You are looking at the best Phoenix Suns team in a decade. No joke. In Monday’s weekly Power Rankings posted around the web, the Suns (7-4) were universally ranked among the top handful of teams in the 30-team league. In this weird early season, every leading team has suffered a blowout or two. In fact, until Monday night, the Suns were the ONLY team not to lose any game by more than 5 points yet. The Clippers lost one by 50. The Sixers were down to the Hawks in the second half on Monday night by 30. The list goes on.
But then the Suns decided to one-up everyone against the league’s worst team, the Washington Wizards (2-8 coming in). Washington blitzed the Suns to a 32-point lead in the second quarter and won by 21. Compared to Washington’s league-fastest pace, the Suns looked stuck in mud. Or more like cement.
How did the game get so out of hand? How did the Suns go so bad so fast?
Because both the starting unit AND the bench were worse than usual. By a lot. By a LOT lot.
Monty Williams started subbing out starters at the 6-minute mark of the first quarter, down 10-8. From there, the Wizards blew open the game, outscoring the Suns by 30 in the next 12 game minutes with some combo of starters and bench players. *Cameron Payne missed the game (ankle).
Being bad has been a common refrain about the Suns starting unit so far this season, but that’s a completely uncommon statement about their hyper-active bench unit.
This is a tale of two teams.
Starting lineup duds
This new Suns starting lineup with Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton has a net negative point difference of -6.5 points per 100 possessions so far this season. Meaning, if this group had played the whole 48 minutes each night, the Suns might be on an 11-game losing streak (ok, maybe 3-8 considering the 2018-19 Suns team had collective -9 per night and still won 19 out of 82 games).
“We’re too many games in for that to keep happening,” Booker said after Monday’s loss of the starting unit’s problems.
Luckily for the Suns won-loss record, this starting group has “only” played 184 minutes together, or an average of 16 of the 48 minutes per night (33% of the game).
All other five-man lineup combinations, including some of these starters and at least one bench player, are a +10 points per 100 possessions.
Bench unit studs
Players who have come off the bench for the Suns have been more impactful than the starters this season. All of the Suns top five bench players have a better “plus minus” than the starters. Some of that is because they are playing against the other team’s backups, and some of that is their collective effort and moxie.
No one would argue that the five-man unit of Cameron Payne, Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric should be the Suns new starting unit, or that they are more talented than the Suns starting five.
But they’ve sure been more consistent, effective and impactful this season when they’ve been on the court.
After the Monday loss to Washington, All-Star Devin Booker said of the Suns’ first quarter struggles: “A lot of the games we’ve won, we’ve been carried by our bench to be honest.”
And that’s true.
For the first 10 games, the Suns had developed a pattern that mirrored the Bubble experience, with the starting unit working methodically, often getting down a bit in net score, then giving way to the bench mob who takes the lead and hands it back to the starters to ice it.
That formula had worked to the tune of 15-3 record — between the Bubble and the 2020-21 season — despite the starting lineup posting a negative point differential.
And the bench mob don’t all have to be together to make it work. In fact, that five-man unit has played only 16 total minutes together all season (+13 in 16 minutes over 4 games) because that group, with three short guards, doesn’t offer the right amount of size and playmaking to last very long, especially against another team’s starting unit.
In fact, the Suns best overall lineup has been Payne, Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Saric (+24 points in 20 minutes together) but they’ve only appeared as a unit in 5 of the Suns 11 games.
The first and most obvious bottom line points to make are:
- plus/minus is a dirty stat until there’s a LOT of data (minutes) together
- the starting unit has a lot of minutes together, and needs a rethink
When asked after the Monday game about the starters coming out cold in the first quarter, leaving a deficit for the second until to overcome once again, Monty Williams gave a frank answer.
“Probably familiarity,” Williams said, “as far as lineups.”
True, the starting unit includes two guys, Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, who have never played in Monty’s .5 offensive system or his auto/secondary offense, so they are kind of fish out of water learning how to fit in. They are very good in their own right, but clearly are not natural fits who just happen to fit seamlessly. There are SEAMS showing. And as yet unsown.
Even worse, Paul’s Hall of Fame career is based on running the pick-and-roll, but young center Deandre Ayton seems more likely to trip on his shoes than pick or roll properly in the two-man game. Ayton has regressed terribly so far this season on the offensive end, and seems completely frozen up on most catches. Like, it’s baaaad to watch, folks. U-G-L-Y.
Before the Ayton haters come out in droves, though, make sure you also peep that Paul is a Hall of Famer. Yet these pick-and-rolls somehow still result in 2-3 defenders sinking hands-up on Ayton, leaving Paul open for the mid-range J that he’s been missing way too much. Isn’t Chris Paul the point god? Well, a point god should be able to figure this out.
And he will. I guess it just takes a bit of time, and Ayton IS like a deer in the headlights right no. They’ll have to figure it out together.
Meantime, what is Monty to do?
“It’s something that I’ve got to take a deep look at,” he said after Monday’s game. “And see if it’s not worth a discussion on a number of things. That group has not played well.”
The fit of the five-man lineup is clearly not natural.
“I don’t think they’ve had a ton of time to gel, and know what to expect, to know how to play off of each other,” Monty said.
On paper, this is a very group starting lineup and the main reason the Suns are talked about as a likely high playoff seed this year. Paul and Booker are All-Star talents as scorers, playmakers and closers. Bridges and Crowder stretch the floor and play top drawer perimeter defense. And Ayton has been stellar on defense all over the floor.
The warts are there, though. Paul looks every day of 35 years old and plays at the speed of a sloth sometimes. Booker looks a little more comfortable being aggressive in a deficit. Bridges and Crowder can completely disappear if they don’t make their first shot. And Ayton, we talked about him already.
Which of these sides of the starting unit will win out?
Should we just ride out the schedule and see, or should we change it up a bit?
“It’s something that I’ve got to maybe make an adjustment,” he concluded. “Ultimately, I got to do what’s best for the team. It may mean that... we have to make some type of change.”
Well, you’re not going to bench Paul or Booker, so that leaves the other three.
Would it help Ayton to come off the bench behind Dario? I’m not sure. Dario isn’t a good pick and roll match with CP3 either.
Should Cameron Johnson take over Mikal Bridges spot? While neither player would complain, I don’t yet see how the Suns are better with Bridges out of the lineup. But he might not be a great pairing with Crowder on the other side of Ayton/Saric.
Which leads to...
Should Cameron Johnson take Jae Crowder’s starting spot? Jae has been either white hot or frozen cold this year, while Cam might be more steady. And Cam has a great chemistry with Bridges. The Suns went 8-0 in the Bubble with Cam starting all those games at Jae’s spot, yet Jae has started in the playoffs for years and has always been seen as a glue guy in a talented lineup.
Who knows what Monty should do. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks.
On one hand, it’s obvious the starting unit isn’t solving their own problems.
On the other hand, the Suns are still 7-4, tied for 2nd in the West despite playing one of the toughest schedules so far.
“It doesn’t matter what change you make,” Williams said, “If you’re not sharing the ball and playing hard consistently, which has been our formula, you can put a lot of groups out there it’s just not gonna work.”