The rebuilding Suns were finally ready to put the “re” behind them and start building on their young core.
Devin Booker said, early and often since the end of last season, that he was tired of losing and didn’t plan to miss the playoffs any more in his career. He said he would work tirelessly with a trainer all summer to get in the best basketball shape of his life and be ready to lead his team to wins.
This is the Booker who became one of the youngest ever to post at least 24 points on 56% true shooting percentage with 4 rebounds and 4 assists per game last season with the 61-loss Suns.
This is the Booker who wanted to prove those numbers weren’t a fluke, weren’t over-inflated as a product of playing for a bad, dysfunctional team that just gave him the ball and asked him to perform.
The Suns hired a brand new coaching staff to implement these new winning ways, and coach Igor Kokoskov unveiled some of that new offensive and defensive system during Summer League with a bunch of rookies and back-half roster hopefuls.
The only front-half hopefuls who have played for Igor yet — Deandre Ayton, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson — are painfully young and inexperienced in the ways of NBA basketball.
And under Igor, two of the three were awful in Summer League. Second-year Jackson made only 24% of his shots in Summer League, while third-year Bender made just 37% when he didn’t decline to shoot. And they were the “veterans”.
Rookie #1 pick Ayton was good — making 60% of his shots with a pace of 20 points and 14 rebounds per 36 minutes — but he was often hamstrung with bad entry passes and limited skills in the post when he did get the ball (3.2 turnovers per game).
The team won games on high-percentage three point shooting (the 4 top players not named Ayton, Bender or Jackson shot 38% or better on threes) and aggressive defense, especially on the perimeter and in passing lanes.
The new system is different than the old, and completely foreign to Booker.
Gone are the ball-pounding isolations and many of the high pick and rolls early in the shot clock.
In is a quick passing game, full of cuts and movement and ball screens designed to force the defense to switch and make decisions on the fly, eventually springing loose a player or two for an open shot.
Where Igor’s Summer League offense bogged down was trying to use Ayton as a primary scoring threat, or allowing Jackson to highjack the play, put his head down and drive into the teeth of the defense without options B, C and D preformed in his head if Operation Speedboat failed.
All that inexperienced guard play, we were promised, would not be an issue once the regular season came around.
Yet as we contemplate the Suns regular season opener on October 17, on national television no less, we appear to have the same exact options at guard that we had in Summer League: Shaquille Harrison and Elie Okobo at point guard, and Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and Davon Reed at shooting guard.
“As of today,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough said on local radio 98.7 FM on Tuesday, “We are planning on going to training camp with the group we have.”
Suns new coach Igor Kokoskov has already been dealt a bad hand (why the pun? Because I’m a dad. Just roll with it.).
Even if Booker makes it back for opening night and the Suns trade for an experienced playmaker during preseason, the best chance to become a cohesive unit will have already passed the team by.
Jay Triano, and Earl Watson before him, made it clear to anyone who would listen that it’s next to impossible to roll out new offensive and defensive schemes designed to maximize your best players once the regular season has already started.
And now that Devin Booker won’t be able to actually play live-contact basketball until the regular season starts, there’s no way Igor Kokoskov can build his team around his young star until after the building part is over.
Who else on the team is going to emulate Booker enough to help the rest of the roster develop their best roles around him?
Who else is going to approximate his deadly outside shooting, creative pick-and-roll action, fancy pull-ups and help-needy defense?
“That’s a good question,” McDonough admitted, when asked on the radio about who will start at guard in Booker’s place.
No one else on the roster has the skills that Booker has.
Play Josh Jackson at the 2? Sure, with T.J. Warren and Trevor Ariza ready to go at small forward, Jackson is the obvious choice at Booker’s spot. But now the other guys in the lineup are working around a slasher, a bulldozer who can’t shoot and doesn’t run the pick-and-roll well but can defend without help.
Play Mikal Bridges at the 2? Or Davon Reed? First of all, no way Jackson sits for Bridges or Reed. Second of all, neither can create shots like Booker, but like Jackson won’t need defensive help either.
Play Troy Daniels at the 2? God help us.
And that’s the problem.
When Booker returns, the whole dynamic of the team shifts. The offense suddenly has a magnet it didn’t have for the whole training camp and preseason, and the defense suddenly has a perimeter player that needs his teammates’ constant help and attention to make sure he’s not embarrassing himself.
Training camp and preseason is the time, every coach in history has said, where you develop systems and incorporate ways within those systems to get the best out of your best players.
Yet, Igor now has to spend the next month rolling out a guard-oriented passing game with the same dudes he had in Summer League.
And then hope they can all adjust on the fly to the sudden appearance of Booker sometime after daily practices become a thing of the past. Once regular season starts, it’s all about rest and moderation and preparation for the next game not the next 2-3 years.
Even though Booker has been with the Suns for years now, he truly will appear like a mid-season blockbuster trade acquisition right around opening night.
I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but its not hyperbole if the “bole” is truly “hyper.” Just as Igor gets to officially shape his new offense and defense around his best player, Booker up and disappears from the picture.
“We’ve had 10-12 roster players in the gym most days over the last few weeks,” McDonough said of voluntary workouts where the coaches can watch but are not allowed to coach.
”In one of those games, the hand swelled up. There was no trauma that we could see. It wasn’t like he hit it or jammed it.”
Now Booker is in a cast, with a six week recovery. Just long enough to cover the most intense of off season workouts, the four-day training camp in Flagstaff, the entire preseason and (likely) the opening week of regular season games.
Including that nationally televised ESPN game on October 17 against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
Luka will be surrounded and supported by grizzled NBA veterans in starters Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes and Deandre Jordan. And he is being coached by one of the best in the game in Rick Carlisle.
The Suns, meanwhile, will have basically their Summer League team plus front court role players Ariza, Anderson and T.J. Warren.
“We have depth there,” McDonough said of the back court roles. “I realize we don’t have a lot of experience there.
“Hopefully the rehab goes well and he’s back right around the beginning of the regular season.”
But even if that happens, all the “install” time will be over.
This, of course, distracts from the Suns biggest long-term problem: the lack of a veteran play maker who can compliment the now-missing Booker and, in a pinch like this one, help keep the team afloat when their best player is out.
“We are evaluating options,” McDonough says of trade talks. “We are trying to be deliberate and strategic to make sure it makes sense in the short and long term.
“But as you guys know in this business things could change quickly. We have over five weeks until the regular season opener.”
If you care anything about Igor’s health or future as an NBA coach, Ryan, you don’t stick him with a starting back court of a point guard who can’t pass and a shooting guard who can’t make shots.
Make something happen.