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Health, player development keys to Suns’ surge into competitiveness

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The Suns have become a real NBA team over the past two weeks. We delve into the why.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Suns traded for Kelly Oubre Jr. in mid-December, they have experienced three distinct stretches of play.

Early hope from the Oubre acquisition was killed by injuries and a killer schedule, but now the Suns could be rising again.

What have been the keys to the Suns recent resurgence of four wins in their last six games, including a win over the East-leading Bucks?

Health

With such a thin, inexperienced roster, any kind of injury can derail progress. You can see by these three stretches of the season since mid-December that when the Suns top 8-9 players are available, they can compete with most any team in the league.

Players in red denote that they suffered an injury, while the numbers in parentheses indicate if they played fewer than the maximum possible games in that stretch.

The Suns have figured out how to win without T.J. Warren, probably because it’s been such an extended absence that his missing-ness is now the norm.

But when you’re periodically out 1-3 more players as well, the holes in the dam begin to leak like the Titanic. Only three of Igor’s top nine players were available every game during that disastrous 26-game stretch, forcing the coaching staff and players to adjust their roles and expectations on a nightly basis.

An established, veteran team can withstand injuries. Even a learning team, like the Suns, can withstand long-term injuries (Warren) because they are consistent. But in-out-in-out availability is tough to manage.

In Warren’s case, the Suns used Ryan Anderson’s corpse to plug in Tyler Johnson at point guard and shift the other guys “down” a position. It took about two weeks to get everyone settled, but now they appear much more comfortable in their roles. That’s really the only rotational change among the top 8-9 players. Yes, we are seeing Dragan Bender and Troy Daniels more, at the expense of some of De’Anthony Melton and the leftover Warren minutes, but that’s just shuffling the backup rotation.

The biggest difference is simply health, which breeds consistency. Give the coaching staff and players enough time with a functional roster (including a non-rookie playing point guard), and you see what happens.

Player development

What also comes of health and consistent roles? Positive player development!

It’s hard to get better as a player if your role is constantly changing. This season, due to other players’ injuries or ineffectiveness, Josh Jackson has been the backup small forward, then the starting shooting guard, then backup point guard, then back to backup small forward, then starting shooting guard again, then backup shooting guard and backup small forward, then starting shooting guard, then starting small forward, then starting power forward and now back to backup small/power forward/shooting guard.

Phew.

If you think that’s not very difficult, you’re likely very wrong. The five guys on the court can’t all be doing the same thing, using the same space, defending the same opposing players. Which means Josh has to change his game based on the role he’s playing that night, and he has to do with a millisecond to decide each move. Shooting guards defend the smaller quicker players, get the ball on the perimeter, are expecting to catch and shoot and linger around the arc, and make good passes into the paint. Power forwards are supposed to defend much bigger guys, box out, get underneath for rebounds, rotate to help defend the rim, help to stop dribble drives and on the other end they’re supposed to stay off the three point line because there’s already 2-3 other guys doing that and you’re probably in their way if you do it too.

So Josh Jackson has basically taken one on the chin this year for the team, and it’s not surprising he hasn’t developed into a star. Every night, he’s playing a different one of those handful of roles, depending on who else is on the court with him.

So has Devin Booker, to an extent. He hasn’t taken on as many different roles as Jackson, but Booker has had to shift off his top-10-shooting-guard role a number of times to become a starting or backup point guard. No wonder he’s been playing inconsistently, getting worn down and nicked up all year.

And so too has T.J. Warren. A career small forward, Warren had to become the team’s backup power forward and then the starting power forward, defending guys 30-40 pounds bigger than him and always longer than him, boxing out, helping at the rim, trying to rebound, all while not losing his Buckets game on the other end. Now he’s injured (ankle).

You can even count Jamal Crawford in here. JC has vacillated between point guard and shooting guard, depending on the lineup. At 38, he’s playing more point guard this year than any time in the last 15 years. His assist percentage hasn’t been this high since the 2003-04 season when he was 23 years old. No wonder he’s had a tough season on the court, and has experienced some nagging injuries.

Meanwhile, coach Igor Kokoskov has done a good job limiting the roles of his rookies and mid-season acquisitions. Rookies Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo have been afforded the chance to just play limited roles, and keep those roles consistently all season.

Clearly, Ayton and Bridges are more ready for big minutes, and they have developed throughout the season to become more effective each month.

While Igor has moved Warren and Jackson into the “power forward” role, he hasn’t done the same to Ayton or Bridges. Ayton has been clearly a center, and only a center, all season. Same role every night. Bridges has been clearly a small forward, and only a small forward, all season. The demands on each might be growing steadily, but it’s all within the same position on the floor.

And we are seeing the fruits of those planted seeds.

Bridges has recently added more assists to his wing-defense/occasional-three/rare-drive arsenal. No, he’s not suddenly a point guard or playmaker, but he’s taken better use of his opportunities when he touches the ball. And Igor hasn’t jumped at that and said “hey, let’s put the ball in his hands at the top of the key!”. He’s protecting Bridges from failure as a result. He hasn’t forced Bridges into power forward either. You never see Bridges defending a big man in the paint by design (only happens on switches, and only when the Suns don’t get the switch they want).

Ayton has added more aggressiveness and physicality recently to his game. Ayton is instinctive in many ways, but if you’re asking him to do something that doesn’t come natural, he needs to know everything about it before he does it. In that regard, it’s easier to ask Ayton to defend LeBron James and Giannis in space than to ask him to bang his way into a dozen free throws a night.

Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson have both been asked to excel within limited roles. While Oubre isn’t a natural “big man” and Johnson is a natural point guard, they know what’s expected of them every single night so they can prepare and deliver to the best of their abilities. Oubre is asked to play starting small forward and backup power forward. Some nights he’s better at the latter than others, but he always tries hard and is getting more consistent with that second role.

Johnson is no point guard, but Igor is giving him consistent minutes, lineups and expectations every night to make it easier in that role. Johnson has 47 assists against only 10 turnovers in 11 games since joining the team. That’s allowed Devin Booker to shift much more often back to his natural shooting guard role, and it’s no wonder he recently said this is the healthiest he’s felt all year.

What does all this mean?

Well, the obvious answer is that if everyone is healthy and allowed to play their natural basketball roles, this roster can win some games.

It also means that early judgments on Igor Kokoskov’s coaching abilities have to be tempered against what he’s had to work with.

Sure, every coach deals with injuries. But does every coach deal with injuries AND no natural point guard or power forward AND much of the season with all five starters age 22 or younger AND did I mention his best point guard is Tyler Johnson AND did I mention four rookies getting playing time?

Let’s see how the rest of the season shakes out. If the Suns can keep more than half their rotation healthy every night, especially Oubre and Johnson as the “veterans” in the lineup, we just might see them approach the 20 wins I predicted before it’s all said and done.

Just don’t bury them if they lose four straight games this week. Portland kills the Suns, so do Golden State, Utah and Houston. If the Suns win ANY of these games, you should rejoice.

After that, it gets easier: Pelicans, Bulls, Pistons and Kings. That’s when we’ll see how sustainable the newfound consistency is.