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Suns are playing like they have no idea what will work

Throughout the year we’ve seen flashes of what can work but the Suns are playing like they forgot about all that.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

After a week off to contemplate, ruminate, and grind their gears on their franchise-worst 15-game losing streak — FIFTEEN GAMES — and franchise-worst 11-48 start to the season, the Phoenix Suns had an opportunity to stoke a new fire, to show their pride in the game, in themselves and in each other.

I mean, after sitting around for a week, wouldn’t you be all about it?

The coach was ready to see his players refocus.

“We needed this emotionally and physically,” rookie head coach Igor Kokoskov said on Wednesday after their first practice back from the break. “Mentally just to escape and come back and regroup ourselves.”

Ayton, the top pick in the 2018 Draft, talked about the losing on NBA TV this week. “Losing is not the way I go,” Ayton said. “I’m definitely not going to get used to it.”

Star guard Devin Booker went a step further.

“Win every quarter, win every possession,” Devin Booker said after practice on Wednesday. “We’re trying to get something out of it, we’re trying to build for next year, trying to build for five years to come.”

Are those stoke-the-fire words from Booker, Kokoskov and Ayton?

Not exactly. More like “play the long game.”

You can blame the coach for a lot of things, but it’s hard to blame him for changing up the starting lineup, one that most often had 22-year old rookie Mikal Bridges as the elder statesman along three rookies, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson.

On Thursday against the Cavaliers, he finally started Kelly Oubre Jr., the fourth year pro acquired in December and one of the oldest players on the roster (23 years old). Oubre has been averaging 18 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals per game this month off the bench.

To start Oubre, the coach had to bench one of the kids: Either Bridges or second-year pro Josh Jackson. He decided to bench the team’s best two-way starter, Mikal Bridges, who has been posting 11.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.2 steals per game this month.

Kokoskov benched Bridges in order to keep Josh Jackson in his starting role at “power forward.” Jackson has been posting 20 points on 51% shooting, 4 rebounds and 3 assists this month, so he has an argument to remain a starter and is probably the only 6’8”, 200-pound player in the league who won’t back down from challenge of guarding guys often 50 pounds bigger than him.

At point guard, Kokoskov continued starting new acquisition Tyler Johnson, rather than re-inserting De’Anthony Melton (ankle, missed nine games) into the lineup. Neither has been great, but Melton showed in a G League warmup on Wednesday he’s got his burst back and has been the Suns’ most successful point guard this year, while Johnson has been a real dud.

The lineup change didn’t quite spark anything. Sure, the Suns won the first quarter (28-23), but the whole lineup looked hesitant and the rest of the game went downhill from there.

The usual patterns continued to show themselves:

  • The team plays more deliberately with Devin Booker in the lineup. Booker himself finished with 30 points and 7 assists, but he made only six of his first 15 shots and committed 9 turnovers.
  • Each point guard (Melton, Okobo, Crawford, Johnson) continues to defer in excess, passing off the ball very early in the shot clock, expecting Booker to make all the difficult reads and passes. Tyler Johnson has been especially disappointing (6-33 from the field since being acquired) after being hoped for as a stabilizing force.
  • Ayton got 11 first half points (including 4-6 free throws), but had only two second half points (1-4 from the field, 0 free throws) as the Suns got rolled.
  • Ayton lacked aggression all night, finishing the night with 0 blocks and 0 personal fouls, clearing the way for the Cavaliers plus-14 points in the paint and plus-13 on rebounds.
  • A manageable game slipped away in the fourth quarter, ballooning from a mere 7-point deficit to 18 in the blink of a few made threes.

In all, the 12-47 Cavaliers scored on 10 straight possessions in the fourth to seal the win.

It’s a pattern.

And it’s a bad, bad pattern.

Harkening back to my called shot the other day, I’ll point out that I only called for the Suns to win one of these three road games out of the break. Now, they have two chances left to keep my prophesy alive, which would lead them to 18-20 wins on the season.

How will they ever win again?

Here’s my suggestion: Stop trying to execute slowly and with purpose. That’s failed with this team.

To have a chance to win games, this team needs to go back to their balls-out mentality to fight fight fight on every possession and see what happens. Fly around, disrupt passing lanes, switch like crazy, hope like hell it works.

Since they don’t seem to know how to score consistently in the half-court besides just going iso-Book, they’ve got to get steals and get out in transition as much as humanly possible.

Make the game a frenetic whirlwind of activity. Get Bridges, Oubre and Jackson on the court at the same time more often, with either Ayton or Richaun Holmes at center, and then whoever is the most engaged among Booker, Melton and Johnson. Who knows when T.J. Warren is coming back. When he does, he fits with the latter group.

Of course, you can’t play the energy guys for 48 minutes each. I’m suggesting the Oubre, Jackson, Bridges trio shares the court for 20 a night, with Melton or Holmes as the fourth. If you play them any longer together, the other team will dominate the boards and paint scoring too much. It has to be short bursts of effort before the other team answers by getting big, feeding the post and winning in the paint.

The rest of the game can be more traditional mixing and matching. And whoever’s playing well, keep them out there.

There is no magic bullet with this team.

Devin Booker seems shell-shocked by the losing. Deandre Ayton seems shell-shocked by the grind of the NBA season, not helped by the constant losing. Bridges, Oubre and Jackson can’t win games on their own. No one seems to know HOW to win a game.

  • The coach is a rookie.
  • 40% of the rotation players are rookies
  • 60% of the starting lineup has been rookies on most nights
  • Their best power forward barely cracks 200 pounds, which means they have no power forward
  • Their top scorers have been taking turns missing games all year (Booker and Warren)
  • Their point guards are shooting 36% from the field
  • Their point guards are averaging 3 assists per game
  • Their best shooter can’t shoot this year, outside the midrange
  • Their M.O. is well-known leaguewide. No matter what happens in the opening 2-3 quarters, just go on a run in the second half and they’ll fold. Opponents are waiting for it. We’re all waiting for it. And when it happens, you can see the Suns’ shoulders slump.

The least they can do is show effort every minute, but with that cadre of bullet points, it’s easy to see why they know before opening tip how the game is gonna go, just like we do.

But this isn’t the fault of the guys on the court. They’re out-talented nearly every single night. They just don’t have the same skill-level as the rest of the NBA. Maybe three or four years from now they will, but not now.

This whole article is basically a finger-pointing at the front office and ownership. No reasonable person would expect THIS roster, lacking a real point guard and real power forward and playing kids everywhere, to be any better than another NBA team.

So it’s the roster-builders’ fault.

And since it’s the owner who hired the front office he fired at the beginning of the season, and it’s the owner who didn’t replace any of the people he fired, thus throwing away another entire season, then the blame goes to the owner.

Robert Sarver, back in 2004, you inherited a team ready to be a a contender for the next half-decade. Your honeymoon was already booked and catered. All you had to do was show up. The Suns made the Western Conference Finals three out of six years, all with guys signed/acquired by the Colangelos.

But when the party ended, and it was all on your shoulders to continue the good times, you failed. Since that core left, the Suns have been the laughingstock of the NBA. And every year is somehow more embarrassing than the next.

At least you have your $150 million in your back pocket to clean and remodel the house, and a $1.5 billion valuation on a team you bought for a third of that.

Now, maybe it’s time to decide just how much you care about winning games on the court, instead of at City Hall and the financial market.

If you really care about basketball, hire people who have proven themselves already. Hire veteran front office people. Hire a veteran coach. And then step back and let them do their jobs.