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Bench Building 101: A guide for the Suns’ playoff hopes next season.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There is no question that the Suns most glaring weakness this season has been its unreliable bench play. The lack of depth at both guard positions has been a constant struggle, and Tyler Johnson becoming a non-factor (leading to his eventual release) certainly didn’t help the cause. Along with that, the bigs on the roster have seemingly been on a never-ending carousel of injuries (or suspension), and can’t ever seem to be at full strength at once.

James Jones entered the season with a seemingly solid depth chart on paper, but due to things outside of his control (Ayton’s suspension, Johnson’s dismal play, injuries, etc.) the depth was tested early and often and they couldn’t ever truly recover.

My only concern with this whole ordeal is that it seemed as if Jones and this front office truly didn’t believe in this team enough to find a temporary replacement with an open roster spot for a good chunk of the season, and by doing nothing at the trade deadline. I’m not saying they should’ve forced a bad deal just for the sake of making a trade, but more-so that it conveys where the front office seems to be with this team’s timeline currently.

Maybe they expected certain injuries to not drag out as long as they did, or maybe they had higher hopes for some of the internal candidates to step up and this was a part of their evaluation process. I don’t have the information to give any definite answers, so all that can be done is speculation at this point. Pursuing Jordan McRae was encouraging (though they failed), but that type of move came about two months too late in my estimation.

The Process

There isn’t some perfect formula when it comes to “bench building”. However, there are ways to win on the margins and construct a depth chart that can withstand the punches that will assuredly be thrown your way throughout an 82 game season.

The model franchise for this is the Toronto Raptors in my opinion. They have consistently made savvy moves whether it’s signing bounce-back candidates at a bargain price, drafting undervalued players and developing them, or trading for players they think fit their system. They are the definition of “next man up” in today’s NBA.

Here are the top 8 benches in the NBA in plus/minus:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks- +2.6
  2. Los Angeles Clippers- +2.6
  3. Los Angeles Lakers- +2.4
  4. Toronto Raptors- +2.0
  5. Dallas Mavericks- +1.7
  6. Boston Celtics- +1.2
  7. Houston Rockets- +1.1
  8. Indiana Pacers- +0.8

Notice a trend here?

In total, there are 13 benches in the league that are +0.0 and above in net rating, and 11 of those teams are in the playoffs, with one of the non-playoff teams being San Antonio who are still in the playoff picture. The Suns sit in a 3-way tie for 23rd overall with a bench net rating of -1.7 currently.

The goal for this front office should be — at the very least — to get their second unit to league average or reach a net rating at or near “zero”. With how effective their starting lineup has been this season, having a net-neutral bench would have likely put them right in the playoff mix.

Suns bench ranks:

  • PPG: 27th (30.1)
  • FG%: 20th (44.1%)
  • 3PFG: 22nd (33.4%)
  • APG: 25th (6.5 per-game)

Roster Construction

There are four avenues to build a complete roster; free agency, the NBA Draft, via trade, and most importantly internal development. First of all, there has to be a team identity in place which I actually believe this new regime has done a decent job of in displaying the “type” of players they want to acquire that fit their system.

The next step once you establish an identity is finding the right blend of players that won’t clash with one another. Veteran leadership does matter, but only to a certain extent. You don’t want another Trevor Ariza or Tyson Chandler scenario again. This is why it’s vital to bring on the right vets that not only aren’t completely washed but desire to grow with your team and believe in the front office’s vision. They need to play a role, own it, and help mentor the younger players without worrying about their personal statistics or playing time, which is more difficult than it sounds.

You also can’t go overboard adding too many veterans that fit this description, because then they become redundant and start eating minutes you’d like to spend on long-term pieces. You also need a blend of players that are hungry to prove themselves in the league that are less established and don’t come with the ego or entitlement that some of the vets may have. Whether it’s finding a bounce back candidate or someone coming off an injury, there are many types of players that fit this bill in free agency.

Leadership, talent, and hunger are the three main components to establishing a complete bench, and right now I believe the Suns second unit has some hunger, but lack the leadership and talent necessary to succeed.

In my opinion, there are three key areas of focus this summer; finding a PG of the future, adding a guard that can create their own shot, and adding a versatile forward. Obviously the backup center position will be a hot topic, and with Aron Baynes looking like early season Baynes again, it’s entirely possible he becomes a priority for the Suns this summer. I would certainly be on board to bring the Splash Volcano back at the right price.

Phoenix will also have multiple cap holds and team options to get their projected cap space to a more flexible number if they decide to go for a splash this summer. I believe it’s more likely (and responsible) to pursue multiple upgrades and disperse the money in a more balanced manner for increased depth.

Below are some potential targets that I’ve listed as pieces that could help improve the depth and overall roster heading into next season.

Free agent targets:

Splashes: Fred VanVleet, Danilo Gallinari.

Upgrades: Serge Ibaka, D.J. Augustin, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, Joe Harris, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, Davis Bertans.

Depth boosters: JaMychal Green, Justin Holiday, Bryn Forbes, Alec Burks.

Potential returnees: Aron Baynes, Dario Saric (RFA), Jevon Carter (RFA), Cheick Diallo (club option), Frank Kaminsky (club option), Elie Okobo (club option).

Draft targets:

Splashes: LaMelo Ball.

Upgrades: Killian Hayes, Obi Toppin, Deni Avdija, Tyrese Haliburton, Isaac Okoro.

Depth boosters: Devin Vassell, Tyrese Maxey, Saddiq Bey, Nico Mannion.

Trade targets: (not diving deep on this, too early to tell what the market will look like).

Splashes: Jrue Holiday, Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine.

Upgrades: Aaron Gordon, Spencer Dinwiddie, Otto Porter Jr., Tomas Satoranksy, Patty Mills, Luke Kennard.

Internal Development:

The development system in Phoenix has been putrid in recent years to put it nicely. Former General Manager Ryan McDonough took many high-upside “boom or bust” picks without the proper infrastructure in place to develop them, leading to most of the lottery picks the Suns have made over the past 5 years currently playing elsewhere.

With Monty Williams leading the charge and entering next season with a system in place, we could start to see some incremental improvement from the young core that we haven’t seen much of in the past. Improving from within is just as, if not more, important than bringing external talent in.

The obstacles ahead

Now here comes the bad news. The playoff race in the Western Conference will be much more challenging next season with Golden State back on the map and young teams on the rise such as the Pelicans and Grizzlies on track to take another leap.

In addition to that, there are still plenty of teams in the West that look like they are locks for the playoffs next season barring major injuries or regression from star players. I think the following teams could be penciled in for the way-too-early 2021 playoff spots: Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz, Mavericks, and Warriors.

I left the Thunder off due to the possibility of a Chris Paul trade and potentially losing Danilo Gallinari to free agency, so they are a wild card to me at the moment.

That leaves one spot open for the next tier of teams such as the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Thunder, Suns, Kings, Wolves, Blazers and Spurs. In other words, being in the Western Conference truly sucks.

A lot can change between now and October and there could always be a Western playoff team that decides to blow it up which would open up another spot, but even if there are two spots open it’s still a very tall task for Phoenix.

The goal for next season is to keep building on competency, shore up the depth and improve from within. Going from 19 wins to 30+ (barring a total collapse) should make 2020/2021’s goal quite simple: 40 wins or bust.

They should have Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges each taking a another leap, along with the steady backcourt play of Rubio and Booker in place, with Oubre building off his breakout year. The infrastructure is finally in place to win. Now the question that we are all waiting on: what will they surround this five man group with?

The ultimate difference between making the playoffs or returning to the lottery will come down to one thing outside of health. The bench.