred the 70-point game into being was Jared Dudley, whose 10 assists and aggressive force-feeding became the primary catalyst for Booker’s push from the low 50s all the way to 70. Furthermore, his play throughout the past week has been exemplary of the small ways he’s been leading this severely overmatched, infantile team for over a month.
Without the playmaking of Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker in the lineup since February, the Suns have been starved for scoring. In their last five games, the team has posted an offensive rating of 95.7 points per 100 possessions, meaning they have scored less than one point per possession overall. That is disgusting.
It also makes you appreciate the small ways that Dudley stamps his style onto that of the Suns. To put a name on it, maybe Pass n’ Class? Hold your composure, work for a good shot, find a teammate when he springs open:
Dudley has played over 20 minutes in each of the last four games, and has been incredibly open about his role as the season winds down. He was on Burns and Gambo earlier this week discussing Booker’s 70-point game and appeared qualm-less about the way the team handled the end of that game. Dudley took on an aggressive role in getting Booker the ball and getting guys out of his way:
He made it clear when explaining the gameplan to Arizona Sports that when something that special happens, you milk it. The NBA reveres these statistical thresholds as much as any sport (as evidenced by the current MVP discussion), and an event like this becomes even more significant on a losing team. The guys needed something special to play hard for, and Dudley took it upon himself to make this happen.
He put on a legitimate passing clinic:
His best and most representative play might honestly have been on a basket that didn’t count, where he set a screen and took a massive hit from Marcus Smart, splaying across the court toward Booker, who absorbed the contact and heaved a three anyway. Because the basketball gods are real and Booker had become Charizard, he of course made the shot. Dudley got free throws instead-- ones I’m sure he would have traded anything to give to Booker.
He averaged a full six assists per game in four games this week, including a similar grasping-at-straws performance last night against Atlanta that injected the only semblance of life into the Suns’ offense that it breathed all night. With all due respect to Tyler Ulis, the Suns might not have broken 80 in a game where Booker did not dress. Instead, they pushed the Hawks to the brink and Dudley approached a triple-double.
The Hawks game was actually most remarkable from Dudley’s perspective based on what came a little further left in the stat line. His three steals and two blocks only tell part of the story of the defensive punishment he smited the Hawks with on Tuesday night. Some nights, guys just come out with an unrelenting energy on defense, and it becomes infectious. That was Dudley in Atlanta:
He spearheaded the Suns’ more aggressive (than normal) switching defense, generally staying with Dennis Schroeder. When given his chance in isolation or simple screen actions against Ersan Ilyasova, he dominated, and was clearly in Atlanta’s shooters’ heads for most of the game. He also made a really physical deflection of a Dwight Howard lob in the middle of the key second-half Suns run to keep the Hawks down. Without Dudley’s hustle on defense, this one never gets interesting:
To be honest, that’s been true of nearly every Suns game since Bledsoe was shut down (somehow only eight games). They have not won since Devin Booker’s buzzer-beater ended the Mavericks’ playoff hopes. They might not win again. Jared Dudley does not care-- he understands his place on this team, values the experience he’s getting next to tomorrow’s Suns stars, and is doing his best to lead and manage the Suns’ best version of winning basketball.
Without him, there’s no such thing as developmental experience, a “good loss”, or any of the other buzzwords management and fans alike are using to find hope in these end-of-season blowouts.