Here comes the regular season for the Phoenix Suns. It all begins on Wednesday when Phoenix tips off against the team that banished them from the postseason, the Dallas Mavericks. Like the first day of school, the anxiety is rising. The preseason is over. The minutes now count. The slate is clean. The roster is set.
And there are plenty of questions to ponder.
There are easy questions to ask. How many wins will this team have? Which player will lead in points, assists, and rebounds? Will they be better at home or on the road? How will those turquoise uniforms look?
Then there are the harder questions that take more than a passing answer to fulfill. Will Deandre Ayton meet the expectations of his max contract? How will Monty Williams manage the minutes of aging point guard Chris Paul? Where will the Suns finish in a highly competitive Western Conference?
When I look at this roster as constructed, the most concerning question I have contemplated is in regards to the offensive depth of the team.
Cameron Johnson has been promoted to the first team. He was the most productive and consistent scorer coming off of the bench for Phoenix the last two seasons. The Suns don’t have anyone who can generate their own shot, and their backup point guard – Cameron Payne – is not what you would define as a “facilitator”.
Landry Shamet is your prototypical catch-and-shoot bench dude. Sometimes he will surprise you with a stealthy slam dunk, but he too lacks steady shot creation ability. Torrey Craig is, well, Torrey Craig. He’ll hit a spot up three on occasion, but he isn’t going to give you anything more than you expect. Which isn’t much these days.
Dario is a connector and that may be the key to offensive success as he sets up the spot up shooters on the court, but we’re uncertain at this time how Monty will utilize him. Is he the backup four or five? Of course there is Bismack Biyombo, but if you’re relying on him for offensive production, you’re asking to be a lottery team. And Ish Wainright? Nothing to see here kids, move along.
Then there’s the new kids on the block, who we hope will bring the right stuff.
We’re excited for the hustle, energy, and potential Jock Landale brings, but the fact remains that he is a 32.6% three point shooter and averaged 4.9 points during his rookie season last year with the Spurs. Josh Okogie is a career 27.5% three-point shooter and Damion Lee was 13th on the Golden State Warriors last season with a 109.3 OFFRTG. Duane Washington, Jr.? I don’t believe the preseason hype.
How will this team consistently generate offense from their second team unit? How are they going to hold or expand leads when the likes of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Chris Paul are seated next to Monty Williams, catching their breath?
Perhaps we’ve been looking at the second team unit all wrong.
In James Jones we trust, right?
Rather than focusing on the lack of offensive capability, perhaps the method to James Jones’ madness is he has built a second team unit that is designed to shut down the opposition with their defense.
It’s hard to gather much from the preseason, outside of the fact that you’re going to see some players get more minutes in four games than they might over a four week period during the regular season. What I did notice, however, is the lunch pail mentality of the newest additions of the Suns when paired with players who played meaningful last season.
Step by step, I was impressed. And no, I’m not going to stop dropping NKOTB references.
What’s the point in having your second team unit come in and shoot the lights out if they can’t defend? The minutes with the starters out become a shooting contest, and when you don’t have the assets to compete (RE: everything I said above about us not having the ability to do that), you give up leads. Even worse, if your starting unit was outplayed early, you dig yourself in a deeper hold that’s hard to climb out of.
It makes hangin’ tough. Okay. I’ll stop.
Defense, when you have the right players with the right mentality in the right system, can be more consistent than spotty second team shooting.
Jones did not put together a team full of turnstiles on his second team unit. Simply look at some of the advanced statistics from last season of his newest additions likely to see this minutes this season:
- Josh Okogie: 101.6 DEFRTG, 1.8 steals-per-75-possessions (96%tile, A+), 4.9 passing lane defense rating (93%tile, A), 3.8 deflections-per-75-possessions (93%tile, A)
- Damion Lee: 106.5 DEFRTG, 1.2 steals-per-75-possessions (81%tile, A- grade per BBall-Index)
- Jock Landale: 109.0 DEFRTG, 8.54 rim contests-per-75-possessions (92%tile, A), +1.25 rim protection (92%tile, A)
- Duane Washington, Jr.: 116.1 DEFRTG, not really good defensively, still not buying into the preseason hype
Cool. Advanced statistics. Numbers designed to justify a point of view. I get it. But I know what I witnessed during the preseason as well.
And it’s all starting to make sense.
Jones (and all of us) is hoping that Cameron Payne can regain the effectiveness on offense he had during the Bubble and the 2021 playoffs. I still have my doubts, but I am open to being wrong. Please. Let me be wrong.
Stability could be the cure for the oft-traded Landry Shamet, and his numbers may spike this season with the rhythm and routine of being in the same place for two consecutive years, a luxury he has never had.
Note that Payne and Shamet have been known to be highly engaged defensive players as well. Payne posted a 102.7 DEFRTG last season and Shamet was at 102.9. That is very serviceable.
If that is Jones’ design, then the addition of quality energetic defensive players is his justification for their lack of dependable offensive skills.
While we’re concerned with the lack of recognizable offensive production from the bench unit, Jones has built a squad that can bring it defensively. After all, what is the end goal of a second team? To hold or increase the lead while the starters catch their breath. Who says it has to be with lights out shooting?
One way to relieve the starters of minutes, most notably Chris Paul, is for Monty Williams to recognize when his second teamers are creating havoc for the opposition. If this is the case, he can keep them in longer, and keep Paul – and others – as fresh as possible.
Perhaps we’re looking at what the second team unit is designed to be all wrong.— Suns JAM Session Podcast (@SunsJAM) October 13, 2022
It’s a gamble.
If Okogie, Lee, and Landale can’t be productive on the defensive end, knowing that their offensive capabilities have a low ceiling, it will tax the first team unit into coming back earlier than desired. This will be the give-and-take we will witness throughout the season for the Suns.
It is time to let go of the thinking that we need the Langston Galloway-type production from our second team unit. Embrace the defensive mindset and mentality. Embrace the willingness to shut down the opposition’s bench. Embrace what Jones has designed.