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5 things to watch as the Phoenix Suns try to turn their season around in the final months

What I’m looking for during the stretch run as the Suns face the possibility of ending up even worse than last year’s franchise lows.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

No one expected the avalanche of misfortune and inconsistency that has befallen the Suns through the first three quarters of this season. Yet the series of injuries, bizarre roster moves and scheduling screwballs that have made this season disappointing can also be seen as stepping stones eventually leading to a turnaround. Inconsistency has led the way all year, meaning that if the young Suns can overcome their unpredictable nature they could pop out of the 2018-19 season looking back fondly on how they grew as a team. It’s too late to salvage the year from a competitive standpoint but not too late to make progress.

Here are the areas of growth I’m looking for heading into the stretch run of 2019 in Phoenix:

Will better floor balance help the Suns take the right kinds of shots?

So far this year, the Suns have taken the 11th-most midrange shots compared with bottom-half frequency for at-rim attempts and threes. That needs to flip. Outside of Golden State, which is an impossible comparison when it comes to shooting efficiency, none of the top five offenses in the NBA is in the top half of the league in terms of the portion of its total field goal attempts that come from midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton both take 43 percent of their shots from that area, an inefficient option on most possessions.

However, it’s understandable they might settle for bad shots somewhat frequently considering the lack of floor spacing and secondary options within the offense. Point guard has seen a rotating door of players in their first year or their last; power forward has no players with the necessary size and length. The Suns’ real reason for optimism here for the last 20 games of the season is health.

With De’Anthony Melton and T.J. Warren expected to return on this road trip or shortly thereafter, the Suns soon will be at full health for the first time in a while. They also have two more capable rotation players now after trading for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson over the past two months. If the offense is ever going to click into place, it’s now, with the entire All-Star break to recuperate and several games worth of experience together to build chemistry.

Their two new additions will help space the floor and limit mistakes. Johnson shot 37.5 percent on over four catch-and-shoot threes per game last season in Miami while Oubre shot 34.5 percent on similar volume. Johnson has nearly twice as many assists as turnovers over the past two years with much of that time spent as a primary ballhandler while Oubre has been a productive member of elite offenses in the past.

With those guys are operating on all cylinders and the rest of the roster healthy, life will likely be easier on the court for Booker. Turnovers have been a problem for the young star this year -- he has the highest turnover percentage of his career — but improved spacing and decision-making by his teammates could help Booker cut down his mistakes as well.

If the presence of Johnson and Oubre plus Warren’s return to health can help the Suns space the floor, take more efficient shots and make life easier on Booker and Ayton, the last 20 games will be when we see it start to happen.

Not every offense needs to play like Daryl Morey’s Rockets but it’s the most surefire way to play an efficient style.

Is there any hope for the defense with a rookie center anchoring the unit?

If not for the Cavaliers willingly taking on even less talent than the Suns this season as they bottom out to begin a rebuild, Phoenix would be in the cellar once again defensively. They allow 114.5 points per 100 possessions in Cleaning the Glass’ version of defensive rating, which filters out garbage time. That is more than 10 points worse than Milwaukee, the top NBA defense.

While the Suns struggle to get to the rim on offense, they struggle vastly more protecting the basket on the other end, allowing opponents to take 41.1 percent of their total shots at the bucket and make nearly 65 percent of those shots. A lot of that falls on Ayton’s shoulders as the rookie adjusts to NBA floor spacing and physicality he didn’t have to deal with in the Pac-12. He is allowing opponents to shoot 63 percent within six feet of the basket and still carries a minuscule block rate, one of the defensive red flags that some pointed to when he was at school. Any progress made by the Suns on defense will start with Ayton’s recognition and reaction, which he has already gotten better at this season.

The other big factor will be whether the Suns can get back to creating turnovers consistently. Forcing opponents into mistakes is the only area in which the Suns have been able to control things on the defensive end this season and it was one of the biggest factors in mid-December when they unleashed the winning East Coast trip we all thought could turn the season around. Five of the Suns’ core rotation players sport a steal rate over 2.0, which displays the individual impact many guys have creating havoc for offenses.

The Suns don’t have a traditional defensive structure that limits scoring, because they play a rookie big man heavy minutes and their best player consistently gets attacked on that end, but they’ve shown in spurts this year what the recipe looks like to compete defensively with length and energy.

How much more will we see from Mikal Bridges?

The 10th pick in the 2019 draft is averaging 35.4 minutes per game in six contests this month, a massive uptick when you consider the rookie played just 16 seconds in an opening night victory over Dallas.

This season, the Suns’ defense allows nearly five fewer points per 100 possessions when Bridges is on the court, a difference that moves Phoenix from the 29th-ranked defense in the NBA to where Minnesota sits at 19. So, one would imagine that more Bridges is the answer to many of the Suns’ woes.

