While the first three seasons of Devin Booker’s career featured a rotating cast of G Leaguers and journeymen, the Suns are finally starting to form a cohesive offensive identity around their star.
This nine-game stretch that saw the Suns put together their first four-game win streak of Booker’s career and finish a road trip over .500 is being driven in large part by defense -- the deflections and ball containment that coach Igor Kokoskov preaches -- but the offense is finding a winning formula as well. It starts with who’s on the floor around Booker. Last season, Booker’s play made it clear he could handle primary scoring and playmaking duties like many of the league’s best stars but the Suns didn’t have the versatile talent to make it work.
Since pairing rookie De’Anthony Melton in the starting lineup with fellow rookie Mikal Bridges, the Suns have played through a long, versatile group that maximizes Booker’s game. As the Suns got younger, they actually began to reduce mistakes and execute Kokoskov’s system more effectively.
It helps that Booker has been healthy. The team began its winning ways without him on national television against Dallas, but when he reentered the lineup, the Suns didn’t miss a beat.
“Now we know what works, so just sticking with that,” Booker said about the habits -- making the right pass and playing more aggressively -- that the Suns are building. “Still trying to find those lineups … still building that chemistry.”
Booker, of course, is the main cog in this machine. He’s averaging 29.5 points, 8.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting over 47 percent from the field over the Suns’ past nine games. It may be the best stretch of his career when you consider the Suns won five of the games. Yet with the burden of handling 34 percent of your team’s possessions every night comes much of the responsibility for winning.
“He feels he can score on anybody and we want him to have that kind of mentality and offensive cockiness, just the feeling he can score on everybody,” Kokoskov said. But on the other hand, “it’s not easy for him... making the right decision when it comes to score for us, playmake for us, make the right decision.”
This is a high-level balancing act Booker is pulling off, carrying a young team to wins they aren’t expected to steal. He also has more help than he’s ever had.
If there is such a thing as a weather vane for the Suns, it’s Josh Jackson. When he knocks down shots and plays within himself, the Suns typically win. In losses, he can put up numbers that rate as some of the worst in the entire league. Lately, the deep shots have been falling. Jackson is shooting 8-21 from deep, or 38.1 percent, over his past nine contests.
“It feels good, just gotta keep confidence in shooting it and just picking the spots where I feel comfortable shooting the ball,” Jackson told me of his jumper. “All the best shooters in the league have their spots on the floor where they feel like they can make shots from, so I just gotta figure that out.”
He said his most comfortable area from deep is on the wing, the exact spot Kokoskov’s system hopes to puncture the defense when it sends help at a big man in the paint. His shot chart shows just how comfortable he is launching jumpers from that spot these days.
While the Suns haven’t yet fine-tuned their offense to churn out the most efficient shots on a consistent basis, they are trending in the right direction. According to Cleaning the Glass, they’re in the back half of the league in the number of shots they generate at the rim and behind the 3-point line. Some of that is based on personnel: the Suns’ three best scorers, Booker, Deandre Ayton and T.J. Warren, are above-average mid-range shooters. But shooting relatively few threes and layups holds offenses back in the NBA.
“At the end of the day, this is a game of decisions and he has to make a decision in a blink of an eye,” Kokoskov said of Booker.
Right now, just about everything good and bad can be traced back to Booker because the Suns are bereft of efficient playmakers.
Indeed, Saturday’s 122-118 loss to Denver was the Suns’ fourth-most efficient scoring night in terms of effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the added value of 3s. Booker posted his sixth straight game with 25 points and seven assists, creating open looks down the stretch for Bridges (5-8) and T.J. Warren (3-8). The Suns also got juicy looks inside, especially in the second quarter when they made a priority of dumping the ball to Ayton in the pick-and-roll. They rallied back from a 20-point first quarter deficit and a momentary Booker injury to be able to play the foul game late with a chance to win.
Despite setting a benchmark of putting up 30 or more 3s every night, Phoenix has actually won games at a better clip when, like against Denver, they shoot less from deep. The Suns are 6-14 when they attempt fewer than 30 but just 3-13 when they surpass that mark.
Not only are the Suns shooting less these past few weeks, they’re slowing the pace. It’s helping the offense reach new heights -- 110.3 points per 100 possessions compared with 103.6 on the season -- but it’s a far cry from how the Suns looked in October when they began installing Kokoskov’s system. Kokoskov has shown a willingness to bend around his star and adjust to this young squad.
The night-to-night variance of a team relying on young players to make good decisions in a movement-heavy offense and knock down open shots will be stifling at times. One guy’s mistakes can ruin a night -- the margins are slim and they’re still learning each other as the coaches mix and match to form a rotation.
“We mix it up a lot,” Booker said. But it’s not like years past. As Booker rounds into form as a bona fide superstar and the Suns grow with him, the version of their offense with Booker as the alpha and omega is coming into focus.