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Is there a ceiling on Phoenix Suns wings as initiators?

Bridges, Crowder, and Johnson are being asked to step up offensively, but how far can they take the Suns?

Brooklyn Nets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Since coming back from the All-Star Break, the Phoenix Suns have been struggling to find their footing due to some pretty serious, albeit short term, depth issues.

Suns are 1-2 in the three games since coming back, which can essentially be chalked up to the point guard rotation of Chris Paul, Cam Payne, and Aaron Holiday playing only one of the possible combined nine over this stretch.

Holiday made a rough return during Sunday’s loss against Utah, Payne is expected back in the coming week or so, but Paul is expected to miss most of the remaining regular season.

In the meantime, head coach Monty Williams and the Suns have been especially reliant on the wings – Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson – to pick up some offensive slack, to complement the regular production of stars Devin Booker (28.3 points and 8.0 assists over this stretch) and Deandre Ayton (16.3 points and 6.7 rebounds).

With the Suns asking more of the wings than was planned, is there a ceiling to how effective this offense can be while they deal with point guard absences and ineffectiveness?

The coolest aspect of the larger dose of wing initiation is just the pure nature of it. Especially with Bridges and Johnson, wing initiation most often takes the form of off-ball activity, including cuts, kickouts to shooters, and even isolation scoring. This creates a very “Spurs-ian” style of ball that involves lots of passing and things that would fall under the “beautiful game” category.

As for the numbers, let’s start with the basic ones:

New to the starting role, Johnson’s had two games of 5 assists and is averaging 3.7 over this stretch, up from his 1.7 during the season. Bridges had a game with 6 and is averaging 4.0 during the three games, up from 2.0. Crowder – deemed in some instances as “Point Jae” – is seeing a jump as well, though not as dramatic, up from 1.6 to 3.3.

As for the more advanced marks, Johnson’s usage is up from 17.0 to 20.3, Bridges is interestingly still at 14.3 (though his Oklahoma City game was as high as 23.0), and Crowder is up from 14.0 to 16.1.

To get even more into the weeds, let’s look at some on/off court data, courtesy of FantasyLabs, Each of these will be the individual on the court without Booker, Paul, and Payne, so situations where the wings are forced to initiate.

Johnson’s played 73 minutes under those circumstances earning a net rating of +5.3, and his usage skyrockets to 21.9, producing 1.1 points per possession, which is a pretty elite mark. For reference, a 40% three-point shooter earns about 1.2 points per possession (PPP).

Much fewer minutes for Bridges here at just 22, but he boasts a net rating of +43.8. The usage unfortunately lies at just 9.8, but that points per possession, yet again, a stammering 1.4 PPP.

Even fewer minutes for Crowder at 19, but the numbers remain elite, including +32.2. Usage is way up at 25.3, and 1.2 PPP.

Despite what we’re seeing these past few games, these wings are generally reliable even without the more established ball handlers around them, although the depth behind them may continue to be awful, like they were against Utah, shooting 4-19 for just 11 points.

Turns out losing a Hall of Fame point guard makes a big difference up and down your roster, and I probably should’ve seen that coming.

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