Nobody would fault you for taking everything written about the Suns the past three seasons with a grain of salt. Recent analysis about this team’s performance amounted to little more than a shoulder-shrug. Breaking down the team’s hopes turned fans and media alike into amateur scouts, monitoring the hitch in Josh Jackson’s jumper, detailing minute improvements on the part of the G League point guard armada, and spending too much time talking about the draft.
For the first time in a long time, the Suns’ plan is clear: Get better. They have supported the team’s young core with veteran but still-in-their-prime pieces who fit well and will help the offense greatly. Still, the defense will need to do more with less this season to compete on a nightly basis. Few players on the roster come to Phoenix with a good defensive reputation.
Coaching will be an advantage much of the time for this Suns team after running out guys who were undeserving of their post (Earl Watson), coaching on an interim basis (Jay Triano), or set up to fail with a roster that couldn’t possibly compete (Igor Kokoskov). No one knows for sure what Monty Williams’ modus operandi will be on each end of the court during the regular season. It’s been a long time since he ran a program. But it’s hard to imagine Williams performing worse than the team’s last few coaches, and he will bring an experience advantage over just about every opposing head coach in the NBA.
Finally, though James Jones is just entering his first full year as Suns general manager, he’s already shown a willingness to mix things up and problem-solve. Jones’ first move was to cut the promising Shaquille Harrison in part to add Jamal Crawford to the end of the bench. Later in the season, Jones made trades to get Trevor Ariza out of the building and bring in helpful young veterans who helped turn the culture and record around. With expiring veteran contracts like Tyler Johnson and Aron Baynes in place this year, Jones can keep maneuvering in-season.
Maybe every writer calls every season for the team they cover the most interesting in recent memory -- that’s the NBA for you. But 2019-20 is shaping up to tell us the most about the Suns of Devin Booker’s career because of the genuine onus on improvement.
Let’s attempt to answer some of the questions at the center of the Suns’ hopes this year and see what those answers tell us about the team overall.
Where will the Suns rank in offensive efficiency this season?
Teams can improve a lot offensively by taking the right shots. Aside from Ricky Rubio, Cheick Diallo and Jalen Lecque, every player the Suns signed this summer brings good to great shooting at their position.
Last season, the Suns’ shot chart was atrocious. They were at top-10 team in the proportion of their shots that came from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass. Fewer than a third of their shots were threes. And they were inaccurate from every spot on the court.
Shot selection will align with how a team’s stars play. By taking and making (thanks to Rubio) a larger diet of catch-and-shoot threes, Booker will diversify his game a bit more. The hope is that Deandre Ayton can turn some midrange shots into threes as well, and turn some contested attempts at the rim into free throws. Both need to take fewer contested midrange shots. They both have the range to be above-average (or better) three-point shooters and can show it as soon as this season.
Right now, it’s hard to say for sure the two stars will be forced to take better shots. Here’s what Williams said this week on the topic:
“I just don’t want to jack up threes just to get our numbers high. I want there to be a purpose behind it and I want our guys to feel comfortable.”
He added: “I’m probably the anti-analytics when it comes to twos. I tell guys all the time, ‘Shoot the shot you’re comfortable shooting,’ because at the end of the day, sometimes you need a bucket. I want to shoot a ton of threes, I’d love to have 10 dunks, but I don’t want to take away from a confident shot.”
Right now, Ayton is not comfortable with threes. No matter what the young big man says, if he was ready to fire away, it would have happened already. Maybe developing that part of his game slowly is for the better, but Ayton post-ups and mid-rangers are going to eat into this team’s offensive efficiency until he stretches out.
Despite his reputation, it could be argued Rubio helps the shooting overall based on his ability to find open teammates. According to Cleaning the Glass, aside from his first year in Utah when he too more initiative as a scorer, team effective field goal percentage has been at least one percentage point higher with Rubio on the floor in each of the past four seasons. This all despite Rubio’s own lack of shooting prowess. To make up for this, Rubio has cleaned up his turnovers and become a great free-throw shooter. Combined with his instinctive next-level passing, Rubio has become just about as good on offense as possible without dynamic athleticism or shooting ability.
