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Center of the Sun: Suns go 2-1 but are still on the outside looking in to the playoff race

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Can the suns fight their way back into playoff contention?

Orlando Magic v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the weekly news roundup of your Phoenix Suns.

Game Recaps

Phoenix Suns vs Sacramento Kings L (114-103) Full Recap

Phoenix Suns vs Orlando Magic W (98-94) Full Recap

Phoenix Suns vs Charlotte Hornets W (100-92) Full Recap

We are 24 days away from the NBA trade deadline.

So far, the Suns are still statistically in the playoff race but that’s more due to the inconsistent play of the other teams also fighting for that final playoff spot than anything else. As the season goes on, that situation works against Phoenix as their window of opportunity grows smaller and smaller. Maintaining the status quo leads back to the lottery for the Suns.

All the talk of improving the team internally sounds good but that is extremely unlikely to make a real difference in the standings any time soon. Real change is probably only going to happen through trades but the Suns aren’t going to be the only playoff bubble team looking to get better before that deadline arrives.

Everything James Jones has been feeding the media has leaned toward the Suns being relatively passive at the trade deadline but what else is he going to say? Giving other GMs any indication that the Suns will be buyers at the deadline would be an open invitation to them to double - or triple - their preferred asking prices as soon as they learn that it’s the Suns on the phone.

No matter what he says in regard to possible trades, we really have no idea what his true intentions are... or what team owner Robert Sarver might be pushing for.

Never discount what Robert Sarver might be asking - or demanding - behind the scenes.

He’s stayed out of the news lately but he’s still there and what he wants is still all that ultimately matters when it comes to what the Suns are going to do. Will he remain patient or will he demand that Jones make an “all in” move for someone like Kevin Love and his bloated contract to make a run at ending the Suns’ playoff drought this year?

That actually might be enough if it was done right now but the impact of a move like that is lessened as it comes closer to - if not at - the trade deadline. I don’t expect anything like that to happen but there’s always a chance that it will.

At the moment, I’m putting my playoff hopes for the Suns on the back burner. I still have them but they’re much more like my hopes of winning to lottery now. The odds are against me so I’m not going to invest too much in it anymore.

The season isn’t going to get easier. It’s just going to get harder from here on. If the Suns don’t do something to improve themselves, those fading playoff hopes could be completely gone before long.


Fantable Questions of the Week

Q1 - The playoffs are looking to be an unattainable goal now. What other goals do you want to see the Suns achieve - or attempt to achieve - this season?

GuarGuar: I still really want to make the playoffs (writing this before Charlotte) and think there still is a chance if we put things together. Outside of that, I really just want to see growth and chemistry from our core of Rubio-Booker-Oubre-Ayton. We need these guys to get on the same page consistently. We’ve seen how dynamic they can be when everything’s clicking. I’d really like to see us go on a big winning stretch. Something like 8 out of 10 or 6 in a row. The biggest winning streak Devin Booker has ever been a part of is 3. I want that to be higher by the end of this season.

Sun-Arc: Hmmm. Tough question on what the goals to achieve. If they hadn’t started out playing so well, this would be an easier question. But the players showed us, even after the suspension, this team was capable of effort, grit, and defense. And, sure, we’ve seen some valiant come-back efforts with five minute stretches resembling those first 10 games. But its been 90% difficult watching through the most of the past 25 games. Given what they’ve gone through, does it matter for the future if they manage to return to that gritty effort for the last ten games of the season now that we know they can just abandon it again?

Another thought that crosses my mind is to see Ayton actually play with some gumption that he’s a 7’-1” Greek God of a basketball player rather than a 94-pound Prussian ballerina. But that might be too much to ask. Boxing-out more than 50% of the game wouldn’t hurt.

A small goal might be to see Okobo grow into being that dependable reserve guard. But that’s boring.

For me I think the main issue is for a return to actual working basketball schemes on both sides of the ball. I’d like to see Ricky running the show on offense, allowing Booker to play more catch-and-shoot, potentially off Ayton’s interior dominance. That has always been my goal for this season. I’m still waiting for it. I’d also like to see the team look like they know what they are supposed to do on defense and never hear the word “zone” again. Those goals would be nice to achieve, even if they don’t end up winning more than 32 games total.

SDKyle: Sigh. Assuming the playoffs are off the table, I guess I’d like the Suns to “achieve” clarity as to where this team is headed. Who deserves to stay and who needs to go, who needs to play what role, etc.

I am definitely not advocating firing up the tank, but this team desperately needs to figure out what to do, and if there is any viability in Booker/Ayton power duo.

SouthernSun: I still think the playoffs are within reach if a move is made. However, there are some other goals for the team that they can strive to achieve. If they can continue to work on operating as a cohesive defensive unit. They’ve made progress over last year, but they are still pretty terrible. I want to see that continue to creep in the right direction. I want Devin Booker and Ayton to build chemistry together to the point where they are a well oiled two man game machine. I want to see Ayton get into NBA shape and work on his conditioning and be able to play at a high level for more than 20 minutes a night. Bridges becoming more aggressive is also a must. Kelly Oubre staying consistent on defense and keeping up what has been a fantastic season for him so far.

