After a fourth straight home loss, the luster of the Suns’ holiday win streak is scratched and scraped to the point it’s unrecognizable. The defense is broken and the offense inconsistent. Everyone’s healthy and yet the switch has been flipped back off. Throughout the season, putrid stretches like these have pushed coach Igor Kokoskov toward a lineup change, and with poor starts the one constant in every one of the Suns’ recent losses, bringing some fresh bodies into the starting unit could be the next thing Phoenix tries.
The problems are deeper than individual mistakes right now. Several guys have had big nights during the homestand despite the mounting losses. Kokoskov isn’t the type of coach to peg huge issues on small decisions. On both ends, the Suns play the best when they play together.
“We’re not married to anybody,” he said after a loss to the Clippers on Friday. “Anybody can start. I wouldn’t point a finger at one guy and say ‘this guy’s gonna be the answer.’ We’ve gotta do it collectively.”
The Clippers put up 38 points in the 1st quarter, which continues the trend of Phoenix's horrendous defense to begin games.— Evan Sidery (@esidery) January 5, 2019
Over the past 11 games, the Suns are allowing opponents to average a league-worst 35.2 points while shooting 59.1 percent.
The Suns have been losing these games in the first quarter, allowing opponents to build leads so big they can let their foot off the gas the entire second half. Overall the past four games, the Suns are giving up 121.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark which would rank last in the NBA by a mile over a full season. The defense that was this team’s calling card on the road in December has evaporated. Despite heroic Devin Booker performances against Denver and Philadelphia, the Suns also have not been able to count on production from their other scorers.
Many hoped the team had finally formed an identity grinding for those five December victories but identities aren’t erased in a week. This stretch represents a major step back.
Is there a weak link?
This is about five guys coming out at the opening tip not ready to play, allowing easy buckets to the opposition, making sloppy plays and letting games slip away in the opening minutes. No one bears the full responsibility of losing games. But it may be the most recent inductee to the starting lineup who is the first to leave if there is a change.
Kokoskov's reaction to Melton's three was one of disbelief. Didn't help that he missed it badly. #Suns— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) December 30, 2018
Melton plays like someone who joined this team late in the offseason, a quick learner still adjusting to his teammates and the system all agree was a grind to nail down throughout the summer.
His team defense is excellent (a dazzling college steal rate has translated to the NBA) but that’s his biggest impact on the game right now and most nights lately it hasn’t cut it. The Suns need more from that spot with the array of playmakers they face in the league and the need to make life easier for Devin Booker. It’s why Kokoskov so often goes with Jamal Crawford late in games. He wants someone who will make the right decision and play efficiently.
If any change is made, it would likely be to insert one of the Suns’ young wings into the starting lineup in place of Melton, putting the team back at square one in the year-long Point Booker experiment.
Back to Point Book
As Booker begins to get to the line more, finish around the rim and develop consistency on tough pick-and-roll and transition passes, it will be harder to move him off the ball. He’s improved in each of those areas this year, especially since returning once and for all from a nagging hamstring injury. Against Philadelphia, Booker put up 37 points and 8 assists, making 15-17 free throws and nearly finishing off a huge comeback against the 76ers.
Asked what leads to poor starts, Booker pointed to mental focus and many of the “same old problems” of coming out of the gates with their foot off the gas a team. Frustrated, Booker added, “it’s not in my job description but hopefully we figure it out, maybe mix up a couple lineups, just try it, but we’ll see.”
We know this team as presently constructed can’t compete against the best teams on a nightly basis without production from Booker. Which is why, after so much turnover since the November 2017 trade of Eric Bledsoe to Milwaukee, the Suns might be looking once again at Point Booker.
The wing depth on this team is its biggest strength. Kelly Oubre Jr., despite practicing for just the third time with the team on Thursday, has been a consistent source of confidence, energy and shot-making for a team sorely in need of all three. His help defense against Joel Embiid in the second half Wednesday was one of the only bright spots for the Suns that night. Josh Jackson hit big shots against the 76ers before reigning it in Friday against Los Angeles, competing against Tobias Harris defensively and finishing 4-6 from the field. These guys need minutes and the easiest way to make that happen is to put one into the starting lineup alongside Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren.
An unlikely source of help?
At many points last season, Point Booker lineups looked best with marksman Troy Daniels spacing the floor. In 15 games as a starter last year, Daniels scored nearly 12 points per game on 41 percent shooting from deep. For Daniels, the confidence to take threes is nearly as important as how many he makes. He keeps the defense honest away from the ball in a way none of the youngsters in Phoenix can.
“He’s a pro,” Kokoskov said, “he does everything he can and he’s supposed to to keep himself in shape and never complains. That’s a lot of the reason he’s special, is he is extremely one of the best shooters in the league.”
Why doesn’t Daniels get on the floor more? Well, Kokoskov likes to have another playmaker in the game opposite Crawford if the veteran is in the game, meaning there’s just not room for Daniels in the rotation.
“It’s tough,” Kokoskov admitted. “Sometimes I’m embarrassed that I don’t find minutes for him to play.”
Daniels is in his prime, handling himself like a professional and making the best use of every minute. That sounds like the kind of guy who could help jumpstart a team going through the motions. Against the 76ers, Daniels was a plus-24 in 15 minutes, keying a second half run to get Phoenix back in the game. After the game, Daniels said, “It’s hard, but your mindset has to be right going into the game, it has to be genuine. You have to want to help the team. … We can’t let pride set in for us. There comes a point where man on man, we have to play basketball.”
In fact, Philadelphia is one team who could benefit from Daniels’ services at February’s trade deadline if the shooter keeps playing so well for the Suns. Kokoskov likely cares little about showcasing someone like Daniels for a trade, but playing the veteran would kill two birds with one stone: help the Suns and boost his own trade value. Portland, Oklahoma City, Detroit and Houston could all use Daniels’ shooting off the bench as well. The veteran has become underrated on his current team and around the league.
Daniels’ perspective on the team’s rough patch shows a belief within the locker room the Suns could easily overcome this cold streak.
“It’s part of the NBA, guys coming in and out,” he said. “You never know. It’s on us as well as the coaches, just getting everybody ready to play. We’re playing together very well, even more so than at the beginning of the year.”