Forget about last night for a second. The Phoenix Suns still stand 7-5, a surprise to everyone. And had you asked most Suns fans before the season what it would take for the team to ascend to a .500+ record, most would likely predict big leaps forward from last season’s three most valuable players: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges.
Devin Booker looks just as dominant as ever. But neither Ayton nor Bridges have made the impact on this team that Suns fans expected to this point (for different reasons, obviously).
Indeed, it’s been a struggle out of the gate for Mikal. He’s shooting just 24% from distance, and averaging less than 5 points per game. As a result of those offensive struggles he’s seen his playing time dramatically slashed, to just 18 minutes per game over the Suns’ last five outings.
And yet, too many Suns fans seem to be under the assumption that Bridges is no longer making an impact at all. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Bridges is a master of contributing in ways that aren’t immediately apparent to the naked eye. But look to some of the prevailing advanced stat models, and they’ll reward him for his efforts.
Bridges’ box plus minus stands at +1.9, 6th on the Suns’ roster, and placing him ahead of fellow wings Kelly Oubre and Cameron Johnson. In fact, he’s 12th in the entire league in defensive box plus minus, just ahead of players such as Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley.
PIPM, the advanced model provided by the Bball-Index, is similarly positive on Mikal. They list his D-PIPM (Defensive Player Impact Plus Minus, for those trying to guess the acronym) as 2nd on the team behind only Ricky Rubio.
The most recent to join the party was 538 with their updated RAPTOR rankings, that similarly set out to estimate impact on an individual basis. Here’s 538’s updated ratings for the Suns. Notice that Mikal Bridges sits comfortably in 6th, with by far the best defensive rating on the team and an overall rating that outshines a starter like Dario Saric.
But look, I know obscure numbers alone don’t do much to persuade. So let’s take a closer look at the film.
There’s simply too much substance to Bridges’ game that you can’t pick up in a box score. If you miss even one game and try to catch up by checking his stats online, you’re missing the magic.
And here’s what I’m talking about.
This is the allure of Mikal Bridges.— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) November 15, 2019
- Knocks down 3 off movement.
- Starts guarding 6'10 Fernando.
- Switches onto 7'1 Len.
- Traps 6'1 Young.
- Grabs rebound & pushes pace. THEN:
- 2 defenders are scared that he just hit a 3 and look what happens.... pic.twitter.com/kOsdsmY2LK
There’s nothing about this defensive sequence that Bridges will receive credit for in a box score. And yet, his movements are consistently precise and calculated.
He begins the play marking the significantly bigger Bruno Fernano on the elbow. He then seamlessly switches onto an even bigger Alex Len, and finally traps Trae Young on the baseline with just six seconds left on the shot clock, forcing the ball out of Young’s hands. The possession ends with a Fernando three, which you happily live with if you’re Phoenix given that Fernando is shooting 20 percent from long range as a rookie.
Bridges makes these sequences look easy, but they’re not. The Suns consistently trapped Trae Young on above-the-break screens all game long, and yet Young still finished with 21 points and 13 assists because of his first-rate vision and ball handling skills. Yet when it was Bridges involved in those pick-and-roll possessions, his combination of lateral speed, focus, and length added a layer of disruption that made Trae’s job that much harder.
Of course, sometimes it really is easy to pick up on good defense. While Mikal’s off-ball defense can seem a bit more abstract, you can clearly appreciate his defensive focus in these one-on-one clips below. Whether he’s banging bodies in the post or containing a drive, he continues to be as consistent on the ball as any other player on the Suns roster.
So to reiterate, I get it. It’s frustrating that one of the few highlights of last season has struggled to make an immediate offensive impact. It’s frustrating that a player who made over 100 threes as a rookie is on pace for just 30 as a sophomore. It’s frustrating that some of the hype behind Cam Johnson’s spirited start is stifled by Bridges’ relative sluggishness.
But to insist that Bridges is a complete non-factor on offense is simply going too far. Even without his shot falling, he continues to demonstrate a keen sense of where to be at all times to maximize the team’s spacing. He’s quietly gone 7-for-9 on early season cut plays, which is 68th percentile in the league in efficiency.
So if you’re thinking about selling your Mikal Bridges stock, my only word of advice: don’t. It’s true, heavy minutes are no longer a guarantee on a roster that is so surprisingly stable.
But Mikal Bridges is too darn talented to be held on the bench for long. A player with his level of awareness and work ethic is bound to see tangible improvement sooner or later.
If you trust Monty Williams and the new coaching staff (and I know you do), you’ll give Bridges some time to bloom.