Priorities change quickly.
It wasn’t long ago that a surprising performance from a Suns bench player would be met with celebration. And while that’s certainly still the case if the end result is a win, as the Suns look toward the playoffs in a couple months, the recent breakouts of players like Abdel Nader, Frank Kaminsky and even E’Twaun Moore are only making it harder for Monty Williams and the coaching staff to craft a playoff-ready rotation.
But let’s start with the obvious.
The starting lineup is basically cemented now, and we know that Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson are firmly part of the rotation when healthy. That’s seven players, and most teams only play eight or nine in the playoffs. So what we’re talking about here is one or two spots.
Still, that’s easier said than done. Especially when the coaches are still feeling out certain players. Williams said after another double-digit scoring night from Nader against Golden State on Thursday that he had changed around his rotation of late explicitly to get Nader more minutes. Nader’s aggressiveness, athleticism and IQ are really useful for how the Suns play.
“I think he’s going to be a huge player for us in the second half of the season,” Williams said.
A laid-back and confident demeanor helps Nader focus on improving, and being on his third team in four seasons, he understands that opportunities can be hard to come by.
At the same time, Kaminsky’s status seems to be dependent upon the health of the rest of the roster. When Saric has been out, Kaminsky has often served as a backup center, and with Johnson out against the Warriors, Kaminsky again got some playing time. But when the roster is at full strength, it appears Kaminsky won’t play.
Fortunately, for as much as he’s improved on the court since coming to Phoenix, Kaminsky may bring even more value in the locker room as a guy willing to sacrifice, pump up his teammates and be low-maintenance. That may be his role during the stretch run and into the postseason.
As for Payne, his situation is reminiscent of the backup guard turnstile that Williams created last season, when everyone from Elie Okobo to Tyler Johnson to Ty Jerome got a turn. The stakes are higher now to lock in on someone, but it sounds like Williams is ready to choose Payne, but just needs to see more consistency from him on defense. Moore is not a typical lead guard, whereas Payne can get the Suns into their offense and excels as a change-of-pace player.
“Just trying to settle in on who the backup point guard is going to be is something I haven’t been able to find a comfort level with,” Williams said. “That’s going to be a huge decision in the second half of the season.”
Payne knows he has his work cut out for him to earn the staff’s trust, but trusts himself to do so now that his ankle is fully healed.
“When I see myself not in there and I know what I can bring to the team, it kinds of hurts to be sitting out,” Payne said.
Getting back to his early-season role, playing 20-plus minutes every night, will require the type of dirty work he did to get into the rotation in the first place.
“I’ve gotta be better defensively,” Payne said. “Be more of a pest, like I was in the Bubble. I just have to keep that mentality of being hungry.”
Like Kaminsky, Moore is the type of player who has accepted a smaller role and mostly played at a high level when called upon. Those two (and others like Langston Galloway and Jevon Carter) being able to stomach sacrifice is part of what has kept spirits high all season for the Suns.
“They’ve handled it really well,” Williams said, “and that’s one of the reasons why we have what I believe is one of the best cultures in the NBA.”
Aside from the balance of keeping a locker room committed and together, there’s also the matter of winning games. As we saw when he closed the Laker game with Saric at center over Deandre Ayton, must-win moments require snap adjustments, and the ability to deploy bench players in the right ways to outmaneuver the opponent.
And because the Suns’ current starting lineup has gotten outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions this season, the team can’t just sit back and rely on those five to win games.
In particular, the bench offers more offensive versatility, with Saric’s play-making and scoring efficiency in addition to Payne’s downhill game and the expanding shooting game of Johnson. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, in a big game, Galloway’s spot-up shooting or Moore’s know-how and all-around game was needed. A general manager builds out a deep roster, and a coach has to fiddle with it until it’s right.
Waiting until the playoffs to sort it out isn’t an option. Williams knows it’s time to start homing in on who will play come the postseason.
“We have to settle on a rotation in the second half so we can have some consistency as we move forward in the season,” he said.