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Who’s better: Phoenix Suns or Oklahoma City Thunder?

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Next up in the season preview series, we compare the Suns to the Thunder with the help of WelcomeToLoudCity.com.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s continue our season preview series for the 2019-20 Phoenix Suns!

This series will explore how the Suns are seen by their Western Conference (possibly lottery bound) counterparts. I know Suns fans are all over the board on how the team matches up to the rest of the West — some of you are real high on the team, and some are real low.

So, let’s see how the Suns are seen by bloggers who don’t follow them, but are huge NBA fans in their own way.

Today, we exchange thoughts with Ben Mertens of our SB Nation team site WelcometoLoudCity.com

We compare our teams in terms of playmakers, wings and bigs.

To be fair, I always list Booker in both the wing and playmaker categories because he IS both to the Suns. I share the opposing team comps with the other blog, and allow them to make adjustments as well.

PLAYMAKERS

  • Suns: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Tyler Johnson, Ty Jerome (R), Elie Okobo, Jevon Carter
  • Thunder: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder

First, Ben’s turn:

There’s a weird sort of symmetry between these teams 3 main guards: the veteran, pass first guard (CP3& Rubio), the young budding star (Booker and SGA) and the average but overpaid third guard (Schroder and Tyler Johson).

I think even in his advanced age, you have to give Paul the edge over Rubio, both in pure talent, but both make a fine fit with their younger counterparts. Paul is a maestro who can be ball dominant, but he’s also a knockdown shooter off the ball who can space the floor when SGA runs the show. Rubio can’t do the same for Booker, but I think Booker is in general at his best off the ball, provided there’s a legitimate point guard who can actually get him in the ball in good spots with consistency (that’s been one of Phoenix’s major issues the last couple seasons). Rubio, a genius passer and willing distributor, should be the best backcourt mate Booker has had in a few years. CP3 brings far more of a pedigree, but Rubio should be make a nice fit next to Booker.

It will take a few years to see who ultimately hits the highest level between Gilgeous-Alexander and Booker, but it shouldn’t be much of a contest this year. Thunder fans are hoping for Shai to build on an impressive rookie season and show growth as a scorer and playmaker under CP3’s tutelage. Suns fans are hoping Booker makes the all-star team. The best case scenario version of SGA- a big, long guard who can shoot, play on or off the ball, and defend multiple positions - might be better than Booker, but SGA isn’t close to being there yet and doesn’t figure to get there this year.

Dennis Schroder is maybe the most average point guard in the NBA. Can he score? Yes, but not super efficiently. Can he pass? Yes, but he won’t wow you. Can he defend? Eh, he tries. Honestly, the best thing you can say about him is he’s now the best German player in the NBA with Dirk’s retirement. That makes him a better player than Tyler Johnson, but the Thunder are also stuck with Big D’s contract for another year after this one, while Johnson expires at the end of the season.

Overall: If you count Booker as a playmaker, it’s a toss-up. He is probably the best overall player of the bunch, depending how much of a drop CP3 experiences. If you count him as a wing, then the Thunder’s group of playmakers has a comfortable edge.

ADVANTAGE: TOSS UP

I agree with Ben on the weird symmetry (vet passer, young stud, so-so third guy).

I think the Suns have to count Booker as a playmaker. Booker was 11th in the entire NBA last year in assist percent at 34.1% of his passes resulting in assists. He averaged 6.8 assists per game last year (19th among all players in the NBA) and 12.6 potential assists (14th among all players). That means almost as many of his scoring passes resulted in missed shots as made ones, not surprising considering he was on the worst shooting team in the NBA last year.

Right behind Booker is Ricky Rubio, who ranked 15th overall in assist percent last year (32.1 percent). Rubio will start games as the primary playmaker for the Suns, but Booker and Rubio will very likely share the playmaking duties all game long as a function of how the opposing defense is playing them. Behind those two is most likely rookie Ty Jerome or veteran Tyler Johnson.

Rubio and new Thunder starter Chris Paul are likely about equal these days on defense, both good on-ball and absolute snipers in passing lanes.

On the Thunder’s side of playmaking, Chris Paul finished in 6th in the whole league in the assist-percent category at a whopping 39.3 percent and understandably has to rank as the best overall playmaker between the teams.

But behind Paul are second-year playmaker Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (17.8 AST%) and Dennis Schroder (20.4%), hovering around the Suns third-level playmaker in Tyler Johnson and his 18.6% mark. Ty Jerome jumps into this mix from national champ Virginia, and he just might beat out Johnson as the third playmaker on the team.

If you add shooting to the mix, Chris Paul is definitely a knock-down shooter but the Suns can expect Booker to help in that area on a high level.

Let’s talk about SGA a bit. The young stud projects as a good shooter (37 percent on threes as a rookie with the Clippers) as well as a very good defensive player and all-around NBA guard. Could SGA eventually become better than the Suns’ Devin Booker? The Thunder would like to think so, and who knows maybe that could happen. But not this year.

In terms of playmakers in 2019-20, the Suns have to get the edge with Booker, Rubio and Johnson/Jerome over the group of Paul, SGA and Schroder.