Alex S: Funny enough, even with how bad the Suns are playing I don’t think it’s fair to say the playoffs are “unattainable”. As I’m answering this on Friday, the Suns are 2.5 out of 8th. There are a ton of teams in the mix, but all it takes is one hot streak to create a little separation. Do I believe this is going to happen? No, I don’t see it happening. It’s still a possibility though so you never know.

Regardless if they can make a push for the 8th seed, the Suns have to improve on the defensive end. Ever since the unsustainable start to the year, Phoenix is allowing teams to go off on a nightly basis. The 3PT defense is atrocious, leading to their eFG% to being bottom 4 in the league. 115 ppg against? Bottom 2 TS% allowed? These trends have to improve or else there’s going to be a massive problem going forward.

Q2 - Knowing what we know now, who do you wish the Suns had taken in the 2019 draft?

GuarGuar: I still wish we took Brandon Clarke. Power forward has been an inconsistent position for us still this season. Saric has been both solid and awful throughout the year. Starting Ayton at the 4 for a few games really shows the lack of faith we have at the position. Clarke has been very solid for Memphis with his defense and efficiency. I like Cam a lot but, we could’ve had a much more impactful player at 11 if we just took the best player available instead of need. Even though Tyler Herro could be seen as redundant with us having Booker, his shooting and offensive creation would’ve been very helpful.

Sun-Arc: I’ve mentioned this in a couple of threads- but I would have taken Brandon Clarke at the time, and I would have looked smart for doing it up till this point.

Cam and BC have each played an average around 20.5 mpg give or take 30 seconds each. Here are their stats thus far this season, with Cam first, BC second (all per BB-ref.com):

  • Pt/gm 8.1, 12.4
  • Rb/gm 3.0, 5.6
  • Ast/gm 1.0, 1.3
  • St/gm .5, .4
  • Blk/gm .3, .8
  • ORtg 112, 127
  • DRtg 113, 111
  • PER 11.7, 22.3
  • USG 16.1, 19.7
  • WS 1.1, 2.5
  • BPM -1.1, 2.1
  • VORP .2, .7

Both players are listed as 6’-8”, and both are known for having T-rex-like arms. But outside those stats, that clearly favor Clarke, BC is FAR more athletic and defensively versatile. He’s also shooting threes at .421 compared to Cam’s .394, albeit on far fewer attempts per game and overall. Still, its an impressive start to an NBA career. And while Cam has impressed me more than I thought he would, he’s also been pretty one-dimensional on offense and weak on defense. I think Clarke would have been a better fit for the team and more useful overall.

We’d seen the team whiff on taking the “master of none” type players, but Clarke was the safer and better choice, was available, and also a local product who really wanted to play here. Sigh.

SDKyle: PJ Washington. I was iffy on him at the time due to his “tweener” status as a 6’7 PF, but he looks pretty good for a 21 year-old rookie. His defense is already acceptable and should improve, and he’s a capable scorer out beyond the three point line.

In some ways he does indeed remind me of Marcus Morris, who was a common draft time comp for him, but he’s more advanced at this age. Negative connotations aside, a rich man’s Marcus Morris is a very useful player.

SouthernSun: I really like Cam Johnson so I’m still happy with that pick. The Suns didn’t have a chance to get Ja or Zion, so it really doesn’t matter. Perhaps they should have taken Clarke, who has been playing very well, but Cam seems like hes going to he a solid rotation piece for years to come. I’m really not upset that we didn’t get Coby White or anybody like that. We did the move that made sense at the time in picking up Saric and moving back to 11th.

Alex S: I still like Cam Johnson a lot. If anything, he’s one of the bright spots of this team this year. The two guys that would be completely fine with me at 11 would have been Herro and Clarke. They both would find a role in this rotation and have contributed well for their respective teams. The draft from this year most certainly hasn’t been a regret at the top of my list.

As always, many thanks to our Fantable - GuarGuar, Sun-Arc, SDKyle, SouthernSun and Alex S. - for all their extra effort every week!


Key Stats

102.7 vs 110.5 DefRTG

The first number is the Suns’ defensive rating last week. It was 7th in the NBA during that period of time, a huge increase over their full season DefRTG of 110.5 (19th). Four Suns players had DefRTGs of less than 100 last week. Aron Baynes (86.4), Elie Okobo (89.9), Devin Booker (96.3) and Dario Saric (99.2).

Random Stats: Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker are averaging a combined 15.8 assists per game this season, the highest combined average for any qualified pair of teammates in the NBA.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and/or Basketball-Reference.com.


