When All-Star point guard and Phoenix Suns leading scorer Devin Booker went down with a pulled hamstring almost two weeks ago, many of us assumed that the Suns other stars would have to increase their scoring load to make up for his loss.
Booker’s 23.2 points per game lead the Suns by a wide margin, with Deandre Ayton* well back in second place (16.0 per game). Where in the world would the Suns get the scoring needed from the other eight regular rotation players to make up for Booker’s 20% share of the Suns scoring output?
*This article is focused on the Suns’ filling in for Booker’s four-game-and-counting absence. We all know how JaVale McGee and Frank Kaminsky/Jalen Smith have filled in for Deandre Ayton’s 7 missed games. Let’s focus here on Booker’s absence.
In the first 21 games of the year, Booker played 13% of the team’s minutes (32.2 per game) while contributing 20.2% of their scoring (23.2 per game).
I assumed that Mikal Bridges and/or Chris Paul would step up their minutes and production, but that has not happened. Together, they have only played an additional 1.7 minutes per game while their scoring has actually gone DOWN by -1.8 points per game.
Okay, maybe Deandre Ayton did all the heavy lifting then? A leeettle bit. In the first three games (he missed the last one with illness), Ayton’s minutes, field goal attempts and points ticked up a couple each, which barely offset the lost points of Bridges and Paul.
Bottom line: In four games without Booker, the Suns coaching staff has not given any extra minutes or responsibility to the other top players on the team in Bridges, Paul and Ayton.
This is probably because the competition has been mostly light, with three home wins over the Pistons, Spurs and Celtics, and with an eye to keep everyone fresh early in the season.
Suns head coach Monty Williams will give you an even better answer. When you ask him about Bridges, Paul and Ayton doing the same things they’ve always done, rather than step up...
“Nobody should change their game based on who they’re playing with,” Williams said after Friday’s win over the Celtics, of not giving more responsibility to the stars. “We’ve said that a number of times. In order for us to be the team we want to be, other guys are going to have to play with a great deal of confidence.”
Sure, every coach wants a deep team that can fill in from the bottom up when a star goes down. But Monty Williams saw first hand what happens in the playoffs, even when the stars are available.
“As we saw in the playoffs a number of times,” Williams said. “Teams are going to either try to take Chris out so he can’t initiate, they’ll blitz Book, they’ll trap Book when he has the ball, and guys have to be able to make plays.”
You remember Ayton becoming a bigger offensive threat in the Western Conference side of the playoff bracket when teams schemed to reduce Book’s touches. And you remember Cam Payne’s 29 and 9 with 0 turnovers in the WCF when Chris Paul went down (COVID).
But you also saw the Suns buckle in the Finals when the Bucks vaunted defense put the clamps on Booker and Paul while greeking Ayton those last two games. Williams needs his other guys to be able to win games too.
Those players have been a balanced combination of the other wing shooting options on the team. Over the last four games:
- Cameron Payne (+4.9 FGA, +3.9 pts)
- Landry Shamet (+3.7 FGA, +3.8 pts)
- Cameron Johnson (+3 FGA, +6.2 pts)
- Jae Crowder (+1 FGA, +3 pts)
“I feel like, for me,” said Cameron Payne after the Friday win. “It gave me confidence to go out there and make plays for my team. We got to go play, everyone else has to handle it, that’s kind of how our team do. But we play together, so if they want to take guys out, we have four other guys that can play. We just play team basketball.”
With Payne and Shamet making up the majority of Booker’s missing shots/points, the Suns have been less effective in the scoring department. Payne is shooting only 39% from the field while Shamet is shooting just 36% over these four games. The Suns offensive output has dropped by 5 points per game over these last four games (two of the opposing defenses have been top-10 in the NBA, at least) and ranks just 20th overall in efficiency in that span.
It’s the Suns defense and the light competition that has carried them in Booker’s absence. The defense has ranked 8th over the last four games and, despite the lagging offense and a 20-point loss to the Warriors, they have won 3 of 4 with a +3.5 scoring margin. The Suns are 9-0 this season when holding opponents under 100 points and 18-0 when holding them under 110.
In the last game, a victory over the Boston Celtics (13-13 at the time), the Suns were down several rotation players, including Deandre Ayton (non-COVID illness) and Booker, as well as the ongoing absences of Abdel Nader, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric.
“You need the talent for sure,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the short-handed Suns. “But there are nights during the season where the style of play, the standard of play can help you sustain when you have so many guys out.”
“We trust our depth and everyone in the locker room to come in and be players,” forward Jae Crowder said after the Celtics win. “And that’s what happened tonight. You saw a lot of guys contribute to winning.”
Now the competition heats up, while news on Booker’s progress has been steady: still rehabbing, still OUT.
In the next seven days, the Suns play four games against competition that is all in the playoff hunt — at the Los Angeles Clippers (15-12) and Portland Trail Blazers (11-16), home versus the Washington Wizards (15-12) and Charlotte Hornets (15-13).
Will the Suns coaching staff keep relying on the bench players and Jae Crowder to make up for an All-Star’s shooting and playmaking?
Or will we see a real step-up from the other best players on the team — Mikal Bridges, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton (who is questionable tonight, recovering from illness) — now that the competition is getting tougher?