As I write this, the Phoenix Suns are 20-16, in 5th place in the NBA Western Conference, and it’s been about 24 hours since we learned that Devin Booker will miss an entire month with a groin injury.
This is an interesting situation, because Booker has been going away the Suns’ primary scoring machine this season, as has been his habit for a few years now. He’s averaging nine points per game more than anyone else on the team, and almost eight field goal attempts more.
And while Booker has never been a Mikal Bridges-style Iron Man, it’s been a good long while since the Suns have faced the prospect of being without his services for such a long stretch. Last season his longest single absence was a roughly two-week seven-game stretch in early-mid December. In fact, this is potentially the longest sustained Booker absence ever, as a timetable of “at least four weeks” means he likely won’t suit up again until at least the end of January...fifteen or sixteen games from now.
The Suns are only three games out of first place. They’re also only a game and a half out of play-in territory. This 15-ish games could be crucial, as a subpar performance could potentially leave the Suns on the outside looking in and having to fight for their playoff lives down the stretch. And forget about home court.
Someone, or combination of someones, is going to have to step up in that stretch and become a more aggressive and potentially a more self-reliant bucket-getter. Nobody has to hero ball or try to “be Booker” but someone has to take it on himself to make scoring a bigger part of his game...to make getting baskets a higher priority than it has been previously.
So....let’s look at some candidates!
This is a role the wily old “Point God” could once have excelled at. He was the New Orleans Hornets’ leading scorer for two seasons straight, from 2007-2009, topping out in 2009 at just under 23 points per game at just a hair under 60% true shooting.
But alas, the script here calls for a younger performance, I’m afraid. I’d cast the 23 year-old CP3 in a heartbeat, but the 37 year-old version just isn’t the right fit anymore. While he can still create his own shot, and is shooting a respectable percentage from downtown, he seems to have lost the touch on his signature old-school midrange game and has almost entirely lost the ability to get to the basket for easier buckets. So unfortunately, we have to pass on this one.
Hmmm....here’s an interesting possibility. He’s got the look right out of central casting, no doubt. In his physical prime, good athleticism, high motor. Plenty of experience too.
Bridges has long excelled as a defensive stalwart with first-rate cutting skills and a dangerous catch and shoot game, particularly from the corner where he is a career 41% three point shooter. He was once viewed by some as a bit of a reach with the #10 overall pick, an older player who might top out as just a solid “3 and D contributor.” Maybe just a sixth man. He’s already proven he’s more than that.
The question now is whether Bridges is ready, willing and able to take the ball into his own hands and make getting points a priority for himself and his team.
It’s impossible to say whether the cause is scheme, mentality, or just ability, but Bridges has never consistently showcased the ability to make scoring opportunities from himself. Part of this seems to be that he’s not a very good pull-up shooter.
While he’s shooting a respectable 46% from the field on the year, and almost 40% from deep, he’s just a 41% shooter on pull-up shots. He attempts only 0.3 pull-up three pointers per game, and makes just 33% of those rare attempts. Of his 167 three point shot attempts this season, 155 of them came without a dribble of the ball.
And while his overall pull-up percentage on two-pointers has been higher in seasons past, they’ve been rare. Last season, for example, he attempted fewer than three shots per game after dribbling two or more times.
I don’t want this to seem like harping on some esoteric detail to no end. The point here is that dynamic scorers, like Devin Booker, are able to handle the ball for a bit and still present a dangerous scoring threat that the defense has to respect. Bridges has never shown he can do this, and its the principal thing separating him from the possibility of true two-way stardom. With Booker out a month, this could be the time to find out if he’s even capable of it.
Let’s keep this one on the “maybe” pile.
Now here’s a guy whose résumé cries out for this role. Elite size and athleticism. In the early part of his physical prime. Former #1 pick, all-rookie selection, recently received a four-year max contract.
Like Bridges, Ayton is a guy who has only rarely shown the initiative to create his own scoring opportunity. The big argument among Suns fans on this topic is mainly about whether this is Ayton’s fault or not. Some have accused Ayton of simply being “soft,” unwilling to go at even smaller defenders and pick up buckets and fouls the hard way.
Others have scoffed at this idea, pointing to Ayton’s very effective array of short range finesse moves and placing blame instead on some combination of the Suns’ guards and coach for not feeding Ayton more.
Ayton is averaging 18 points on about 65% TS. That’s elite efficiency on pretty decent volume. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that, if everything were as it should be, he wouldn’t be just 54th in the league in scoring, right? Even if Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic-type numbers aren’t fair to expect, he should be closer to them than to Jusuf Nurkic, right? Ideally?
So how does Ayton get to this point and carry the Suns? Well, there are two options here, and both are probably important.
The first, as many knowledgeable fans have called for on Brightside, is to maximize Ayton’s use in the two-man game. whether that’s the PnR or the PnP, Ayton could have his number called more with different Suns backcourt players serving as the ballhandler.
Second is that Ayton could look to isolate more on overmatched defenders, and not be as willing to give the ball up if guarded tightly. Telling a basketball player to pass less probably seems sacrieligious to some fans, but there’s a time for selfishness even in such a team game. Selfishness in service of the team. I have a feeling good things will come if Ayton decides that he WILL be the Suns’ leading scorer.
Well, there’s always the good old-fashioned balanced effort, like the Suns got against the Grizzlies a few days ago. Maybe Duane Washington Jr. is emerging as an effective microwave scorer off the bench. That could really help. Damion Lee is a veteran with some scoring ability, he can get hot on a given night for you. Overall, though, I don’t like the prospect of relying on this bench to carry the Suns through this crucial time.
The trade market is a real possibility. With the sale of the team underway, is James Jones empowered and prepared to acquire someone who can shoulder some of the point-creation load?
It’s going to be an interesting few weeks ahead.
Who should the Suns look to as their primary shot creator in Booker’s absence?
This poll is closed
Someone else/nobody specific