The Phoenix Suns’ best two individual talents are at shooting guard and center, but they do not seem to make each other better.
Devin Booker is the 25-point-per-night shooting guard who has valiantly transformed himself into a lead ball handler this year to fill a glaring hole on the Suns’ roster. Ayton is a raw but super-talented big man with great hands for catching passes and rare finishing talent around the rim. Should be easy point creation opportunities for the two of them, right?
Not exactly. Booker only generates three shots a night for Ayton.
While Booker is a top-16 NBA player in assists (6.7), potential assists (12.5) and touches per game, he is only 44th in giving up the rock (45.9). I guess you could say that means he gets the most bang for his buck when he does pass the ball, but that also means he’s more likely than a point guard to force the issue himself. Booker is 11th among all NBA players in field goal attempts per game (18.9) and 3rd in turnovers per game (4.0, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook).
To recap, Booker always makes something happen with the ball, good or bad, but doesn’t give up the ball as much as a real point guard once he gets it.
Of course, he’s not a real point guard and we need to give him credit for being really good at setting up teammates anyway. The only non-point-guards with more “potential” assists per game than Booker this season — passes that led to a teammate’s shot attempt, made or not — are LeBron James, Ben Simmons and James Harden.
Booker is also third in the league — THIRD — in fourth quarter assists, with 2.0 per game, behind only Russell Westbrook and John Wall. Both are point guards, meaning Booker leads the entire league in fourth quarter assists by non-point guards.
He’s a shooting guard who has made himself into the closest semblance of a point guard that he can be. But of course he is not without flaws. In his first year as a lead guard in the Suns’ offense, Booker is much more likely to pass inside out (drive, then kick back out to the three point line) than outside in.
Only about 20 percent of Booker’s passes this season go to big men in Ayton and Richaun Holmes. Part of that is just math — Ayton and Holmes only represent 20 percent of Booker’s potential targets. Most of the rest go to scoring guards, usually beyond the three-point line, who either hoist a three or attack on a drive. Few of Booker’s passes actually go back to the “point guard” in the lineup. None of the team’s point guards have gotten more than 2.6 passes a night from Booker this season (and that was Isaiah Canaan, back when Igor was still in “blender” mode) despite him touching the ball on nearly every possession and rarely playing without a point guard next to him.
Which is fine. As I wrote above, Booker is good with the ball.
So, if Booker is going to make something happen every time he touches it, he might as well try to make that happen with the guy most likely to land the plane. Booker’s most frequent money-man this season is Ayton with 1.5 of Booker’s 7.4 assists per night.
But shouldn’t that be higher? Shouldn’t Booker be getting Ayton more than three shot attempts (3.6 points) per game?
Seems like if you’re going to create a successful offense around a creative lead guard and a scoring big man, they ought to create more points together each game than 3.6. Why waste your time with 40 percent shooters when you can get the ball to a 60 percent shooter?
Let’s take a look at the league’s best small-man/big-man scoring duos, and how they feed each other.
Westbrook to Adams
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the league’s best franchises for almost a decade now, and point guard Russell Westbrook has been posting 10-plus assists for most of that time period.
Westbrook sets up big center Steven Adams for 5.7 shot attempts per game (good for 2.5 assists). Sounds more like it right? If Booker could funnel his three more scoring passes to Ayton each night rather than an iffy guard, the Suns offense would be more efficient and Ayton would be closer to that 20-points-per-night scorer he should be. And this is with Westbrook still feeding the beast named Paul George even more often than Adams.
But it’s instructive to note that just as recently as three seasons ago, Westbrook and Adams were not as simpatico. In the 2015-16 season, Westbrook only got Adams three shots per night, and only 2.3 shots per night the year before that. It takes years, sometimes, for players to get the most out of each other.
Wall to Gortat
Another of the league’s leading assist men, John Wall has averaged nearly 10 assists per game for several years. His best big man has been Marcin Gortat, who profiled as one of the very best pick-and-roll finishers in the game in his prime. In fact, if you want to look at a comp for Deandre Ayton, offensively, you might want to recall the days of Gortat’s prime.
Yet, Wall never generated more than 4.5 shots per night for Gortat, for more than 2.4 assists. His most frequent pass receivers have always been Bradley Beal, Otto Porter or Paul Pierce.
Nash to Gortat?
I suppose the best assist man that Gortat ever had was Steve Nash, when the Polish product was a blossoming center acquired at the tail end of Nash’s career in Phoenix. With Nash, Gortat became one of the best pick and roll finishers in the game.
Unfortunately, the nba.com/stats tracking tool doesn’t go that far back, so we can’t get a read on exactly how many of Nash’s assists went to Gortat in 2010-11 and 2011-12. But we do know that the 27-year old Gortat led the team with about five shots per game in the restricted area, 86 percent of them assisted.
Even giving all those assists to Nash means one of the best assist men in league history, on a team bereft of scoring talent (Jared Dudley was their second leading scorer that year at 12.5 per game!), couldn’t generate more than about five shot attempts for his big man at the rim.
Nash to Stoudemire?
Now we’re talking. Again, we don’t have tracking stats that far back, but you’d have to assume that the best passer of a generation got a ton of shot attempts at the rim for one of the best roll men ever to play the game right?
In their first year together, when the Suns ran over the league to a 62-20 record, you have to assume Nash got Stoudemire more than half his 16.7 shot attempts a game, right? That’s more like it. Booker should be getting Ayton 5-10 shot attempts per game, for chrissake.
Stoudemire was assisted on 60 percent of his shots that year (about 10 per game) and Nash accounted for 45 percent of the team’s assists (11.5 of 23.5)...hmmm, that still only adds up to maybe 5-6 assisted shot attempts per game coming from Nash, at best.
Nash had a lot of other weapons, though, including the incredibly effective Shawn Marion, who was always in the right place at the right time, and Joe Johnson who made 48 percent of his threes that year.
The truth is that Nash COULD have gotten Amare the ball 7-10 times per game, but then the Suns would have become too predictable and defenses would have just packed the paint to deny Amare his scoring opportunities.
Can you imagine a 22 year old Amare having to catch-and-problem-solve rather than catch-and-finish?
Boiling it down — Booker to Ayton
Ayton is not getting enough touches in the paint. And most of those touches appear to be in the first half of games.
So get Ayton the damn ball!
Part of the problem is Ayton, part is Booker and part is the lack of any other point guard in the lineup who can feed the beast.
But even the best passers in the game don’t get their big man more than 5-6 shots a night (Booker gets Ayton three per night). They will improve, but likely not until next year or the year after.
And who else on this roster is going to get Ayton more consistent touches than Booker? Even some of the best pick and roll finishers in the league (Stoudemire and Gortat) didn’t get more than 5-6 scoring passes a night from one of the best point guards in league history (Nash).
Booker to Ayton will get better. This year is one of learning.
The current version of Ayton doesn’t like contact, and is not comfortable with the ball in his hands for longer than a second or two. 70 percent of his shot attempts come within 2 seconds of touching the ball, with zero dribbles, but only 17 percent of his attempts are with “tight coverage” (defender within 0-2 feet). If he doesn’t shoot, he passes out quickly.
Once he gets better at taking contact, Booker and Ayton will get their fair share of scoring plays together. But expecting more than 2-3 additional hook-ups a night is unlikely, even in the best of circumstances.
Maybe the Suns should just get a real point guard and see what happens then.