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Suns 10-game review: Are they cooked without Cam Johnson?

Will the Phoenix Suns fade into the pack without the injured power forward for the next two months?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

After 10 games, the Phoenix Suns are second in the Western Conference with a 7-3 record. They are behind only the head-scratching Utah Jazz, who have inexplicably started the season 9-3 without having a single All-Star left on the roster.

Compared to the Jazz, the Suns have the most staying power, ranking first in the West with a +8.9 net rating (scoring margin over a full 100-possession game). They sport the league’s 9th-ranked offense and 2nd-ranked defense.

The offense was 3rd-ranked until Monday’s debacle in Philly, where they finished off their first 10 games with a 12-point loss in which they scored only 88 points. Chris Paul left early with right heel soreness, leaving the already-shorthanded Suns to mix and match against a Philly team that was cooking with gas.

While you might have gotten flashbacks of every playoff loss the last two years — ineffective Paul and non-alpha Mikal and DA leaving Booker on a scoring island — you need to remember that this is the regular season. Early in the regular season.

While the Suns may not have solved the playoffs, but they’ve certainly solved the regular season. They know how to pile up wins. No, they’re not going to kill themselves for 18-game winning streaks or 8-game leads in the Conference, but they know how to win a lot more games than they lose.

It just might be a bit more up-and-down this year, especially while they are missing both Cam Johnson (torn meniscus) and Jae Crowder (torn loyalty) for the coming weeks, months and maybe the whole rest of the season.

R.I.P., Starting Lineup

Thanks to this tweetyes, I still love twitter and can’t possibly imagine a world where I don’t, I mean it’s not like some billionaire egomaniac is going to buy it and turn it into a nightmare hellscape — we get to encase the success of the Suns Cam-Johnson-loaded starting lineup in protective glass for the next two months or so.

With Johnson in the starting lineup alongside the veteran playoff starters Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, the Suns posted an absurd +33 points per 100 possession (basically, a game). The only team better? The Bucks. See the graphic below.

Unfortunately, you can’t play your starters a whole game. In fact, the Suns only got 67 minutes over 6 games from their starters this year due to injuries to Cam Johnson and Deandre Ayton. Now Cam will be out for months to come.

Looks like Cam chose the short-return route with his surgery, so he will be back for the playoff run but will miss a big chunk of the regular season.

Without Cam in the starting lineup, on the floor with the starters, they have still been good but not THAT good.

Their lineups with at least one bench player, which will be 100% of the time for a long long time, are just +4 per 100 possessions. If you assume the Suns will remain a +4 on net rating going forward, they would still rank 3rd in the West.

The Suns won’t fall off a cliff without Cam Johnson, but they won’t run away with the conference either.

On Torrey Craig as the new starter

The starting lineup, with Torrey Craig as starter in place of Cam Johnson, has a paltry net rating of -2.0 points per 100 possessions. All the other lineup combinations, combined, are a +10 between the Blazers (20 point win) and Sixers (12-point loss).

Craig was great at making his threes in the early season, but since stepping into the starting lineup and NEEDING to make those threes he’s been 2-for-7 for that distance and passed up a lot more.

The best Torrey Craig is one that puts all his energy into defense on one end and cutting and diving for offensive rebounds on the other. If he’s simply playing Cam Johnson’s role of standing on the three-point line waiting for a shot, he’s not going to be very good.

“He’s been thrown into a number of situations with us,” head coach Monty Williams said of Craig taking over that starting spot. “And I thought his energy (Saturday night) was great. Defensively, he made it very tough on Jerami (Grant) at times and then he had the energy and wherewithal, to get back to a shifting position when Jerami didn’t have the ball. I thought he was really good tonight and he’s just been a maniac attacking the glass this year and when he’s knocking down his three-point shot from the corner, it just adds to what he brings to the table every night.”

If the Suns are going to keep Craig in that starting lineup, maybe they need to switch he and Mikal’s roles up. Mikal is a much better catch-and-shoot guy — like the guy he was two years ago — while Craig can do all the offensive cutting and crashing the glass.

“I think well, you know it is obviously a different situation than Cam Johnson,” guard Devin Booker says of Craig. “He defends at a high level. He is giving Mikal (Bridges) some breaks on (Jerami) Grant, they switched it up a bit. Making open shots, he has made a few corner threes’ yesterday and today.”

For his career, Craig is a 33% three-point shooter on low volume. That’s not great, but it’s not far off from Jae Crowder’s 34% (career and last year). And clearly, Craig is better in a slightly larger role than 5-10 minutes off the end of the bench.

Torrey Craig won’t raise the Suns ceiling, but he won’t lose the Suns a bunch of games this year as the starter.

On not going for the wins record

“Having a franchise record last year and getting bumped in the second round isn’t a good feeling,” Devin Booker says of piling up regular season wins. “So, we are coming with the mindset where we are just focused on getting better. Wins and losses isn’t really a good thing as long as we have home court advantage and we are in the playoffs.”

Having home court requires a top-four seed in the conference to at least host the first round, and a top-two conference seed to be sure to host more than that. Since re-entering the playoffs last year, the Suns have had home court advantage in all six playoff series and taken at least 1-0 leads every time. That’s helped get them 4 series wins out of 6 and a second-best 21 total playoff wins over two years.

To be sure, the Suns want a top-two seed at least. But they won’t necessarily care to create the 8-game separation like they did last year.

“Of course you want home court,” Chris Paul said. “But the best feeling is when you’re on a team and you just know that no one is going to be able to beat you four out of seven times. Don’t get it twisted, the regular season is the regular season, and you have to build. Like I always say, beating a team on a Tuesday night in January with the fourth game in five nights, so what.”

Next 10 games

The Suns have 7 wins in their first 10 games but now will have to play without Cam Johnson at the least. There’s also the issue of Chris Paul’s sore heel that took him out of game 10. We’re still waiting for word on that injury.


Wins in next 10 games?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    9 or more
    (6 votes)
  • 48%
    7 or 8
    (154 votes)
  • 44%
    (139 votes)
  • 5%
    Less than 5
    (16 votes)
315 votes total Vote Now

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