Even though the expectations have raised for Phoenix this upcoming season, they saw the Western Conference get even tougher. Not only did LeBron James migrate to Los Angeles, but other teams also gained more talent shifting from the East.
After signing Trevor Ariza to a 1-year, $15 million deal right when free agency kicked off, Phoenix hasn’t done much to tinker with their roster outside of the Jared Dudley trade which led to them absorbing Richaun Holmes’s salary via Philadelphia.
With that being said, how will the rotations look for new head coach Igor Kokoskov during the 2018-19 campaign? When analyzing it over, there are actually some lineup combinations that make last year’s abysmal ones look like a thing of the past for sure. Not only will the starting lineup likely look like this — Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Ariza and Deandre Ayton — but all of the sudden Phoenix has more depth than in years past as well.
From the outside looking in, General Manager Ryan McDonough has given Kokoskov and his coaching staff plenty of talent to work with. They seem to be instilling competition with so much young talent harbored throughout their 15-man roster.
If we dive even further past the expected starting five, the Suns’ second unit should go something like this: Elie Okobo, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. Again, compared to last season, that’s a night-and-day difference from how it used to be. This should have been how it worked for Bender and Chriss fighting for minutes to get onto the floor, but that obviously wasn’t the case under Earl Watson or Jay Triano.
Even though Phoenix didn’t exactly attack free agency with an aggressive mantra outside of Ariza, they did overhaul their shooting/spacing dynamic entirely. They shot 33.7% on 3s last season, including 20th overall in attempts per game, but under Kokoskov it looks like they will go more towards the Golden State formula as far as jacking up those shots at high rates around heavy ball movement.
Outside of Booker, Bender and Troy Daniels, they had no consistent outside shooters. Now, take a look at how they overhauled that aspect exactly:
George King - 40.1% (career at Colorado)
Troy Daniels - 40%
Mikal Bridges - 40% (career at Villanova)
Davon Reed - 39.5% (career at Miami; I’m not counting last season for him)
Elie Okobo - 38.5% (career at Pau-Orthez)
Devin Booker - 38.3%
Trevor Ariza - 36.8%
Dragan Bender - 36.6%
At all times, Phoenix could now have at least three above-average shooters from beyond the arc. Especially in small-ball lineups, they could roll out rotations where all five can spread the floor. Talk about a dream scenario for Ayton as he will have so much open space now to attack in the low post, and the same could be said for Booker where he will have ample room to dissect opposing defenses constantly.
There are so many combinations the Suns could tinker with throughout next season, but these five really catch my eye when looking ahead into the crystal ball that is Kokoskov’s possible rotations.
The Ayton Spacer Lineup: Knight/Okobo-Booker-Bridges-Bender-Ayton
Like I spoke about previously, Ayton should have plenty of chances where he has an open lane in the paint where it’s always 1-on-1 opportunities. Especially if Booker is out there most of the time with him, highly doubtful he sees any of those double-teams coming his way that were consistent throughout his one season for the University of Arizona.
And if the Suns are confident in Knight and Okobo being a competent point guard rotation — I still believe they are looking around trying to find a deal using Darrell Arthur’s expiring they received from Brooklyn — either one could provide perimeter shooting relief alongside Booker. Now, add in the likes of Bridges and or Ariza at small forward while going with a bigger stretch forward with Bender, everyone surrounding the No. 1 overall pick is someone capable of consistently shooting +35% from deep.
Ayton has thrown expectations on himself to be not only Rookie of the Year, but becoming the first one to be an All-Star since Blake Griffin. Very high marks for the Bahamian big man, but they could be attainable if he’s always flanked by sharpshooters.
Down the line, I think we could see a more souped up version of how Orlando utilized Dwight Howard with Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis going bombs away on 3s while allowing Howard to terrorize slower-footed centers. Maybe we see a sneak peek of that ceiling outlook next season, and this 5-man unit could allow Ayton to create heavy damage on a regular basis.
Ideal Warren Attack Lineup: Okobo-Reed-Bridges-Warren-Bender
If Phoenix plans on keeping Warren around, convincing him he could become a sneaky good 6th Man of the Year candidate on a year-in, year-out basis, Kokoskov could work out plenty of combinations that allows his mid-range prowess to show through regularly. After career-high marks in points and field goal percentage, Warren is someone who could be thrown into a 25-30 minute per game role while still putting up 15 points per game.