Game Highlights

Phoenix Suns vs Sacramento Kings - Full Game Highlights | January 7, 2020

Phoenix Suns vs Orlando Magic - Full Game Highlights | January 10, 2020

Phoenix Suns vs Charlotte Hornets - Full Game Highlights | January 12, 2020


Quotes of the Week

”It’s hard when our guys’ level goes down and then (Devin and Kelly) feel like they have to go in and save the day, that can be frustrating, so again, it’s something we have to manage and figure out, how do we get production consistently from our bench?” - Monty Williams

”I just wish we can put some games together so that the nation can see how good he (Devin Booker) is. That’s what it’s going to take, winning games, so people can see how complete of a player he is.” - Monty Williams


Rookie Report

Cameron Johnson - 19.6 mpg, 7.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.3 bpg, 0.6 TO, 1.5 PF, 38.8 3PT%

This week - 9.8 mpg, 1.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.0 spg, 0.3 bpg, 0.0 TO, 0.0 PF, 14.3 3PT%

Ty Jerome - 13.4 mpg, 4.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.0 bpg, 0.9 TO, 1.3 PF, 30.0 3PT%

This week - DNP-CD

Jalen Lecque - Assigned to NAZ Suns

Jared Harper - Assigned to NAZ Suns

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com.


Injury Status Report

Frank Kaminsky (kneecap) - Expected to be out until at least March 1.


News & Notes

Behind the scenes with the fan who started the Aron Baynes ‘@BaynesFanClub’ Twitter account. Sporting News

Monty Williams doesn’t think anyone should look more into Deandre Ayton coming off the bench. Clutch Points

‘I’m Just Trying To Take What The Defense Gives Me’: The Many Layers Of Devin Booker’s Career-Best Scoring Streak. Brendon Kleen/Forbes

Suns’ Monty Williams: Devin Booker wants to make it right in Phoenix. Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports

Devin Booker’s Latest Hot Streak Is Cementing His All-Star Status. Evan Sidery/Forbes

Suns trade deadline preview: Do Suns want to keep Dario Saric long term? Kellan Olson/Arizona Sports


This Week in Suns History

On January 18, 1971, Phoenix forward Paul Silas set a franchise record with 27 rebounds in a 118-99 win over the Cincinnati Royals.

On January 19, 2016, Devin Booker scored 32 points in a 97-94 loss to the Indiana Pacers. It was the first game in which he scored 30 or more points in his NBA career.


Suns Trivia

Rubio and Booker’s combined assist average this season is the best for the Suns in the past 13 years and would tie for 5th best in Suns history with Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek’s 15.8 apg average in 1991-92 if it continues throughout the season. 1st is the combo of KJ and Jeff Hornacek with a combined 18.2 apg in 1988-89, 2nd is the combo of Steve Nash and Boris Diaw in 2005-06 (16.7) and 3rd is a 2-way tie between Nash/Diaw in 2006-07 and KJ/Hornacek in 1989-90 with 16.4.


Previewing the Week Ahead

Tuesday, January 14 - Phoenix Suns @ Atlanta Hawks, 5:30 pm AZT

Thursday, January 16 - Phoenix Suns @ New York Knicks, 5:30 pm AZT

Saturday, January 18 - Phoenix Suns @ Boston Celtics, 5:00 pm AZT

The Suns have three games this week, all of them on the road.

On Tuesday, the Suns begin their Eastern Conference road trip in Atlanta. The 8-31 Hawks are dead last in the NBA standings and should be an easy win for the Suns... but nothing seems to come easy for the Suns these days. Expect Trae Young (28.9 ppg) to continue putting up big numbers in this one but hope that no one else on the Hawks also has a hot shooting night. Young missed the Hawks’ Sunday game against the Nets with a bad hamstring but could return against the Suns. I expect the Suns to get a win - especially if Young is still sidelined - but won’t go as far as calling it a lock.

Thursday night the Suns visit the Big Apple and hope for a sweep in their season series against the 10-29 Knicks. Phoenix got down early in their previous meeting and had to stage a big comeback to get an 8-point win at TSRA. I don’t like their chances of doing that again in a hostile MSG but, if they can at least keep things even in the early going, I like their chances in this one.

Finally, the Suns will be in Boston on Saturday to face the 26-11 Celtics. Try as I might, I can’t come up with any reason to expect anything other than a loss in this one.

I believe the Suns will go 2-1 this week.

What’s your prediction?


Important Future Dates

January 15 - Last day to sign players to Two-Way contracts.

February 6 - NBA Trade Deadline (3 pm ET).

February 14-19 - NBA All-Star break.


Last Week’s Poll Results

If the Suns play .500 ball for the rest of the season they will end up with a 37-45 record.

Last week’s poll was “A 37-45 season record would be...”

44% - A good step forward.

41% - Okay but a little disappointing.

10% - Barely acceptable.

05% - Unacceptable.

There were 185 votes cast.


This week’s poll is...

Poll

With an eye toward potential trades, which is more important for the Suns?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Improving their defense.
    (123 votes)
  • 57%
    Improving their bench scoring.
    (164 votes)
287 votes total Vote Now

Author’s Note: I know doing both would be great but I’m forcing you to choose only one.