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McGee out too: Should the Suns start Bismack Biyombo until Ayton gets back?

The center has proven to be effective, especially when playing with Chris Paul, while Deandre Ayton is out

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns will be heading to Utah without either of starting center Deandre Ayton (ankle) or backup JaVale McGee (knee), who had been starting in Ayton’s absence.

McGee has just been reported as OUT by the Suns on today’s injury report with knee soreness. He played on Monday night but was in foul trouble most of the game. Now, he’s out. (Jae Crowder and Cameron Payne are also still OUT.)

The Suns are no strangers to injuries and illness at center this year.

The injury bug has plagued Phoenix Suns fourth-year starting center Deandre Ayton throughout the first half of the 2021-22 NBA season. While his team has excelled to a 37-9 record, Ayton has played in just 61% of the team’s games. The Suns are 22-6 in games in which he has played, and 15-3 in games he has missed.

Early in the season he had a knee contusion that cost him six games. Then he had a non-COVID illness for two games. During an Omicron laden December, Ayton was forced to miss an additional six games due to COVID. Now, we haven’t seen Deandre Ayton suit up and play for the Phoenix Suns since he tweaked his ankle during the first quarter on January 16 in Detroit.

In his four games prior to falling victim to injury in Detroit, Ayton hadn’t missed a beat. He averaged 18.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, sprinkling in 1.0 blocks and shooting 70% from the field (including 100% from beyond the arc – 1-of-1). On the season he is posting 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds nightly. His eFG% of 64% is 19th best in the league for any player who has appeared in 25+ games.

Unfortunately for Ayton, he hasn’t been able to stay on the court. Fortunately for the Suns, however, reigning NBA Executive of the Year James Jones has pieced together a center rotation behind Ayton that has not only been productive, it’s been sustainably effective while Ayton is out.

This past offseason, after recognizing the deal for interior assistance, thanks in part to what the Milwaukee Bucks did to the Suns in the NBA Finals, Jones made it a priority to add big man depth. He did so by signing three-time NBA Champion and newly minted Olympic gold medalist JaVale McGee to a one-year, $5M contract.

During COVIDecember when Ayton and McGee both went down and out, Jones signed Bismack Biyombo to a ten-day contract to backup the undersized but uber-active Jalen Smith.

Smith had a fun, if short, run as the third center and emergency starter. In an 11-game stretch that included 4 starts, Smith averaged 9.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game with a healthy +6 on the plus/minus scale per game. His four starts were even better: 17.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game.

But now Bismack Biyombo, who has started 307 career games, is more integrated into the team.

Biyombo’s productivity and ability to mesh with the Suns scheme prompted Champ to sign Bismack for the remainder of the season after that 10-day contract. Why? Because you never know what might happen…

Although signs are pointing towards Ayton returning soon, seeing the production provided by McGee and Biyombo, you have to be pleased with the results. Their integration allows for Ayton to take as much time needed as possible, to truly ensure that his ankle is feeling 100%, and to come back ready to contribute in a healthy state of being.

While we wait for the return of Ayton, and clearly the Suns are playing well, it’s fun to over-analyze everything and find opportunities to get better (which I know is damn near impossible. Phoenix has won 7 in a row; no proposed change would give the Suns a better record over their last 7 games). Just wait. A #TradeLandry piece is coming soon.

As we conduct our post game podcasts on the Suns JAM Session, I posed a fun question while we patiently wait for Deandre’s recovery: At what point are the Suns going to start Bismack Biyombo over JaVale McGee?

Well now, with McGee down too, we don’t even need to wait.

I propose moving Biyombo from now on while Ayton is out, and bringing McGee off the bench.

JaVale, for the most part, is a backup center. Of his 789 regular season games in his career, he has started 333 of them (42%). As his age has progressed, so has his willingness to be the energy-off-the-pine guy.

Since joining the Suns, he has performed much better coming off of the bench.

  • Starter: 14 games, 11.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 58.6 FG%, 61.7 TS%, 21.7 USG%, 3.9 fouls
  • Reserve: 28 games 9.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 69.8 FG%, 70.3 TS%, 25.4 USG%, 2.1 fouls

Across the board, McGee is more productive when he is coming off the bench. There are numerous reasons as to why: the opposition’s bench players attack the rim less – which prevents McGee from getting in foul trouble, he has a larger role in the offense, the opposing center is less talented than the starting center, and he can play with short spurts of intensity.

While he hasn’t been horrible as a starter, his affinity for fouling ends up leading to more minutes for the backup five. Which is why James Jones brought Biyombo in.

Bismack has delighted the Phoenix faithful in his first few games with the Phoenix Suns. In his 9 games, all coming off the bench, he has averaged 10.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, with a 70.2 FG%.

He has been fantastic, although I’m not sure if he is quite Rodman level yet.

He meshes well with the first team unit, especially Chris Paul. 39.5% of the passes Bismack has received are from the Point God – he’s received 47 passes in total from him – and he has scored on 32% of those passes (Biyombo has shot the ball 23 times coming off of a CP3 pass, making 15, which is a 65.2 FG%).

In short, if you see Paul pass it to Bismack, there’s a solid chance points will be scored. The team is a +73 when the two share minutes.

Since Deandre Ayton’s injury, Biyombo has averaged 8.0 minutes in the fourth quarter, compiling 4.8 points on 76.9% shooting. He’s added 2.2 rebounds. McGee, who has started, is getting 4.3 minutes and 1.5 points on 50% shooting.

It’s time for Biyombo to get that starting nod on Wednesday night with both Ayton and McGee out.

And going forward, any time someone needs to fill in for Ayton, I propose it’s Biyombo who gets the start over McGee and Jalen Smith.