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Suns are playing poker with a short deck

Injuries have sapped the Suns depth, forcing Paul, Booker and Bridges to play extra minutes

Phoenix Suns v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns have won three straight, including the last two on the road in back-to-back fashion against East powerhouses Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers. Using a wider lens, they have won 14 of their last 15 games. Pull back even wider and you’ll see a 17-2 record since the New Year to bolster their league-leading record to 44-10.

Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Monty Williams’ coaching staff will all represent the Phoenix Suns in the 2022 All-Star Game.

On the whole, everything is pretty great in the Valley of the Sun.

Lately though, the deepest team in the league has been bitten hard by injuries. In the last eight games, the Suns have had only seven or fewer reliable players available — the vaunted starters plus Cameron Payne and JaVale McGee.

Their once-deep bench has been decimated. Cameron Payne has missed the last 8 games. Either Landry Shamet (4) or Jae Crowder (4) have missed the same eight. Deandre Ayton missed the first three of those eight and has been slow to regain his form since returning. And that’s already being down Frank Kaminsky (the last 40), Abdel Nader (38) and Dario Saric (all season) for forever.

As a result, Monty has three strata of players available each night:

  • Crushing it (5): Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, JaVale McGee
  • Limited (2): Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder
  • Oh no (5): Elfrid Payton, Ish Wainright, Jalen Smith, Justin Jackson, Bismack Biyombo

Crushing it

Chris Paul (who will turn 37 this spring), Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges have been playing a whopping 37 minutes a night over the last eight. Booker and Bridges can handle it because they’re in their athletic primes, but I worry about Chris Paul. With Cameron Payne out and Elfrid Payton so ineffective, Paul has logged 39+ minutes in 4 of the past 6 games. That’s not a good formula for one of the oldest players in the league.

Talented backup Cameron Johnson — who was SNUBBED for the three-point contest on All-Star Weekend — has seen his minutes increase to 28 a night.

All four of Paul, Booker, Bridges and Johnson have admirably shouldered the load to carry the team.

Talented backup center JaVale McGee is the only one of this group who is healthy but has not seen an uptick in minutes (16 per game) during this stretch. The 33-year old has a very specific role to be his most effective self, and Monty is sticking with that. He’d rather give Bismack Biyombo spot minutes than extend McGee.


Limited

Both Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder have been shadows of themselves for most of the games since their return from injury.

Ayton (ankle) posted 20 points and 16 rebounds in only 24 minutes last Saturday versus the Wizards, but overall is just putting up 12 points and 9 rebounds in 26 minutes per game since returning five games ago. The short minutes are a red (maybe yellow?) flag for me. He’s playing much fewer minutes upon his return than the previous three times he missed games this year. The Suns have not reported any lingering issues with Ayton, but the short minutes are a clear sign to me that he’s being restricted while he plays back to full health.

Crowder told all of us he needed more time to let his left wrist heal, but decided to play with the pain when he saw so many guys go down injured. He’s on regular minutes (almost 30 per night), but scoring only 6 points per game on 29% shooting (20% on threes) and been in foul trouble more often than usual.


Oh no

With Cameron Payne (wrist), Landry Shamet (ankle) and the three amigos (Frank, Abdel, Dario) on the shelf, the Suns are stuck with their deep bench — the bottom three, a two-way and a 10-day — for way too many minutes a night these days.

Elfrid Payton has struggled mightily with running the offense when Chris Paul sits — he won’t shoot, constantly drives into traffic only to bail out and doesn’t set anyone up for good shots. Jalen Smith is effective as a center, but totally lost as a power forward. Bismack Biyombo tries hard, but cannot make a shot unless fed by Chris Paul. Two-way forward Ish Wainright can’t create a shot either, and fouls more often than he locks anyone up on D. Justin Jackson hasn’t made a jumper since signing another 10-day last week.

They are passable on their own when surrounded by four good rotation players, but you just can’t put more than one or two of them out there at once.

When the Suns played them as a group the whole fourth quarter against the Wizards, they got outscored 29-10. When they got another chance in the final minute against the Bulls, they got outscored 8-0. Both times, against the other team’s deep bench too, making Suns blowouts look much closer than they should have.


What’s next?

How much longer can the Suns keep going like this? Sure, they just beat two of the best East teams on the road and, again, are a league-best 17-2 in 2022. But they really need some reinforcements soon or they could be facing some losses, on the injury report and the scoreboard.

The worst thing they could do is wear out Chris Paul. They need him healthy and full of energy come playoff time if they want to hoist the Larry O’Brien.

Unfortunately, there’s not yet any timetable on Cameron Payne, the most important of the injured players because he’s Paul’s backup. The Suns last comment was that they would ‘re-evaluate’ him this week after two weeks of rest. Hopefully, he comes back soon but a complete shut-down is not usually followed by a quick ‘I’m back!’.

Certainly, the Suns are evaluating Payne’s recovery today, just 24 hours before the annual trade deadline.

The Suns have some assets to use without breaking up the core, but not a lot:

  • Dario Saric’s $9 million contract, 2 years
  • Jalen Smith’s $4.5 million contract, expiring
  • Landry Shamet’s complicated contract (salary matching would be difficult under CBA rules because he’s $3 million outgoing vs. $10 million incoming), 3 years minimum
  • Abdel Nader’s $2 million, 2 years (team option, year two)
  • Up to three future first round picks, starting in 2024
  • $4.5 million from the mid-level exception, for a buyout signing

Even after talking to a handful of insiders around the league, I still don’t know what the market is for the injured Dario, or the Suns interest in even trading him at all. But his contract is the only one the Suns can use if they want to acquire someone making more than $6 million this year.

If the Suns end up trading Jalen Smith for a backup point guard (like, Dennis Schroder for example), then the prognosis on Payne probably wasn’t very good. Schroder is a guy you only acquire if you’re going to play him primary backup minutes. He’d either have to be tabbed for Payne’s job or Shamet’s job.

The Suns could also trade for Houston’s Eric Gordon as a combo guard who can run the offense when Chris Paul sits, but Gordon is old, super-expensive for years to come and would cost a future first round pick to acquire. I’d be shocked if the Suns make this move.

The Suns could also wait to see what ends up on the buyout market. There’s a strong possibility that Goran Dragic gets bought out by Toronto if they can’t trade him in the next week. Suns fans would love to see The Dragon back in Phoenix, but they would have to compete with 29 other teams for his services. On the downside, he hasn’t played all year, is probably a shadow of himself these days and entirely injury-prone. On the upside, maybe he can drink from Chris Paul’s fountain of youth and recapture some Dragon magic.

The Suns do have a nice chunk of money to offer a bought-out player. Most teams can only offer the league-minimum (under $3 million for Dragic), but the Suns have up to $4.5 million remaining unused from their mid-level exception.

A combination of Torrey Craig (trade, for Smith) and Goran Dragic (buyout signing) might just be the best-case scenario over the next week to fill needs at forward and point guard, but the only certainty there would be Craig.

If the Suns decide they need certainty at point guard, they might get Dennis Schroder (trade, for Smith) and hope for a Thaddeus Young on the buyout market.

Either way, I’d be surprised if the Suns don’t bring in two new bench players by the end of next week.