The impact of Mikal Bridges on the Suns is already fully recognizable any way you look at it.
Bridges only just started his first NBA game on Wednesday, yet he’s been a huge positive for the Suns all season long. His continued, rapid progress could demand a realignment of the rotation in short order. The fact is Bridges helps the team win more than nearly anyone else, and after just three wins in 14 games, it would be silly for Phoenix not to put someone who is both young and productive on the court as much as possible.
Take the rookie’s first start, a 116-96 beatdown of the Spurs at home, in which he was a plus-23 in 25 minutes. If Trevor Ariza is in that spot, inconsistent as he has been, do the Suns get out to a hot start and carry it through to the end? This season’s short history tell us no, and the numbers paint a similar picture.
Ariza is a 15-year NBA veteran who has been an excellent defender most of his career and was a willing and able shooter for the league’s most three-point-happy offense in Houston the past four seasons. His knowledge of the game has shown through this season as well, with a solid assist percentage that has helped patch holes when the Suns sputter in the halfcourt. But Ariza has gotten out to an abnormally cold start to the season and his effort, like most of the team’s, has been intermittent at best.
The Suns’ usual starting lineup (and its most used lineup this year) of Isaiah Canaan, Devin Booker, Ariza, T.J. Warren and Deandre Ayton is minus-28.2 points per 100 possessions this season, landing in the absolute bottom percentile for all NBA lineups, according to Cleaning the Glass. That same lineup with Bridges in Ariza’s place is a plus-48.5, but it’s played about a quarter as much.
Aside from some bailout drives to the basket and a focus on passing, Ariza has not helped. His .478 effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the added value of a three-point shot, would be his worst mark since 2012. He has not been efficient at the rim or from behind the arc, meaning simply that he is not filling his role well at all right now.
On the other hand, the Suns are 4.5 points better per 100 possessions when Bridges is on the court, bolstered by his own .557 effective field goal percentage and the defensive versatility he provides. Not only does Bridges allow the Suns to switch across multiple positions, his length means that when he defends, the ball, he can recover and take up more space to prevent penetration. Almost 43 percent of opponents’ total shots this season have come at the rim, putting the Suns in the bottom third in that category league-wide. Bridges’ impact in that regard is huge.
Here’s the problem: Ariza likely signed in Phoenix knowing he would at least play quite a bit, if not win as much as he did in Houston, keeping his value and reputation intact for an in-season trade or another free-agent deal next summer. If he hits the bench in favor of a rookie, it could frustrate Ariza, coming off a season in which he earned every bit of his $15 million. That said, this front office is not the same one that might have made such promises to Ariza, so it could be quicker to move on from him.
A trade couldn’t happen until Dec. 15, when players who signed this summer can be dealt. It’s likely the Suns would still need a point guard at that time, and Ariza could be the piece to get them there.
So here’s the most likely solution: Get Bridges as much playing time off the bench at the 2, 3 or 4 position, keep Ariza happy and hope that his shooting regresses back to his solid career numbers, and take advantage of that depth.
If Ariza, packaged with a little something extra, turns into a starting point guard and by season’s end Bridges is a big part of sustained success for the Suns? Well then, patience will have paid off, even if right now it looks so obvious Bridges is more impactful.