With six straight home games on the docket for the Suns, the team will have the chance not only to prove their fast start is legit, but pad their record and generate confidence for the rest of the season.
Somehow, a majority of the games during this homestand come against Eastern Conference teams, meaning the Suns also will be favored in many of them. Here’s who the Suns face over the next two weeks:
The 76ers and Lakers feature two defenses playing incredibly well right now, with star power that will challenge Phoenix (though Joel Embiid is suspended for the game). Those other four games, however, feel winnable if the Suns play as hard as they did in October.
Finding more scoring apart from Devin Booker
The Suns’ bench was quiet in Wednesday’s tilt-a-whirl victory over the Warriors. Cracks will likely appear eventually when you rely on consistent, efficient scoring from Frank Kaminsky and Jevon Carter, but Kaminsky responded well against Memphis with 14 points on 10 shot attempts.
Through five games, Kaminsky is handling the highest usage rate of his career and with Deandre Ayton out, the Wisconsin product has become the Suns’ second scoring option most nights. Kaminsky is doing this on lackluster efficiency and a high turnover rate, which makes it feel even more unsustainable. Too often, the second-unit offense devolves and forces Kaminsky to create shots. That’s never been his game, so the sooner Tyler Johnson and Mikal Bridges can get going, the better. Carter continued his cold streak on Saturday against the team that drafted him, so the cliff is starting to look even steeper when Booker exits the game.
One of the most astounding numbers to look at when you see how ball movement and floor spacing have created balance for the Suns’ offense is that Phoenix scores 16 more points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor vs. on the bench. A promising sign for the young star is a harrowing one for the Suns as they continue to search for scoring.
Coach Monty Williams already has been a mad lineupist thus far in 2019-20, as the current starting lineup is still the only unit to log more than 100 possessions. Thanks in large part to Booker and Aron Baynes, the starters are plus-17 this year, according to Cleaning the Glass.
One group Williams has tried aggressively this year to juice the offense is a Kaminsky-Dario Saric frontcourt, and the results have been promising overall. That partnership has played 116 possessions together and is plus-6. However, in perhaps the greatest example of small sample size theater in the early days of the NBA season, defense is lifting these lineups. Saric is still finding his place in the offense and adjusting to more freedom with the ball, but Williams will keep playing these guys together until Deandre Ayton returns in December.
Though Kelly Oubre Jr. has been impressive to start the year, Bridges finally arrived against Memphis. Should the bench continue to struggle to create good offense when Booker is on the bench, we shouldn’t forget the potential of an Oubre/Bridges swap. That doesn’t necessarily mean Bridges starts, but maybe Williams plays him with the starters more often to give Oubre opportunities as the primary scorer in bench lineups.
One last note: Let’s see if Williams locks into the starters-plus-Kaminsky group that saw a lot of time against Utah. It’s the default when Baynes runs into his soft minutes limit (as he did in Memphis) or is in foul trouble. It is also the best offensive group of the three primary Kaminsky-Saric lineups and can find easy offense when Rubio runs a pick-and-pop with all four players spacing the floor.
Keep cleaning up the fouls
Before holding the Grizzlies and Warriors to 110 points or fewer, Williams said of his defense, “We’ve raised the bar. We don’t want to let that bar slide at all, so (we talked about that). Let’s not hurt our defense with bad fouls or not moving the ball. When you have those kind of standards and you’re not the best, you’re always chasing it.”
Watching the Suns foul the Jazz 31 times on Monday and derailing the flow of the game in the fourth quarter, Williams became focused on being more disciplined defensively.
Not taking bad shots in isolation situations can help, but overall, Williams isn’t overcorrecting his players by telling them which shots to take and not take. Instead, limiting fouls and making the right pass are areas the team can control, so that’s the coach’s focus.
“Time, score and situation play into that equation, but I’m more concerned with the fouls,” Williams said.
The Suns responded on the road this week, with fouling Golden State 22 times and Memphis just 20 times. Against physical groups like the Sixers, Heat and Lakers, the Suns’ ability to play physically while not fouling will be vital.
Weathering the shooting storm
The Grizzlies pummeled the rim at home on Saturday despite losing to Phoenix, which finally helped scoot the Suns’ early-season defensive luck in the opposite direction. Still, the Suns are enjoying incredible fortune when it comes to opponents missing shots. Teams are shooting just 31 percent from deep against the Suns so far this year, the fifth-lowest in the NBA. Likewise, teams are making 61 percent of attempts at the rim, the ninth-best figure in the league.
That’s called getting very lucky.
When Baynes is not in the game, the Suns have no rim defense. They of course have done a good job on the perimeter preventing drives and are aggressive in the passing lanes to stop the ball before it enters the paint, but those numbers feel very dicey. There’s no obvious explanation for how opponents are missing so many shots at the basket right now, and it’s at the very least something to watch heading into the home stand.
When it comes to threes, the Suns will be facing two of the top five three-point shooting teams in the NBA over their next six, but otherwise don’t have to worry about dynamic offenses. Instead, guys like Embiid and Anthony Davis will occupy their attention. Maybe there will be shooting geyser over the next couple weeks, but seeing how the Suns handle bad shooting luck when it comes will tell us a lot about the true substance of their defense and how sustainable their early performance is.
Might as well throw a prediction out there
I’ll say that by the end of this stretch, the Suns fade closer to middle of the pack on defense, but they could see an offensive bump if non-Booker and Baynes players step up. That probably means they will bleed a little in terms of net rating, but will have a chance to win most of the next six games.
So, here: The Suns will beat Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta but lose to Philadelphia, the Lakers and Boston. Right now, I trust the guard defense and Baynes’ rim protection more than the wing and forward defense, so I think the Suns will have success against teams like the Nets and Hawks who are driven primarily by creation from one guard. Davis, Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum scare me more.