Out in the Bubble, each team was given an extra session of shooting time in the gym late at night in addition to their usual practice times. Having just been signed by the Suns on the final day of June and thrust into a fairly big role, Cameron Payne returned to the gym nearly every night. Not to shoot with teammates, but to run plays with his coaching staff.
It paid off, as Payne was the breakout star of the team in Orlando and regained his footing in the NBA.
Once the team returned to Phoenix, lead assistant Willie Green broke down game film with Payne to help him dial into the offense on an even more granular level. The pair discussed when to go into the Suns’ default “0.5” offense, meaning nobody holds the ball for more than half a second, and when to go into a more read-and-react mode that the team calls its “auto” offense. They went over how to operate depending on who was on the floor and what different Suns players’ tendencies were.
After the Chris Paul trade, learning how to put teammates in position to succeed so that the system can work its magic was vital for Payne to give the Suns good minutes at backup point guard.
“We’re a big-time team on running our stuff,” Payne told reporters earlier this month. “You can take options one and two away, but we have a lot of guys who can get into the paint, so it’s about the third and fourth options sometimes.”
Watching Paul from up close, Payne has been treated to a daily master class on point guard play.
All of it has helped Payne continue what he did in the Bubble, giving the Suns a capable backup play-maker that has stabilized the entire rotation. Now, Payne feels comfortable directing his teammates and being vocal, showing them that he knows their strengths and how to empower them with different plays or setups.
The Suns hardly ran with much of a bench at all in the Bubble, instead giving their starters heavy run and trimming down the rotation to just eight guys most games. While that entire group returned, with Jevon Carter and Dario Saric re-signing, Payne’s contract being guaranteed, and Cam Johnson moving back to the bench, it was hard to be certain that each piece could continue what they did in the Bubble at such a high level.
Would Carter’s shooting keep up? Was Saric a legit center now? And what could we even make of Payne? Through 10 games, the Suns have put those concerns to bed, and the second unit has been a major strength for the team.
Most importantly, Monty Williams has again stuck with a shrunken rotation. For the most part, only eight guys are getting major minutes: the starters, Payne, Johnson and Saric. That has left Carter and shooting specialist Langston Galloway to pick up the remaining pieces. Limiting players’ roles and not over-extending guys who can’t handle that is valuable in its own right. But Williams has also been comfortable rewarding the likes of Payne and Johnson when they play well.
Lineups featuring all three of Payne, Johnson and Saric (the three main bench pieces) are out-scoring teams by 36.5 points per 100 possessions in 103 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Among all Suns players, those guys represent the entire top three in total plus-minus through 10 games.
“A lot of the games we’ve won, we’ve been carried by our bench,” Booker said after a loss to the Wizards in which Payne was out with an ankle sprain.
Yet in a big victory over Indiana on Saturday night, Payne’s first missed game, the Suns’ bench kept plugging along. That in large part was because of Johnson, who is atop that plus-minus leaderboard and has been one of the team’s most consistent players all season.
The same level of comfort that has boosted Payne has settled in for Johnson, too. After all, the North Carolina product is one the only holdovers from last season.
That experience in the system and with his teammates has been the biggest reason for his increased scoring juice and confidence, Johnson told reporters last week. So far this season, Johnson’s usage rate is up to 20.2 percent from 15.7 percent last season, and he’s taking nearly 15 shots per 36 minutes.
On several occasions this season already, Johnson has earned more minutes than starter Jae Crowder and has closed a game or two as well.
With Saric back and doing his usual thing as a “connector” for the offense, the bench is coming together. But in addition to the ball movement, floor spacing and good decision-making, Saric has also put together more consistent flashes as a defender, too.
Who said Dario Saric wasn’t a defensive player? pic.twitter.com/Nta05OmJwF— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) January 10, 2021
Against bigger Pistons and Pacers teams, Williams has gone bigger during the Suns’ current road trip as well, putting Saric on the floor with Deandre Ayton. The two can cancel one another out a bit as both are best around the rim defensively, but it helps the Suns’ rebounding and overall defensive size.
After a loss to Washington, Williams sounded the alarm on the starting lineup for the first time all season, telling reporters that he was considering a change.
“That group has not played well,” Williams said of the starters.
Plays like this show how even with a killer one-on-one scorer like Booker in the starting unit, a lack of chemistry can challenge the Suns at times.
Another bad clip from the Suns' offense to start the game tonight:— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) January 12, 2021
Wizards in zone press, Booker has adv on Neto, yet the possession ends with a Crowder elbow jumper pic.twitter.com/rl7HQL86TA
Whether a change would place Johnson or Saric into the starting five remains to be seen, but it’s likely Crowder would be the one demoted due to his inconsistency on offense. Either way, it’s a tacit indication that the bench has out-played the first five all season.
But relying on the bench to come in and change games is stressful, as the Suns found on Monday night as they allowed the Wizards to jump out to an early double-digit lead and could not claw back. A greater balance between units could help.
Throughout the preseason, Williams repeated that the Suns would not run a “platoon” rotation, with all-bench and all-starter units. True to his word, Williams has staggered Devin Booker and Chris Paul, with Booker often playing with Payne and Paul with Carter, in addition to using all three forwards interchangeably. The Suns can play big or small depending on the opponent or who has a hot hand.
All that versatility and know-how has made the bench a real advantage for the Suns so far, eliminating maybe the only true weakness they had entering the season. Even if they’ve lost some clunkers because of slow starts, having steady play across the entire game can be the difference between hovering around .500 and surging to a 7-4 start as the Suns have.