The fit between Rubio and Booker should be cleaner than it was between Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in Utah. For one, Williams will put the ball in Rubio’s hands more often and simplify the offense in a way that puts less pressure on Rubio as a floor-spacer. The Jazz ran a lot through their big men on dribble hand-offs at the top of the key -- situations that allowed defenses to play off of Rubio and not pay for it.
When the ball is in Rubio’s hands, the gravity is reversed. Booker’s ability as a shooter and finisher will force adjustments from the defense that didn’t happen over the past two seasons while Booker learned to play point guard. The two guards split playmaking duties pretty evenly during the preseason when they shared the floor, but the ball moved enough and teams weren’t really interested in adjusting to play off of Rubio and send extra help toward the paint.
It’s hard to tell if that will continue. Rubio was lights out during the FIBA World Cup, but the line is shorter in international competition. The point guard was 1-8 behind the line in preseason. Regardless, if Booker and Ayton turn in a more efficient shot chart and guys like Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky bring a healthier dose of triples, the Suns’ offensive efficiency will get better organically.
As Evan noted last month, Booker turning in a 30-point per game season on 60 percent true shooting -- a historically elite output -- isn’t out of the question. I’ll keep reminding you of Booker’s 2018-19 season until everyone gets it. Despite sliding to 32 percent from distance, the man turned in an incredible 58.4 percent true shooting percentage because of his improved finishing ability, elite mid-range game and free-throw shooting.
Building the offense around Booker as a finisher and Ayton as a versatile pick-and-roll threat with the floor spaced well and Rubio handling the ball is a recipe for around a league-average O. They will need to score at a high level to win 30-plus games as many expect, because their defense will be like a five-man turnstile at times. Rubio, Baynes and Mikal Bridges are solid, but there is only so much impact role players and non-big men can have. Anything higher than a bottom-10 finish on defense will be a surprise.
This is the time of year for predictions, though. I’ll pencil the Suns in for 13th on offense -- just below the middle of the pack.
What are the goals this team should expect to meet each month?
Beginning with the team deciding to come to Phoenix early in September to prepare for the season together, Williams has stressed the importance of growing together over the course of the season.
Discussing the playoffs as the ultimate goal on Saturday, Williams said, “we’ve said we want to compete every month and improve every month, but yeah, that’s always the goal, to get to the playoffs.”
While the schedule overall is home-heavy early on, October will be tough for the Suns with a heavy slate of playoff teams on the docket. But there is light just on the other side of that pretty short tunnel. In November, the schedule eases up.
The Suns host 12 of their first 18 games at Talking Stick Resort Arena. After Saturday’s practice, Booker stressed the importance of getting out to a good start.
“That will be a good start to the season if we can gain that reputation on our home court that when teams come in here, it’s not going to be an easy game,” he said.
But that’s not where the improvement begins.
October: Figure out a balance between Rubio and Booker. After the preseason, Williams admitted he held back quite a bit of how he wants to use Booker in the offense in order to simplify the young star’s mental load as he prepared for his fifth season, each with a different coach. Finding ways to make use of Booker’s shot-making ability and off-ball gravity to open up the offense will be the focus early on.
November: Establish a home-court advantage. I got an email from some ticketing research firm this week saying the Suns’ average ticket price is the lowest in the NBA heading into the season. With a five-game homestand in November and nine of 13 in Phoenix overall, the Suns can get comfortable at home with key wins at Talking Stick Resort Arena heading into Thanksgiving.
December: Weather the storm. Williams was asked during preseason when he will know what his team really is. His response? “When we get punched in the mouth.” The Suns have four back-to-backs in December as well as a long road trip to Mexico City to play the Spurs south of the border. Not only will they need to adjust from playing at home so often to traveling, the team will need to stay fresh during a hard part of the schedule. December is when the Suns will get punched in the mouth.