ADVANTAGE: (barely) SUNS


WINGS

  • Suns: Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson (R)
  • Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andre Roberson, Danilo Gallinari, Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley (R), Abdel Nader

Booker is the biggest name of this bunch, but I’ll take this opportunity to gush about Danilo Gallinari, who was a near all-star himself last year, putting up 20 points per game on highly efficient shooting as the number 1 option on a team that went to the playoffs. A repeat performance is contingent on health, which is where things get dicey; gallo’s 68 games last year were his most in a season since 2010.

Even if Gallo stays healthy, he’s now on the wrong side of 30 while Booker is still on the rise. Even Booker skeptics should expect him to be at least a little better this year than last, and Gallo a little worse. We can safely project him as the best wing on either team.

After the top 2, you have 2 young players who are trying to become the next big 3 and D wing. Beyond the bigger names like Booker, SGA and Ayton, the development of T-Ferg and Bridges is sneakily very important for both their respective teams; you need smart, tough defenders who are low sage on offense but can nail a 3 when you need them to win at the highest levels, and even if these teams won’t be in that conversation this year, the ultimate goal for both is to return to that level. Bridges and Ferguson are the guys to watch there.

After that, Kelly Oubre is a flawed player who can flourish in the off the bench role the Suns used him in last year. Warts and all, Oubre is a gunner who can be the chief bucket getter when Booker rests, and has enough other skill to complement Booker for portions of the game as well. At his best, I might’ve argued Andre Roberson was more valuable than Oubre in the right team setting, but Roberson is 18 months removed from actually playing in a basketball game, and may never be the all-world defender he once was.

Overall: The Suns have the big edge on offense- only gallo has any real firepower for OKC. Defensively, especially since SGA will primarily guard wings, I’d give OKC the edge.

ADVANTAGE: TOSS UP

I think Ben has done a great job of breaking this down.

The only thing I might add is that I think Booker and Gallo would cancel each other out on defense this year — though Booker might have a larger negative impact simply based on having more playing time.

The other defensive comparison is Bridges/Oubre to Ferguson and SGA, who will be the primary defender on bigger guards for the Thunder while Ferguson will rotate between the guards and small forwards. I think these guys are a net-neutral defensively more than Ben thinks.

So if you give offense to the Suns and call the defense anything resembling to a wash, then the overall advantage needs to go to the Suns.

ADVANTAGE: SUNS


BIGS

  • Suns: Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky, Cheick Diallo
  • Thunder: Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Nerlens Noel, Mike Muscala

I realize I risk being burned to a crisp here in the Valley of the Sun for this take, but Steven Adams is the best center of this group, and figures to be for another season.

A good defensive center is more valuable than a good offensive center in the NBA. It’s very hard to build a great defense without at least average defense from your center, while you can have an elite offense without much scoring punch from your center. Ayton is far out of Adams’ league as a scorer, but I need to see continued defensive improvement from him this year. As I see it, if Ayton is the same guy on offense but way better on defense, the Suns will see big improvement; if he’s the same on defense they’ll continue to struggle even if his offense takes a jump.

Speaking of a jump, I think you can expect to see a leap in counting stats for Adams this year; Adams primarily focuses on the art of the boxout over actually securing the board himself when rebounding, often leaving Russell Westbrook to actually get the rebound. There were legitimate strategic reasons for that (Russ can immediately start fastbreaking) beyond the vulgar stat chasing that critics alleged, but regardless, the team probably won’t seek to do that anymore with CP3 and SGA as the primary ballhandlers. Expect Adams to haul in more defensive boards as a result, and maybe put up a few more points with CP3 diming him up.

Beyond Adams though, the Suns have the edge. Nerlens Noel played his role well last year, but Baynes is the far superior backup center and enforcer, and Dario Saric is out of Mike Muscala’s league as a stretch big. Actually, frank Kaminsky’s probably out of Muscala’s league too.

Overall: I think Adams is the best player of this group by a comfortable margin, even if Ayton obviously projects to one day be better than him. After that, though, you have to give the edge to Phoenix’s more versatile group of bigs (I’m counting Gallo as a wing because of his playstyle, even if he is nominally a 4). The edge goes to Phoenix here.

ADVANTAGE: SUNS

Once again, Ben does a great job here breaking it all down.

I don’t need think I can add anything of value. He’s absolutely right that an Ayton with the same defense but better offense is probably not much more of a difference-maker than last year. It’s Ayton’s improvement on defense that could swing the Suns’ overall D up in the standings, and without that the Suns will struggle on defense.

Can the Suns win more games than the Thunder with a 15th-ish offense and 28th-ish defense? Probably not.

Also, I have always really really loved Steven Adams and I can’t even make myself pretend Ayton will have a bigger impact on winning than Adams and his All-NBA defensive skills at protecting the paint and the rim.

Even though the Suns have better depth among the bigs (i.e. Baynes and Saric > Noel and Muscala, I’m gong to give this one to the Thunder just because of Adams.

ADVANTAGE: THUNDER


What do you think, Suns fans? Who’s the better overall team?

Did you like this preview? Check out the others in the series: