After being handed a $50 million contract extension by the Suns, T.J. Warren started all 65 games he featured in during the 2017-18 season. Tony Buckets, as he’s more affectionately known, delivered on the name with 19.6 points per game at near 50% shooting efficiency.
However, Phoenix won just 21 games, and the detractors questioned whether, if Warren was only getting buckets, he should be an automatic starter. Where was the improved outside shot? Where was the solid defense? Where was the even slight increase in playmaking for others? Basically, why did the Suns pay this man?
It’s the 50 Million Dollar Question buried under a bunch of other valid queries: Should T.J. Warren Still Start For The Suns?
Out of interest Suns fans, if TJ is on the roster for Game 1 of 18/19 - where do you want to see him play?— David Nash (@theIVpointplay) July 25, 2018
After adding Trevor Ariza and Mikal Bridges in the offseason, with Josh Jackson also onboard, most straw polls ended with Warren relegated to the bench or out of town altogether.
For a franchise already on the record as aspiring to be the most improved team in the league, the decision may not be as clear-cut as it seems.
By asking a series of other questions, the larger problem might be easier to solve.
DONCIC OR BUST? – Despite the link, it may not be ALL about Luka. Doncic is #1 on my board but Igor could really use a big man.— David Nash (@theIVpointplay) May 9, 2018
“Some of the coaches we talked to were very set on certain systems. What Igor said is – a big part of my system is around my players” – Robert Sarver. pic.twitter.com/nkUOJjrZX0
How Will Coach Make It Work?
Note: Watch the below 2 videos with sound, if possible. The 10 minutes of video illustrates how TJ Warren can be used within Igor’s offense and includes audio to explain further whilst reducing word count for the reader.
With a projected starting five of Knight-Booker-Warren-Ariza-Ayton, perhaps the biggest concerns are spacing and defense. As head coach Igor Kokoskov notes in the above clip, the league has shifted.
With a plan to deploy Warren as a hybrid forward, Kokoskov could make him an effective weapon within his offense. Even despite his limitations, Warren provides a scoring threat that can be used more effectively than he was last season.
The Suns will still rely heavily on Warren getting out on the break and scoring early in the shot clock. Only Russell Westbrook (5.5 PPG) had more fast-break points per game than Warren (4.7 PPG) in the NBA last season.
Warren becomes a 3-man in early transition offense for the Suns. Kokoskov “adores pass ahead,” and wants his wings to “run for layups,” so it’s hard to see him not wanting to use one of Warren’s best existing assets.
Off the ball, Warren can be a dangerous slasher, creating easy buckets for himself or misdirection for others. On the ball, he could become a destructive playmaker in Igor’s sets. While it may require some improvement, simple reads inside a well-designed offense could unlock another facet to Tony Buckets one-dimensional game.
Having a player on the wing who isn’t a threat from 3 is not ideal, and certainly not typical of an offense Kokoskov would like to run. As the Suns settle into their halfcourt offense, we could see Warren swap places with Ariza.
Ariza becomes the floor-spacer the Suns need on the perimeter, while Warren uses his nose for a bucket in the paint to the team’s advantage. Whether it’s in the midrange, the short-roll position or even as a screener, Warren doesn’t have to be restricted to an uncomfortable spot-up role. Instead, he can be given duties that take him out of spots from which he is ineffective and even have his unheralded unique skills highlighted within the offense.
How Can It Help The Suns?
All indications out of Phoenix are that Ariza is slated to start at power forward. Brandon Knight has also been referenced as the current starting point guard, while Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are locks to start. But if the Suns want to become the most improved team in the league, Booker cannot be asked to do it all.
Knight should not be counted on for stable production after injury, nor should Ayton beginning his rookie season. That leaves Ariza, who has topped out at 14.9 points per game for his single season high. The 3&D wing has also never been a second scoring option, with two seasons as the third option (‘14 & ‘15) in his 14-year career.
The Suns had six positive four-man lineups last season that played over 100 minutes together on the floor. Warren and Booker featured in four of them, including the most effective (+8.3 points) and the most used (323 minutes). The team also had six positive five-man line-ups (only two played over 100 minutes), all but one of which Warren and Booker appeared in. Perhaps improving next season isn’t about splitting Warren and Booker, but instead improving the players they share the court with.