January: See what the rookies have in them. Though most expect Ty Jerome and Cameron Johnson to be part of the regular-season rotation by this point, their responsibilities will be limited early on. But as the Suns approach the trade deadline and the stretch run, they will know their identity. The Suns play 33 games by New Year’s Day. During a January schedule in which they host a ton of bad East teams, Suns coaches can start to extend their rookies a bit and measure their progress.
February: Get better on defense. No matter what happens this season, the main concern about this Suns’ roster going forward is defense. Can Ayton, Booker, Johnson and Kelly Oubre improve on that end? By the halfway point of the year, the Suns need to see progress. The defense will be in the ranked in the bottom third of NBA teams all year, but by this point, the Suns need to start trending closer to the middle third than the back of the pack.
March: Make a run. The Suns play a bunch of good West teams early in the year and will likely start behind the 8-ball. By March, playoff teams are starting to prepare for the playoffs. The Suns made a nice run at this point last year, beating Golden State, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. They should be able to do it again if they’re healthy and cohesive by the spring.
April: Put on a show. If the Suns have hit all their checkpoints by the last two weeks of the year, the schedule will let them celebrate. The first five games of April are all against teams who will be tanking by this point in the season. It would feel great for this team to put everything together and score in the 110s every night as they close out the season.
What is the over/under on Suns trades this season?
Not only do the Suns have tasty contracts that will expire after the season, the guys holding those contracts are very transportable talents. Every playoff team could use a scoring guard who competes on defense. That’s what Tyler Johnson is. And if anything, Aron Baynes becomes even more valuable in the playoffs. Who knows? We may even see the Suns look around at deals involving Dario Saric before he enters free agency.
Jones opted not to deal the veterans on expiring contracts last season. Instead, Troy Daniels and Jamal Crawford actually played more as the season went along. Unless the Suns are really interested in retaining Johnson or Baynes long-term (which is possible), trading them to contending teams is the right move. Dealing Johnson frees playing time for Jerome. Getting rid of Baynes could give the Suns a look at someone like Cheick Diallo and allow the team to extend Ayton to get a feel for his conditioning and consistency at the end of his second season.
The best bet from a fit perspective here is Johnson, but it’s somewhat hard to make the salaries work with the teams who could really use him. Philadelphia and Milwaukee could use a consistent third guard, but neither has enough role player salary to send back to the Suns. In fact, there are basically no teams good enough to want Johnson who can make a trade work. Baynes, owed just $5.4 million, is easier to move. The Suns could potentially use a third team to absorb salaries, but not many teams have cap space left. The only team in the NBA with cap space left over is Atlanta, and they basically have three big contracts and a bunch of rookie deals, so it will be difficult for them to facilitate deals this season as a third team.
Could the Suns get a first-round pick from Houston or the Clippers for Baynes? Doing so would be a major victory. That’s my guess, for now, but I’d set the over/under at 0.5 trades, which means it’s just as likely to make no trades than make any at all.
How many games will the Suns win?
Let’s say the Suns finish 13th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defense. With those numbers, we could reasonably expect the Suns’ net rating to be around 18th or 19th in the NBA. Last year’s 19th-ranked team by net rating was the Charlotte Hornets, who finished 39-43 with a minus-0.9 rating, buoyed by a weak Eastern Conference. The closest West team was Sacramento (minus-0.8 with the same 39-43 record). There was a huge drop-off after those two, however, as the Pelicans came in at 20th in net rating with a 33-49 record.
It seems pretty reasonable to expect the Suns to be in that range this year, though on the lower end, considering the offense is no lock to be in the top half of the league. Despite helping their efficiency by taking better shots, the Suns still turned the ball over a ton in the preseason and a fair amount of their progress is based on young guys getting better. That doesn’t always happen.
Throughout the preseason, I’ve used 35-47 as my loose prediction. Breaking it down this way, that still feels reasonable. An explosion from Booker as well as better shooting and playmaking up and down the roster coupled with greater depth and consistency from the team’s role players should lead to a big leap in the standings.
35-47. Book it.