Indeed, Bridges has also picked up his 3-point shooting and is taking on more responsibility on offense. His role has slowly veered more toward the secondary playmaking role Trevor Ariza occupied early in the season, acting as one of the “three outlets” that open up (a weak side shooter for a ball reversal, the big man down low or a playmaker on the strong side to reset the offense and attack) within Kokoskov’s system. Bridges is dishing three assists per game so far in February, along with a 14.2 percent usage rate, taking nearly three extra shots per game than he did in January.

We still need to see more of Bridges in the Suns’ best lineups at full health. The Melton-Booker-Bridges-Warren-Ayton lineup has played 411 possessions together according to Cleaning the Glass but has had a rough go, allowing nearly 122 points per 100 possessions on defense despite the ability of Bridges and Melton to create turnovers. However, that same lineup with Oubre in Warren’s place has played just 16 possessions. That needs to pick up as the Suns approach a free agency decision on Oubre and start to think about what type of frontcourt pairing makes the most sense for both Bridges and Ayton long-term.

Which brings us to our second to last question:

Is Kelly Oubre Jr. starting the long-term answer

Despite injuries to Ayton, Melton, Warren and Booker intermittently over the course of Oubre’s two months with the Suns, the young wing just started his first game for the Suns in Cleveland. Intuitively, this holds up — over the course of the past two seasons, including the 2016-17 season in which Washington put together the NBA’s seventh-best offense, Oubre has been more efficient as a reserve.

The disparity was most stark last season. Oubre, in 70 games off the bench, handled 21 percent of the Wizards’ possessions while he played and put up a .403/.337/.809 shooting split compared with just a 14.5 percent usage rate as a starter when he made just 39 percent of his field goals. In seven starts with the Wizards before being traded this season, Oubre posted a grotesque 45.2 true shooting percentage. Altogether, Oubre has been unable over the course of his career to keep the efficiency where it needs to be playing more minutes in the starting unit.

Perhaps that colors how the Suns have viewed him this year. Kokoskov and his staff have started the likes of Elie Okobo and Dragan Bender instead of Oubre despite the latter’s impending free agency and the strong likelihood that wing-needy teams sniff around Oubre with a rich offer sheet.

Considering the Suns’ abundant talent on the wing, the team may not view Oubre as a starter. Many of his best games have come as a spark-plug scorer who does most of his damage at the rim, at the line and from deep (which we just acknowledged the Suns need more of). Without many other creators on the roster, Oubre’s ability to pick up the scoring slack when Booker is out of the game is valuable. But as with Bridges, it’s important to see how Oubre fits with the best players on this team and how his ability as a weak-side rim protector, microwave scorer and flamboyant ball of energy meshes with the team’s core.

Oubre scored 23 points on 16 shot attempts on Thursday in Cleveland, maintaining efficiency and defensive impact over a game-high 41 minutes in a performance that had to instill optimism within the team.

Which Josh Jackson will we see as he finishes out his second season?

What Jackson did on offense to close out the 2018-19 season was enough to keep optimism up within the franchise heading into year two and earn Jackson a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team. The truth, however, is that the numbers Jackson put up were more a product of increased opportunity than any newfound efficiency. In fact, January was actually Jackson’s best month as a rookie, with a 27.7 percent usage rate and 52.4 true shooting percentage, buoyed by a shocking 15-47 mark from 3-point range.

Turning the page to 2019, Jackson is in the middle of another nice (albeit longer) stretch from distance, shooting 31.4 percent over his last 37 games. That is helping open up the rest of his game. While the Suns have lost their past 15 games, Jackson has shot 57.3 percent in the restricted area, or three percentage points better than his season average. He also has more assists than turnovers since the start of 2019. The many problems he has struggled through on offense are dissolving slowly despite injuries and inconsistency from his teammates. Jackson is taking advantage of opportunity just like he did to close out his rookie campaign.

Now, a new challenge enters Jackson’s sights: How to stay aggressive and maintain efficiency with the roster nearing full health, and the likes of Bridges and Ayton playing better.

Forget where he was picked in the draft: Jackson’s limitations on offense mean he is more suited to be a role player at this point in his career anyway. The fact his defense has translated so quickly will help him stay on the court and impact the game as his shot and decision-making continue to progress.

Devin Booker told the media upon his return in January that he had a conversation with Jackson about staying aggressive even when Booker himself is on the court. So, much of what Phoenix does is designed around Booker’s playmaking and shot creation but a confident, aggressive Jackson will help the Suns much more than Booker trying to do it all.

The opponents left on the schedule for the Suns have a combined winning percentage of just .460, according to Tankathon, which gives the team a real shot at finishing the season strong.

The winter has been a tough ride as injuries tore through the roster but several young players appear ready to turn the corner. Oubre and Johnson give the Suns two more focused role players than they had even two months ago.

Kokoskov has a roster more suited to what he wants to do and remember, the Suns aren’t actively trying to tank like some other franchises — at least not right now.

Last spring, Suns fans were watching the reverse standings and debating Ayton vs. Doncic. This year, the focus is far more on the present — it’s time for this young roster to show it’s worth keeping relatively intact heading into yet another important summer of transactions.

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