At different points in the same game, the Phoenix Suns starting power forward Jae Crowder and backup point guard Cameron Payne both went down in heaps under the basket after a driving layup, only to come up lame with a wrist injury to their non-shooting hand.
Cameron Payne stayed in the game for a bit after his fall, but Jae Crowder immediately curled into a ball, then hopped up and sprinted off the court back to the locker room before even David Crewe, the Suns head trainer, could come over to look at him.
“It’s tough,” Chris Paul said later, of seeing two of his teammates go down in the same game. Paul was heard yelling the f-bomb when he saw Crowder sprint off.
“It kinda put my mood down at the end of the game to see them get hurt,” Mikal Bridges said later. “Just pray for them tonight. It just sucks. Part of the game. You can’t control it.”
The Suns are already missing starting center Deandre Ayton (ankle) for the past week, and Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric and Abdel Nader for much longer than that.
Luckily, General Manager James Jones has been a wizard at finding players to fill in for the injured/COVID before it affects the on-court win rate. The Suns have the best record in the league by a solid margin (three more wins and four fewer losses than the next closest team), but their depth will continue to be tested.
First, Jones replaced backup center Dario Saric (knee, out for the year) with JaVale McGee, who has posted his best numbers in five years. Then he replaced Ayton (various) and McGee (COVID) with Bismack Biyombo and Jalen Smith, who have also put up their best numbers.
Biyombo tied his 11-year career highs in points (21) and assists (5) on Saturday night off the bench as part of a stat line (20/10/5) not matched by a Suns player off the bench since... drum roll... James Jones himself, during the 2006 season.
When Devin Booker (hamstring) missed seven games, followed soon after by Jae Crowder missing five games (COVID), Cameron Johnson stepped up with career high scoring numbers, posting double digits in scoring in 19 straight games and making at least two three-pointers in a league-high 22 straight.
James Jones moves and counter-moves have not all been perfect, though.
The Suns struggled a bit earlier this season when Payne (hamstring) missed 5 games. Backup Elfrid Payton was not yet acclimated to Suns basketball and his non-shooting skills don’t fit perfectly with a Suns scheme that needs everyone to be, if not good at it, at least willing to take the open shot.
Backup power forward has also been a sore spot for the Suns when Jae Crowder went down. Cam Johnson was great as the starter, as mentioned above, but Cam’s backups were a smorgasbord of unproductive two-ways (Ish Wainright, Chandler Hutchison), 10-days (Paris Bass, Justin Jackson) and out-of-positions (Jalen ‘Stix’ Smith).
If Payne and Crowder miss time again, it looks like Elf, Stix and Ish will get another chance to prove their value.
“The thing about Elfrid is he’s kept his spirit at a balanced level,” Monty Williams said of Payton stepping in for Payne in the second half. “When you’re not playing and then you’re thrown in there it’s hard. I think his spirit has really helped our team. He could be one of those guys pouting at the end of the bench [but] he hasn’t been like that.”
Payton’s shooting game still doesn’t fit perfectly in the Suns system. He still won’t take shots and is unlikely to make them when he does.
On the plus side, though, Payton is very good at moving the ball in the point-five system, limits his turnovers and plays hard on the defensive end. What the Suns lose on offense with Payton over Payne they can hope to offset with defense.
In Jae’s spot, the Suns have Jalen Smith chomping at the bit with his nose for rebounding and budding offense, but whatever we say about Payton’s defense would not extend to Smith at the power forward spot. He just doesn’t move well in space, and if given regular minutes at the four he might start getting exposed by teams desperate to beat the Suns any which way.
Ish Wainright is available too. He does not score much, and isn’t much of an offensive player, but he’s got some football-esque heft to defend bigger power forwards and puts out maximum effort on every play.
Neither Stix nor Ish have had a chance to get comfortable in the backup power forward role, though. Their minutes have been limited and inconsistent, only appearing in case of injury or foul trouble.
“We’ve got a few guys who have been thrown in there about after having sat for 5-10 games,” he said. “That’s pretty hard.”
Monty might not have a choice, though. Almost never does a player miss the rest of the game they got hurt, only to be cleared to play two days later.
Most likely, Payne and Crowder will miss some time. The length of that time is entirely dependent on the severity of the injuries, which won’t be known for a few days unless something drastic happens. Meaning: surgery will be disclosed, but anything short of surgery is likely day-to-day. Doolie and Frank have been day-to-day for two months now!
Williams is already mentally preparing for life without Cam Payne for the immediate future.
“I don’t want to do that,” Williams said of playing 37-year old Chris Paul 40 minutes a night, like he did on Saturday. “We’re gonna have to use Elfrid, maybe Landry [Shamet] at some one, Book at some one, to spell Chris if Cam can’t go. We don’t know yet.”
The Suns touted Shamet as a combo guard before the season, but we have not seen much playmaking from him yet. His assist percentage (9.9) is 6th on the active roster, right behind the likes of Bismack Biyombo and well behind Payton (21.0), Booker (21.4), Payne (25.6) and Paul (43.5).
Devin Booker might get more on-ball time. His ‘touches’ per game are well down from prior seasons, as the Suns try to balance their attack to be more ready for the playoffs when defenses focus on getting the ball out of CP3 and Book’s hands. But now with the injuries piling up, we might see more Point Book than ever.
Of course, the trade deadline is coming up on February 10. Don’t expect James Jones to panic-trade for a playmaker or power forward if the Payne/Crowder injuries are minor.
But if one or both are projected to miss a lot of games, this is the perfect time for JJ to find out. He’s got more than two weeks to fill gaps long-term.
Y’all keep mentioning Eric Gordon, who would be perfect in this system as a playmaker, shot creator and shot maker. However, Gordon makes $18 million this year! What $15+ million in salaries are you going to trade that the rebuilding Rockets want and that wouldn’t make the Suns worse?
One rumor has the Celtics offering Dennis Schroder for Jalen Smith straight up, which looks good on paper and would be a nice get if Payne is definitely out long term. But Schroder was let go by the Lakers, even when his asking price dropped to Stix levels, and is now being shopped by the Celtics for a guy in Stix whose contract situation likely means he will leave them this summer. That’s got a funny smell, to me.
If the Suns are going to lose Payne or Crowder for more than two weeks, you can bet James Jones will do SOMETHING. What that is, we will continue to dig to find out.
Check out the last two weeks of the Solar Panel for Suns trade rumors according to NBA insiders Jake Fischer and Eric Pincus. Pls subscribe while you’re there. I’ll have another NBA insider on the pod this coming week.