After the Phoenix Suns lost a frustrating game to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night, head coach Monty Williams lost his typical cool and gave very little explanation of what went wrong to the assembled media.
“Until we learn how to play the right way consistently and follow a game plan,” Williams said, “we’re going to play well one night, and then we’re going to have nights like this, play well one night, have nights like this, we’re going to play well one night, have nights like this.”
Williams did not take questions. When he finished repeating himself a few times, he thanked us and left.
The players said he was right.
“There’s no excuses,” guard Ricky Rubio said. “It’s just playing the right way, playing aggressive, playing with edge and we didn’t do it. It’s unacceptable because the way we are, we’re playing at home and we (had a chance to) take the eighth seed and now we’re in the 12th seed. It’s not about where we’re going to finish but it’s about how we play and losing this kind of chance really hurts.”
Guard Devin Booker, who scored 40 points on only 20 shots, including 17 in the fourth quarter during the Suns frantic comeback attempt, was even more candid than Rubio about the importance of playing the right way every night.
“We sense his frustration,” Booker said of the coach. “And us sitting in these chairs [listening to his post-game message] are frustrated at the same time. It’s some figuring out that we have to do and hopefully we can do that sooner than later, because I’ve been here four years and you want to get things going early to make the season a lot better and a lot more fun.”
Neither Booker nor Rubio were absolving themselves from the blame. They each lost their man sometimes on rotations, just like everyone else.
Nights like this
After hitting a pair of game-clinching three-point shots in the fourth quarter, Memphis guard Dillon Brooks laid it out there for media.
“They were running a little zone-slash-man,” Brooks said of the Suns’ miscues. “And they didn’t do it correctly, and we had two guys on one side and [Ja Morant] made the right play both times and I just hit the three.”
Devin Booker echoed that sentiment.
“We didn’t follow the game plan that Coach had for us,” Booker said. “And then when everyone’s on the same page, one person just that possession messes up, that can cost you a bucket.”
Memphis made 18-42 threes in the game, many of them wide open off of bad Suns defensive rotations. For the game, Memphis took more threes (42) than twos (41) and held a 19-point lead after three quarters. This was the second straight 18-three game for the Grizzlies after they blew out the LA Clippers the day before.
Williams rotation is already loaded with a rookie (Cameron Johnson), a pair of second-year players (Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges), and Devin Booker, whose only NBA experience has been losing 75% of their games. Add in Kelly Oubre, who just turned 24 and is in his first year as a full-time starter, and you’ve got half the Suns’ minimum regular rotation full of inexperienced guys trying to find consistency on a high level.
If Williams only cared about winning the very next game, he would surround those kids with high-minute veterans like Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and (maybe) Tyler Johnson, and give them a chance to play their best role on offense and defense.
Playing his veterans big minutes would theoretically give the team some consistency that they are sorely lacking, though their individual ceilings are not as high as their younger counterparts on any given night.
Besides Rubio, each veteran is playing on an expiring contract, and what happens this season will impact their future earning potential.
“That bothers me,” Williams said recently of the fact that he has had to sit some veterans more than they would like.
Tyler Johnson was good for 11 or so points in about 26 minutes per game in five seasons in Miami as a backup shooting guard, but is all but out of the rotation now after being the team’s worst plus-minus player through the first six weeks. And he is still a team-worst minus-103 on the season, including minus-12 in the Memphis loss in only nine minutes of action. The last time he had a regular rotation spot, he suffered a team-worst minus-55 in a six game stint, and he hasn’t played in consecutive games since.
Based on his five-year career profile, the 27-year-old Johnson is a mid-level contract player ($9-10 million per year) for a long-term deal in a shallow market. But after this current season, Johnson might have to settle for something much smaller.
“He’s in a tough spot,” Williams said of Johnson recently.
Next to Johnson on the bench are a defensive bulldog in Jevon Carter, a budding playmaker in Elie Okobo and rookie point guard Ty Jerome. All were taken among the first 34 picks in the past two drafts and should get their own shots to earn the backup minutes. Okobo and Carter are fighting for their NBA lives on expiring minimum-salary deals.
“We haven’t had anybody step up and say that’s mine,” Williams said of the backup guard rotation. “It’s been a juggling act.”
Okobo is playing the best of the four players — by far — with a season-long net plus-21 on the scoreboard, good for 4th best on the team. But he is maddeningly inconsistent and has been pulled from games for offensive and defensive breakdowns that drive a coach bonkers.