Cut in a similar cloth to Ayton, Warren will need plenty of spacing around him to utilize his bread and butter off multiple screen actions or back cuts toward the rim. We could see him play plenty of small-ball four this upcoming season with Ayton, which I believe is his ideal outlook long term, but in this rotation he could be put into so many good looks when everyone around him can shoot near 40% on 3s.
Warren isn’t the best on-ball defender, but in switch-heavy looks I expect from Kokoskov’s defense, that would be covered up well when he’s on the court with Reed and Bridges. Then, having Bender being able to switch onto guards at times and hold his own is another aspect to think about when crafting out this exact lineup.
The overall group defense could be a work in progress at first, but, eventually, this could be one of the more heavily used rotations in the second unit if Warren embraces that Lamar Odom-esque role at the forward position.
Far and away, having Warren come off the bench should be the best future for him to succeed in a crowded wing room in the near future.
Jumbo Lineup: Booker-Jackson-Ariza-Chriss-Ayton
This is one where you could flip out either one of Ariza or Jackson for Bridges, but the point still stands with this one being heavy on height and length.
At least for one more season, I expect the Suns to experiment with Booker playing plenty as the primary ball handler. Never starting in that role, but it could really show the path he’s going down if he shows more advancement when around an uber talented big like Ayton.
I’ve mentioned the James Harden path before with Booker to reach his maximum superstar ceiling, and it still stands. That’s what makes Booker such a tantalizing talent due to his budding playmaking abilities that continue to grow each year, even in bad development environments we saw with little win-now talent around him over the past few seasons.
The jumbo lineup also gives Ayton plenty of weak side protection, as I expect he will go through plenty of growing pains on that end in his first few seasons. Placing him next to Chriss and Jackson, plus Ariza/Bridges allows for plenty of saves from them if Ayton ball watches or focuses too much on his man-to-man matchup.
Innovative Super Small-Ball: Knight/Okobo-Booker-Reed-Bridges-Ariza
Want to get way into the modern NBA rabbit hole? This lineup is exactly that. The thing is, I think it could work really well in spot situations.
With Ariza’s 7’2” wingspan on top of his 6’7” height, he might be too small to play actual center but it forces the opposing defense to adjust immediately. Then, throwing out Bridges and Reed on the wing gives them two more players capable of hitting 3s at high clips. On top of that, Booker and either Knight or Okobo can do more of the same.
This is the ultra spacing unit, but its one that could play for 3-4 minutes spurts at warp speed pace. If teams tried to counter with actual back to the basket type of bigs, the switch ability of Ariza and Bridges could make up for that. On the other end, it would be raining 3s that could decimate defenses as they extend their lead even further or are trying to crawl back into a contest.
By far, this is the most unrealistic combination on the list but it’s one that I would love to see utilized once the regular season rolls around. Good luck keeping or even stopping that 5-man rotation if they were all to catch fire from the perimeter.
Closing Lineup: Booker-Bridges-Jackson-Ariza-Ayton
Hopefully, this is one that is used early and often by Kokoskov’s staff from Day 1. This lineup has the perfect blend of shooting, spacing, switch capabilities, and overall talent rolled into one. Also, it’s the one that could be the proverbial backbreaker against other rosters.
Outside of Jackson and Ayton, the other three are proficient enough shooters that would allow this aforementioned duo to create havoc. Whether it’s Jackson off cuts or Ayton in one-on-one post-ups where everyone clears the lane, pick your poison type of scenarios are aplenty.
Then, if Booker is on he could create plenty of drive-and-dish opportunities where he sucks in the defense and kicks it out to either Bridges or Ariza in their corner hot spots. Both of these gangly wings are proficient shooters on corner 3s who are proven enough where defense can’t sag off them. Far too often did we see Booker create those last season, but potential assists were almost always left on the board.
Who knows, maybe down the line that could be the regular starting five (replace Ariza with another power forward via trade or free agency) long term throughout Kokoskov’s tenure in the Valley.
Once training camp arrives in Flagstaff about seven weeks from now, Kokoskov will have plenty of thoughts about what types of combinations he could play with throughout his debut season at the helm. Until then, this is my best guess on what could be his best chances of creating impactful lineups that produce well in not only general box scores but also advanced ones.
Unlike last season where there many head-scratching units utilized by either Watson or Triano, expect Kokoskov to not have those same problems with as much talent he has to work with.