March 10 seems like an eternity ago. Considering everything that has occurred outside of the NBA, that feeling is not far fetched.
When the ball goes into the air at 1:00pm MST on Friday, it will be 143 days since the Suns have played minutes that count. Like it or not, these games count and will hit players’ Basketball-Reference pages for people to browse for eternity.
The NBA season is officially back and it is time to focus once again on our beloved Suns.
Who are the Phoenix Suns right now?
Time tends to alter things, and although the final 8 games of the 2019-2020 season will one day all be grouped together as a final record, there is no doubt that the team has changed. The Phoenix Suns that took the court on March 10 against the Portland Trailblazers is much different that the one we will see against the Washington Wizards on Friday. The personnel has not changed (minus the parting ways of a couple of assistant coaches), but the bodies, minds, and maturity has.
Dave King pointed out on the recent Suns Solar Panel podcast, “this is their first off-season since 2014 that they’ve had the same coach and coaching staff come back”.
Yes, this 4+ month hiatus is comparable to an off-season. And then some. The fact that this season has been separated by a significant amount of time truly benefits this young staff and team.
Monty has had the opportunity to review the tape, understand his assets better, and game plan on how to increase their on-court effectiveness. Has every other team had the same opportunity? Of course. For a first year coach and staff, however, this is of vital importance. Think about this: it is the first time in Devin Booker’s career that a coach has been able to do this for him.
The Suns are returning healthy. Ish. This is a team that has known a total of zero days at full strength this season. We still have no clear direction on the status of Kelly Oubre, Jr. nor are we certain the minutes Aron Baynes will contribute following his late arrival due to COVID. The obstacle of roster depth is challenged due to these factors, coupled with lackluster point guard production.
The team will still face the challenge of poor three-point shooting. They will still have to solve the rotations. They still have Elie Okobo. Conversely, they still have one of the best ball movement teams in the league. They still shoot exceptional from the line. They still have Devin Booker.
One cannot weight the performance of a scrimmage game heavily. ESPN’s The Jump reported that coaches would be working together to optimize the opportunities, setting plays, and experimenting with different lineup construction. In essence, teams would share goals prior to tip-off in an effort to maximize the scrimmage. Again, you can’t put too much stock into the results of scrimmages games.
All of that being said, there were instinctive plays that provided hope and promise. A future run to the playoffs, if not this season, may soon be in the cards for the Suns. The team went 2-1 in the games that did not count, and potentially could have won all three if Monty didn’t send the bench in to finish the game midway the through the 3rd quarter of the Celtics game.
The big winner of the scrimmage games was clearly Mikal Bridges. The second-year forward took advantage of Oubre’s absence and unleashed his offensive aggressiveness in a manner that we have never seen. Bridges has always possessed the basketball tools to be successful: length, athleticism, and a high basketball IQ. For the first time we had a glance of what it would look like if he put all of his tools into action, and the result floored a captive Suns audience.
Bridges is quickly becoming untouchable and a core member of the Suns future. Will this transformation translate to the final 8 games? Time will tell, but aside from Deandre Ayton, it makes for one of the more intriguing Suns story lines as the season resumes.
Cameron Johnson reported earlier in the quarantine that he was using a dumbbell, coupled with a previously owned weight vest, an agility ladder, a jump rope, and the guidance of Suns’ strength and conditioning coaches to stay in shape. Whatever he did, it worked. He too took advantage of the Suns wing deficiency, posting 13.7 points-per-game, 54.5% from the field, 41.2% from deep, and 2.0 steals-per-game.
Cam’s aggressiveness has increased as well. Prior to the pandemic, Cam attempted 0.9 FTA per game. He was a sharpshooter who took 71% of his shots from beyond the arc. The scrimmages were a minuscule sample size, but they did show a change in approach. He found himself forcing the issue on the interior, creating contact rather than opting for just threes, and averaging 3.3 FTA per game. Not earth shattering by any means, but a positive sign of development.
One player everyone loves but never talks about is Ricky Rubio. His lull-you-to-sleep approach to offense allows for his performances to be overlooked at times, but his impact is undeniable. He led all Suns in the “fake games” with a +18.5.
The Restart Games
On to the restart.
The Suns face a uniquely daunting challenge. They are currently 500/1 favorites to win the title per vegasinsider.com. They 250/1 to win the Western Conference Championship. They are 60/1 odds to earn the 8th seed. This isn’t the Hunger Games, as the odds are not in our favor.
But there still is a chance.
The Suns enter the bubble with the 2nd youngest roster in the NBA (24.4) and the youngest actually in Orlando (Minnesota is #1 at 23.8, but they are relaxing on their couch). The team has to play 8 games in 14 days, which will be a challenge for older teams like the Rockets (30.1), the Bucks (29.7), or the Lakers (29.6). Even with 4 months off, there is no doubt that these playoff bound teams will be resting players for the marathon that is the NBA playoffs.
The young legs of Phoenix, who will be fighting uphill the entire way, may be of benefit when coupled with resting rosters.
Games that are decided in the 4th quarter, most notably games 5-8 on the schedule, will pose the ultimate challenge. How fatigued will the Suns be physically? How weary will they be mentally after competing every other day (with a nice little back-to-back with OKC and Philly for games 6 and 7)?
The team that currently resides in 8th place, the Memphis Grizzlies, possesses the 3rd youngest roster in the NBA (24.5). The same logic is present for their run in Orlando, with everyone chasing them. The difference? While the Suns play no teams that are fighting for the 8th seed, Memphis kicks off their first three games against Portland, San Antonio, and New Orleans. Maximum effort will be needed to stay atop “8th Seed Hill”.
Regardless of the outcome, which I’m cautiously predicting will be a 6-2 run for Phoenix, the experience that Orlando has provided has been nothing but beneficial for the young team. The team will play minutes that mean something. They will feel the pressure of a pointful game.
Suns HC Monty Williams really jumped in a pool with his clothes on— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) July 25, 2020
(via coachmontywilliams/IG) pic.twitter.com/vR6GcqQIp5
From pool parties to spike ball, the team has created a unique bond that will forever connect them. Their time at the Yacht Club has been filled with fishing and golfing, basketball and growth.
Who are the Phoenix Suns now? A team with an exciting future that Suns fans can finally get behind and support. And who knows? Maybe they’ll shock the world.