The Phoenix Suns began the season with such promise and, more importantly, a clear rotational plan.
Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes would share the center minutes, with Ayton getting about 30 of the 48 available minutes. Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky, with cameos from Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. would share the 48 power forward minutes with Saric getting the bulk. Bridges and Oubre would share the 48 small forward minutes, with cameos from rookie Cameron Johnson. Devin Booker would get as many minutes as he wanted as the shooting guard, with the leftovers going to Tyler Johnson and maybe a little Bridges/Oubre/Cam. And Ricky Rubio would get the majority of point guard minutes, with stints from rookie Ty Jerome and veteran Tyler Johnson.
But then came the 25-game suspension to Deandre Ayton on the heels of Cam and Ty’s late preseason injuries.
The Suns withstood those losses initially, thanks to a career-best month from Aron Baynes, a better-than-expected Frank Kaminsky and a good week or so from Jevon Carter. After a month, the Suns were 7-4 and the toast of the town as well as the NBA even with Ayton and Jerome still out.
But then backup point guard play regressed badly. Ty Jerome had a disastrous debut in a backup role at point guard. Jevon Carter stopped making shots. Elie Okobo looked okay but kept drawing the ire of coach Williams for play-making on offense and poor rotations on defense. And more injuries hit. Ricky’s back twinged for 4+ games. Baynes’ hip flexed out for 9 games. Still, they treaded water and remained a respectable 11-12 after 23 games.
But then Devin Booker went down with that forearm/wrist injury, and we all got to see just how dependent this team is on Booker being Booker. He was hurting in the game-24 loss to Memphis, then missed the next three games all losses, then came back too early and struggled through three more bad games until finally getting healthy again.
At the same time, the Suns were dealing with the return of Deandre Ayton from suspension. Initially, it was Aron Baynes preemptively returning to a bench role (behind Frank) to get used to playing with the second unit. Then Ayton promptly sprained an ankle in his return and missed another five games.
The combination of Booker’s injury, Ayton’s status and everyone else’s regressive play contributed to a season-killing 8-game losing streak that left the Suns looking up at most of the rest of the conference at 11-20.
Even their recent 3-3 stretch with a mostly-healthy roster (Frank Kaminsky is now out) was marred by weirdness. This time the weirdness was in the rotational decisions being made by head coach Monty Williams.
He’s got all four backup point guards auditioning to win a consistent role, sometimes in the same game. He’s got Ayton and Baynes sharing the court at times, which confuses everyone on and off the court. He’s giving unpredictable minutes to season-long stalwart Dario Saric.
But maybe, just maybe, Friday night’s win over the Orlando Magic (who had won five straight games) gave us a glimpse of the rotation that Monty Williams had planned all along.
Maybe rotation roulette will be over soon.
On Friday, Deandre Ayton played 30 effective minutes while Aron Baynes played 18. Even better, Baynes got his minutes mostly with the starters while Ayton split his with the starters and second unit guys. The only backup point guard who played was Elie Okobo, while Tyler Johnson backed up Booker. Dario Saric was back as the power forward starter, with the small forwards filling in his backup minutes.
That’s a rotation that we all wanted to see.
Now maybe (knocking on wood for continued health) that’s the rotation we will see for a while now as the Suns, effectively, try to stay relevant while giving Devin Booker the stage for a run at the All-Star game.
At 15-23, the Suns are no longer a joke when Booker’s name is mentioned as a possible All-Star. Sure, that’s not a great record, but at least it’s not the 10-33 where they were last year. This year’s record has them in striking distance of a playoff spot in a down year in the West.
Plus, the team has held 10+ point leads at some point in 9 of their last 14 losses, so they’re good. They’re just not good enough yet. This young team just lacks consistency and has not been together long enough to withstand big runs by the opponent. On Friday, it almost happened again. The Suns had an 11-point third quarter lead but found themselves down by 4 with just under a minute left. Fortunately, Booker had potentially his best sequence of his career with a three followed by a steal followed by a transition three followed by a stop. Twenty seconds later, the Suns had a two-point lead and the ball. Game, Devin.
Maybe the Suns can turn the tide with an All-Star-level Booker and a healthy, consistent rotation around him.
The Suns need to go at least .500 the rest of the month and Booker needs to average 30+ if he wants to play on Sunday on All-Star Weekend for the first time.