On last week’s trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns filled the exact positions I said they should target — a 4th wing and 3rd/4th point guard — because the league’s best team simply didn’t need any shakeup among high-usage players.
The Suns are the league’s best team by a wide margin. They have the most wins (46-10, with a 4-game lead over the 2nd-best team), best net rating, 2nd best offense and 4th best defense. They made the Finals a year ago, are the best road team, the best clutch team— you’ve heard all this before. Suffice to say, the Suns don’t need help among their top players.
What they needed was a bit more depth to handle injuries better. Already this year, GM James Jones had struck gold on his 5th and 6th centers (JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo), but struck out on finding a consistent 4th wing to replace the loss of Torrey Craig and was underwhelmed with the play of his 3rd point guard.
Enter Torrey Craig and Aaron Holiday.
Craig was wonderful a year ago as one of the four wings that interchangeably share the two forward spots around the center. The Suns need them to switch everything defensively while providing some offensive juice.
“I think that’s what makes us so special,” Craig said after his season debut in a Suns uni. “That’s what makes this team so difficult to guard. Different guys can play different positions, offensively, defensively guard a lot of different positions and switch. That creates a lot of advantages for us on both sides of the ball. Having a lot of wing guys is definitely a weapon, and it’s definitely a value to have in this league.”
Their top three are locked in place just like last year, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson taking all but 15 or so of the 96+ available minutes. Now, Craig slots right back in there as the 4th.
“Yeah man, it’s crazy,” Craig said. “It literally feels like the same way it did last season, just coming in and fitting right in with guys. But, I guess it’s that easy and you have a bunch of guys who play together and play to a certain standard. It’s easy to fit in with those guys.”
Craig fit in seamlessly a year ago, when Jones acquired him a bit ahead of last year’s deadline to shore up the 4th wing spot. Now a year later, history repeats itself.
Except here’s a bonus: this year’s Torrey Craig has added a couple more wrinkles to his offensive game after a few months with a bigger role in Indiana.
“His willingness to take shots,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Craig after seeing him play on Saturday night. “That’s something that I don’t know if he was as confident as he is right now, last year. Now he’s just letting it go.”
Make no mistake, though. Craig is here to play defense, not be an offensive powerhouse. The Suns have truly needed a 4th wing, especially one that’s slightly bigger than the others but just as mobile, with the ability to defend all five positions when necessary.
“His ability to defend multiple positions is something we feel like will help us,” Williams said. “I thought there were times that [Orlando shooting guards Terrence] Ross and [Gary] Harris had opportunities to come off screens and he just bulldogged those guys and made it really tough on them, because of his size and strength and defensive acumen. He can make it tough on a number of positions.”
In his debut back in Phoenix, Craig was wonderful. He notched 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting (2-of-3 3FG), 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in just 23 minutes — the most productive all-around game of his Suns tenure over two seasons, not counting a pair of late-season blowouts.
Also acquired by Phoenix on Tuesday, and playing in his first game as a member of the Suns, Aaron Holiday tallied 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting (2-of-3 3FG).
One of the fans in the chat on the Solar Panel last Saturday compared Holiday to Jevon Carter. They wear the same number (4), have similar builds (6’0” on a tall day), can make threes at an above-average clip (37%) and profile more as an undersized shooting guard than point guard.
Holiday has a bit more in his bag than Carter, though. He scores better inside the three-point line and finishes well at the rim. He also passes better than JC, though he’s not quite as good a one-on-one defender.
“His ability to shoot the ball and defend the ball is something that Holidays are known for,” Williams said. Aaron is the youngest brother of Jrue Holiday (Bucks) and Justin Holiday (Kings, since last Thursday). Justin and Aaron played together on the Pacers in Aaron’s first three years in the league.
“Just watching those two guys fit right into the program was pretty cool tonight,” Williams said.
“The vibes are great,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said after their debuts.
If you’re saying to yourself ‘sounds great but I’d like to SEE it’, here you go...
The acquisition of Holiday also might have lit a fire under Elfrid Payton, who made a season-high TWO THREES and nearly recorded his 18th-career triple-double on Saturday night, tallying 10 points, a season-high 9 assists and a season-high 7 rebounds in the blowout over Orlando.
Better point guard play behind the injured Cameron Payne and workhorse Chris Paul (37+ minutes per game since Payne’s injury) was a must, and now Payton and Holiday can have a friendly battle for minutes until Payne returns.
Casualties of these two acquisitions were young Jalen Smith — who is BALLING for Indiana right now, averaging 14.5/7.5/1.0 in two games — and the ever-injured Abdel Nader.
Watch out for a new Solar Panel later this week with Pacers writer and podcaster Caitlin Cooper to break down Smith, Holiday and Craig.