It may seem counterintuitive to Kokoskov’s belief about where the NBA has shifted, but effective use of a game like Warren’s could open up more shots for others. Warren has proven to be a reliable to above-average finisher in and around the paint (68.5% at the rim in 2017-18) and arguably the best offensive rebounder for his size/position (6.2 OReb% in 17-18) in the entire NBA.
As illustrated, having Warren at power forward within the offense could be the best option the Suns currently possess and the stats may just back that up. With Ariza and Knight spotting up and Ayton rolling, the dynamic duo of Booker and Warren gets an automatic upgrade over last season’s positive lineup regulars, including Marquese Chriss, Mike James and Tyson Chandler.
How Can It Help the $158-Million Man?
If it wasn’t clear already, signing Booker to an extension this summer was a sign the Suns are building around their young star. It’s not a stretch to suggest the acquisitions of Ariza, Ayton and Mikal Bridges were all made to optimize Booker this season and beyond.
Not only did Warren and Booker appear together in the few positive Suns lineups last season, they also appeared to have a positive effect on one another. In 1,278 minutes sharing the court last season, Booker shot 40.6% from 3 and Warren 51.7% from the field. Without one another, those numbers dipped significantly.
Surprisingly, usage numbers told a different story. Booker’s usage didn’t change with or without Warren, while a much-increased usage for Warren in Booker’s absence seemed to negate his overall efficiency.
The stats can't paint the entire picture, but there is enough to suggest that Phoenix’s two young wings have a positive effect on each other’s games. Eliminating the first three games of the season (the last of Earl Watson’s disastrous tenure), the Suns record was 15-31 with Booker and Warren compared with a measly 6-27 when one was missing.
Looking at the 26 games where Warren scored 20-plus points, the Suns were almost a .500 team (12-14) compared to a 3-17 record when Warren failed to get to that benchmark. When Warren was missing altogether, Booker went 1-4 with an average losing margin of 18, despite averaging 28.6 points in those games. A reliable secondary scoring option is still necessary for Booker at this stage and, once again, it appears as though the improvement could come by upgrading the talent base at other positions rather at the expense of Warren.
What About The Future?
After taking Jackson at No. 4 in 2017 and trading for Bridges in 2018, it’s only natural to consider the future of the franchise. However, the Suns seem to have shifted focus to developing their youth by putting a good product on the court. The team doesn’t appear to be in a position to start a second rookie or a sketchy sophomore.
In 689 minutes last season with Jackson, Booker saw a decrease in usage (minus-3.5%), 3-point shooting percentage (-9.3%) and overall efficiency (-4.8%). Warren and Jackson also had adverse effects on each other’s usage and efficiency, all but eliminating the idea of pairing together again. With Jackson’s best rookie basketball coming at the end of the season without Booker or Warren, featuring him within the second unit next season could be his best chance at increased development.
While starting Bridges could become a very distinct possibility in the future, the Suns don’t appear likely to value his defense and shooting enough to run that risk. Not with a goal to start the season hot and compete in a brutal Western Conference.
With Warren still likely to project best as a sixth man on a playoff team, a sudden glut of wings is not a bad problem to have in today’s NBA. Going forward, if Jackson and Bridges develop as expected, the Suns would likely envision their complementary skill sets fitting within a starting unit with Booker and Ayton.
Even with a sudden rise for either this season, Phoenix would be left with a healthy dilemma. The decision to start Warren is all about keeping the Suns in games longer. If it takes Bridges’s shooting or Jackson’s defense to finish it off, Phoenix should have no issue making that call. After all, this rosters depth and flexibility may be its biggest upgrade on last season.
Where do you hope to see TJ Warren for Game 1 of the 2018-19 season?
This poll is closed
In The Starting 5
In The Bench Unit
On Another Team
Igor Kokoskov continually preaches that he coaches to his roster, not just one philosophy. It may not be the obvious (or popular) move, but the Suns could certainly benefit from continuing to start Warren.
While the focus here has been the offense, it should be acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns on defense. Having said that, Ayton at center, Ariza in the lineup and a larger focus from the coaching staff should all be immediate upgrades on the defensive end compared to last season.
There will continue to be a valid concern about Warren’s role on a contending team, but the Phoenix Suns are not even close to having to make that decision just yet. Kokoskov has been given some upgrades and the challenge of becoming the league’s most improved team. But the roster still has holes to fill before it resembles anything like a playoff contender.
In the meantime, NBA-proven talent should trump all else.
*All stats courtesy of nba.com, basketball-reference.com, nbawowy.com, with a special thanks to Kris Hanson.