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What the power forward rotation tells us about the Suns’ progress

It’s no longer Bender vs. Chriss, but a deep group of talented young guys flourishing under the new coaching staff.

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With four new starters and only five holdovers on the roster from the end of last season, one of the biggest things to watch for the Suns through two games -- and for the next several weeks -- is how minutes are awarded and which guys seize the opportunity.

But with veteran stalwart Ryan Anderson, a career 38 percent shooter from deep who started 50 games for the 65-win Houston Rockets last season, coming in and 2016 No. 4 overall pick Dragan Bender seemingly in line behind him, it was surprising to see over the first half-week of the 2018-19 schedule the power forward rotation become the most interesting microcosm of the Suns’ larger changes.

Following two blowouts in either direction for the 1-1 Suns, new coach Igor Kokoskov’s vision for the other big man spot opposite Deandre Ayton is coming into focus.

Kokoskov showed his hand in the preseason as well, with T.J. Warren absorbing almost entirely the backup power forward minutes to infuse the bench with smart decision-making and scoring punch. He has averaged 25.8 points per 36 minutes in a reduced role, and it’s easy to wonder where the second unit would be without him.

By bombing away on catch-and-shoot threes (he’s 5-9 this season), Warren has plugged up the biggest hole in his game and finally accepted his ideal role. If Warren can become a supercharged sixth man who plays the 4, not only does the Suns’ bench look a lot better, Warren’s contract makes a whole lot more sense. He was never going to be a dominant high-usage playmaker, but finishing plays off the bench fits his skill set perfectly. For Warren, it all comes down to a consistent jumper.

Look how much more comfortable he is taking contested threes this year:

Compared with last year:

You see it in his feet more than anything, a smooth up-and-back down, releasing at the top of his stroke. Not coincidentally, his release this year looks a lot like his mid-range shot, which supports the idea that all these years of beautiful mid-range scoring was translatable to efficiency from deep.

The guy Warren has usurped in the rotation thus far is Bender, the troubled big man who struggled through an abysmal Summer League and preseason and whose fourth-year option is in doubt for the 2019-20 season. Unless there is an injury or slump, Bender will likely ride the bench for the foreseeable future.

One such slump is already in progress, but not too concerning. Anderson is just 4-15 from the field to start the year, including 2-9 from deep. He too struggled during preseason, seemingly out of rhythm adjusting, along with Trevor Ariza, to a more patient offense than the one they ran in Houston. No longer are Anderson and Ariza bombing several feet behind the line with a hand in their face. Their job, especially as the veterans in this offense, is to keep the ball moving and find a better shot for their teammates if there is one.

That said, Anderson needs to make the shots he does take for the Suns’ offense to return to the level it reached against Dallas on Wednesday. Otherwise, maybe we do see a chance for Bender to play a little more in the right matchups (maybe Memphis next Saturday, which plays two bigs).

Finally, one guy that cannot go unmentioned is Mikal Bridges, who arrived loudly on the scene after a preseason injury with 10 points in 15 minutes in Denver. He also chipped in two assists, two steals and an offensive rebound, looking supremely comfortable when the pace picked up and he was able to read the game more easily. All of that led to a sterling plus-21 for Bridges, despite a 28-point loss for the Suns.

That’s how you show a new coach you’re ready for more playing time.

The Suns talked about Bridges as capable of playing the 2, 3, or 4 over the summer. Right now, Booker, Jackson and Ariza are all playing big minutes on the wing, but Anderson’s struggles mean we could see Bridges defending smaller power forwards right away.

No matter what happens, too much talent at a position that was a question mark going into the summer is a great problem to have. It’s not Bender vs. Marquese Chriss anymore, but a deep, solid group of guys that each bring something different to the plate.

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