The big picture numbers after the Suns’ first three preseason games aren’t pretty, and neither is an 0-3 record. But for a team whose operating principle is to not let any day go to waste, this time is also valuable when it comes to getting better.
So far this preseason the Suns are shooting just 42 percent from the field, 31.2 percent from deep and turning the ball over nearly 16 times per game as a team. They are allowing nearly 111 points per 100 possessions on defense. There is a lot of ground to make up if the Suns are going to start strong when the regular season tips off later this month.
Yet injuries also offer a reasonable explanation for what’s going on here. At least one of Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder has missed every game so far, and Dario Saric has missed all three and will not play tonight against the Lakers. Those four players are each expected to be among the top eight or nine guys in the Suns’ rotation when the regular season begins. Chemistry is hard to build when your full team is not on the court.
While all four did practice on Thursday, which head coach Monty Williams was happy to see, Saric’s absence on Friday means the Suns will go the whole preseason without seeing their full rotation together. In particular, the Suns can’t wait to get Saric back and see him get back to work filling an invaluable bench role like he did in the Bubble.
“You guys probably get tired of me seeing it, but you need a connector in each lineup, and especially in that second unit,” Williams told reporters on Thursday. “Once we get Dario back, having a guy with the ability to stretch the floor, shoot it, and make those timely passes opens up your offense.”
Much has been made of how the Suns’ bench lacks a traditional play-maker. Certainly Payne did not show himself to be that in the first preseason game and players like Jevon Carter and E’Twaun Moore are not yet comfortable in that role.
The Suns had an offensive rating of 91.2 in Payne’s 30 minutes against Utah last Saturday. In Moore’s minutes so far, they’ve scored 86.9 points per 100 possessions. This compared to the Suns’ overall 98.4 offensive rating through three preseason games. Carter and Galloway have brought a more positive impact because of their shooting, but it’s been hard for the Suns to find offense basically no matter who is on the court.
“I feel like our offense can be better coming off the bench,” Carter said postgame on Wednesday. “We can get in a little bit better of a flow with the second unit and piggyback off what the starters are doing.”
Even without a great point guard off the bench, when Saric returns, he gives the Suns another option to be an initiator in the second unit. Though he’s not the type of player to pile up assists, Saric’s versatility proved highly valuable for the Suns in the Bubble. He can score or pass in the pick and pop or pick and roll as well as from the elbow or the post. On a team full of cutters and shooters, that may be enough to keep the offense afloat when Chris Paul or Devin Booker are out of the game.
“Dario, he’s the kind of guy who everyone likes playing with because you’re hoping that Dario’s going to find you,” Williams said.
However, there may not be a ton of time when neither of the star guards is on the court. Booker could operate as a backup point guard some of the time.
“Being able to give him the ball and have him play the point guard position, he’s got great vision and he’s a willing passer,” Williams said after the Lakers game. “The ball movement didn’t change when I took Chris out and put Devin at the point, so that’s something that we may go to some this year. We have that option.”
A lot of these decisions will have to be made during practice, especially in the time between Friday’s preseason finale and Wednesday’s regular season opener. Saric should have time then to flesh out chemistry with his teammates and the coaching staff can determine a rotation they like.
Williams has said the final two days before the opener will be full of scrimmaging in order to replicate game action as much as possible. We can expect the starters will probably hand it to the bench in those contests, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the bench is holding their own by the end of the week.