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Preview: Suns close preseason slate versus Nuggets

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Phoenix prepares for a great test in their final matchup before games officially matter.

Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns host the Denver Nuggets

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable starters:

Suns - Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton

Nuggets - Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic


Nuggets

For some reason, it feels like everyone is forgetting about this Nuggets team. Led by Jokic, who I believe is a legit threat to win this year’s MVP, depth is located everywhere at each position.

Right now, I’m picking Denver to finish as the top seed once more in an even more loaded Western Conference. Continuity matters in this league, and all of the contenders outside of Denver really experienced a lot.

The Nuggets’ front office has done a fantastic job molding a roster around Jokic’s strengths, which truly are unicorn-like. A slow-plodding 7-footer shouldn’t be an MVP candidate, let alone someone I could see averaging close to a triple-double this season. Murray is a great flamethrower to put alongside him, plus Harris and Jerami Grant are very versatile 3-and-D types.

There’s a lot to like about the 2019-20 Nuggets, so Phoenix will be able to test themselves well before their regular season officially begins next week.

Suns

If it wasn’t obvious already, this year’s Suns team is way different from almost every angle. Not only is experience in place of young players, but the roster seems to be gelling quickly. Monty Williams’ coaching style has certainly evolved with way more modern concepts, which is going to be humming at full speed now with a pass-first point guard like Rubio operating it.

Also, the Suns’ second unit is going to be dramatically better. Honestly, it’s one I’m really a fan of featuring Ty Jerome, Tyler Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Frank Kaminsky / Cameron Johnson, and Aron Baynes. Those are all high IQ basketball players who know how to make the right reads. That’s going to lead to some smooth transitions from the starting unit.

Going head-to-head versus the 2018-19 second unit is eye-opening:

2018 = Jamal Crawford, Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges / Kelly Oubre Jr., Dragan Bender, Richaun Holmes

2019 = Ty Jerome, Tyler Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Frank Kaminsky / Cameron Johnson, Aron Baynes

The level up from Crawford, Jackson, Bender to Jerome, Johnson, Kaminsky/Johnson is obvious when you watch the games. There might even be a few extra levels in between when you assume Jerome won’t be a net-negative.

Let’s compare those six players on the Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) scale. The difference goes to show why Suns GM James Jones overhauled this whole roster overnight:

Crawford (-1.2), Jackson (-1.4), Bender (-0.3) combined VORP = minus-2.9

Jerome (0.0 projection), Johnson (0.0), Kaminsky (0.2) combined VORP = plus-0.2

The second unit will not be a crippling thorn in Phoenix’s side after it has been. Replacing huge negatives with average players isn’t supposed to be a big change, but, sadly, it will be for the Suns.

If Cam Johnson can also crack the rotation with Jerome early on, which should happen with how well he’s played, this 5-man lineup will only strengthen. Imagine the possibilities as Jerome and T. Johnson are sharing ball handling duties while Bridges and C. Johnson both go wait in the corners for wide-open threes.

Prediction

It’s preseason, so all I want is a fun, closely contested game coming down to the wire. Also, how about some extended run for Jerome? He’s continued to thoroughly impress me throughout preseason action. Don’t be surprised if Jerome cracks the opening night rotation with Johnson and Bridges flanking him in the second unit.

Watching Jokic go one-on-one with Ayton is always a fun one, too, however long it may last.

Suns 111, Nuggets 108