And Okobo’s been the best of them. Williams has had to mix and match even during a single game to try to find the right mix. If a guard gets on the floor in the first/second quarter bridge and stinks it up, it’s a tough call for Williams to go with them in the second half rather than try someone else.
The constant lineup shuffle is not good for the team. It just ruins potential continuity and puts pressure on players to perform well immediately rather than take some time to acclimate.
But settling on a player who often fails would be even worse, leading to constant second-guessing of who was left on the bench.
Saric is now suffering from rotation change as well. Saric was the starting power forward most of the season and played well and fairly consistent, but with the emergence of Aron Baynes and the return of Deandre Ayton, Williams has had to make tough choices once again.
He can’t limit minutes of Ayton or Baynes just to make Saric happy.
Add in the league’s shift to smaller, quicker power forwards and the effectiveness (in limited minutes) of smaller lineups with two or three of Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cameron Johnson together, and slower players like Saric will be the odd men out.
“It hurts guys like Dario and Frank,” Williams said Saric and Frank Kaminsky. “These teams are playing range-shooting fours, athletic fours, and that’s a tough matchup for Dario at times.”
The Suns played a lot of this season with Saric and Kaminsky as their two best big men (when Baynes was injured and Ayton suspended), but managed to lose 16 of 20 games despite their greatest efforts.
Frank Kaminsky is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg, but he may have lost his rotation spot anyway once Ayton returned.
Now, Williams has to think of the team success as a whole, and get his most effective players out there as often as possible. That includes Deandre Ayton, Aron Baynes and even Mikal Bridges getting power forward time that used to go to Saric.
This is unfortunate for Saric, who will be a restricted free agent this summer in a very shallow free agent class. Coming off the 2017-18 season, Saric was a second-year player listed in some Top-100 conversations of all NBA players (13 points, 7 rebounds, 39% three-point shooting). But after a down year in Minnesota and then potentially losing his primary rotation spot in Phoenix, Saric might struggle to find a starting role in free agency.
Baynes doesn’t face the same numbers game as the aforementioned Tyler Johnson or Saric. In fact, Williams is desperately devising ways to carve out even more minutes for his most consistent veteran.
The career five-and-five backup center is almost doubling his career highs across the board: minutes (24.1 per game), points (12.8), field goals (5.0 on 9.8 attempts, including 4.1 three-point attempts), free throws (2.0), rebounds (6.0), assists (2.1) and fouls committed (3.8).
Baynes is not only having his best season statistically, but he’s the team’s defensive floor general — constantly barking out directions for players to hit their rotations right. Ayton desperately needs that kind of mentorship, for example, as do Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr., who tend to float out of position on defense if left unchecked.
But no matter how well the career backup plays, you just cannot justify limiting the minutes of the ultra-talented Deandre Ayton in the process. Ayton is a man-child, grabbing rebounds easily and looking much-improved on the defensive end this year. He simply needs to be on the floor as much as possible.
Baynes’ 24 minutes per game are not only lower than Williams would like, they only leave Ayton the other 24 minutes a night... unless they play together at times, with one of them as the power forward.
“Aron talking to me all game was great,” Ayton said after the win over New York. “He will push me for an automatic switch or, say I’m late to help, he’ll tell me. Just being on me, and I can take criticism pretty well. He’s just trying to help me and I love playing alongside him.”
Due to the pace of the regular season, the Suns prior to this week did not even have time to actually practice formally with Ayton and Baynes sharing the floor. Back in training camp, the assumption was that they would tag team, with Ayton getting 30-34 minutes a night and Baynes taking the remaining 14-18.
Now, Williams and the coaching staff have adjusted on the fly, and the players are making mistakes as a result. Ayton and Baynes have rarely shared the floor, so they understandably will make the wrong rotation at times when teams force switches or when perimeter players get beaten off the dribble (which happens a lot).
So while Baynes is having a career year and is set up to make a boatload in free agency, the immediate rotation shifts have him struggling to make an impact on the game in a positive way. He isn’t immune to making the wrong rotations either, especially next to the kid Ayton in lineups they haven’t practiced. He was a minus-16 on Sunday night against Memphis, while Ayton was a plus-10 (mostly from the Suns’ late-game run). They were a net positive when they shared the floor in the first half, but a net-negative in the second half, after experiencing the opposite on Friday versus the Knicks.
In a perfect world for the rest of this season, Tyler Johnson would start playing better and solidify the top backup guard spot and “Bayton” would work out the kinks to allow the Suns play their best two big men the minutes they deserve.
Let’s see how it all really shakes out.