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Suns likely to retool a bench that fell way short in the playoffs

At least 40% of the Phoenix Suns roster will change this summer, and maybe more than that

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns - Game Seven Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As we look back on the 2022 Playoffs for the Phoenix Suns, we have to look at the totality rather than just those last two games.

And the totality is this: the 2022 Suns were a completely different team than the 2021 Suns.

The 2021 playoff Suns were bad on offense (10th of 16 teams) and really good on defense (3rd of 16 teams). That defensive excellence helped get them through a gauntlet of opponents to get within two wins of an NBA title.

This year, with almost the same exact parts, the script flipped in the 2022 playoffs: 4th on offense and 11th on defense. Same head coach. Same starting lineup. Nearly the same bench options. Bad defense ended up killing them, and they fell in the second round.

Were the Suns opponents that much better this year than last year? I really don’t think so.

Here’s my spitball ranking of the Suns six playoff opponents.

  1. 2021 Bucks (Suns lost 4-2)
  2. 2021 Clippers (Suns won 4-2)
  3. 2022 Dallas (Suns lost 4-3)
  4. 2021 Lakers (Suns won 4-2)
  5. 2022 Pelicans (Suns won 4-2)
  6. 2021 Denver (Suns won 4-0)

You could even drop Dallas below the 2021 Lakers, since at the time they played each series the majority of pundits picked Lakers over Suns and almost unanimously picked Suns over Dallas.

How did the Suns get so bad in these playoffs?

Part of it was matchups, part of it hubris (remember Monty Williams saying they needed to find that “appropriate fear” again?), and part was just simply being in the wrong head space. I won’t even comment on illness/COVID because the Suns overcame that a year ago.

Whatever happened, everyone came up short.

And when I say everyone I mean everyone.


The Starters

The Suns starters came up short in this year’s playoffs. Some of that was the minutes they played: all of Booker, Ayton and Crowder played at least 3.6 fewer minutes per game across the 13 playoff games of the first two rounds than they averaged a year ago, across 22 games.

Booker’s drop in minutes appears mostly due to round one (hamstring injury); he was back up to 38 minutes per game in round two against Dallas. Yet, recall that Booker played through a broken nose AND a pulled hammy in last year’s playoffs and still averaged 40 per game over 22 games.

Crowder’s drop in minutes was a combination of weird foul trouble — he averaged almost 4 fouls per game! — and relatively poor performance. It’s just unfortunate that no one off the bench made up for Crowder’s underperformance.

Mikal Bridges was the only starter whose role increased these playoffs, rising from last among starters in minutes per game to the most. His production didn’t grow with the extra minutes, though, and despite him finishing second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting the Suns as a team dropped from 3rd out of 16 in playoff defense a year ago to 11th out of 16 teams this year.

While Mikal’s role increased, Ayton’s minutes fell precipitously. Ayton dropped from second on the team in minutes per game in the 2021 playoffs to a distant 4th among starters this year, even though he was healthy the entire time and the youngest guy in the rotation. That’s a whole shift that he lost this year!

Despite what you heard (because no one actually saw it, not even a camera operator) in the second half of the season-ending loss where Williams and Ayton got into a bit of tiff that probably scales more like pre-coffee domestic bickering than deep-seated dislike, Ayton was once again one of the better performers on the Suns in the playoffs.

Ayton’s playoff numbers, year over year:

  • 2021 Playoffs (22 games): +24 net rating (131 to 107), 18.1% rebound rate, 9.8% TO rate, 16.3 usage, .203 WS/48, 3.0 BPM, 1.0 VORP
  • 2022 Playoffs (13 games): +10 net rating (125 to 115), 17.4% rebound rate, 9.6% TO rate, 22.9 usage, .167 WS/48, 3.6 BPM, 0.6 VORP

Ayton’s +10 net rating this year was worse than a year ago but the Suns were worse, and he’s still 2nd among Suns who got 20+ minutes a night (behind only Chris Paul).

Why play one of your best players significantly fewer minutes? We just don’t know.

As a total unit, the starters played 6.6 fewer minutes per game this playoffs — in a league where rotations shrink in the playoffs and your starters become indispensable. I don’t quite understand why the Suns starters collectively played fewer minutes in these playoffs, especially when the bench was not outplaying them.

That takes us to...


The Bench

The most significant difference in the playoff rotation this year versus 2021 was the 16 minutes of Landry Shamet per game.

The Suns hoped Shamet could be a secondary playmaker and shot creator, but he simply did not deliver, shooting less than 40% from the floor and scoring only 4.3 points a night while dishing only 1.3 assists.

I suppose you could say that Shamet was a little better than this year’s Payne and Craig, but all three were awful in comparison to last year’s Payne and Craig. Payne (29.7% FG, 16% on threes) and Craig (36%, 30%) were objectively terrible this postseason, and Shamet was only a shade better (39%, 34%).

Cam Payne was especially bad in these playoffs, going from a hero in 2021 by helping the Suns take a 2-0 lead over the Clippers in Chris Paul’s place to a dud this year who got benched by the middle of round two.

The only bench player who showed up in these playoffs was Cameron Johnson, and even his performance was a step down. Cam made just 46% on all shots, including 37% on threes (down from 50/45 a year ago), and did worse with more playmaking chances, dishing out half the assists (0.8 vs. 1.5 per game) compared to a year ago.

In terms of Ayton’s minute-loss, most of that was filled in by JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo. I know people loved watching McGee and the Biz, but I don’t think we expected them to take away minutes from Ayton, but rather make non-Ayton minutes a lot better. Yet, as the playoffs unfolded against the Pelicans and Mavericks, I found myself wishing Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky’s short roll passing were available again...


Bottom line, the starters had their ups and down, but the bench mostly sucked. Hard. Cam Payne and Torrey Craig became unplayable, and Cam Johnson and Landry Shamet failed to pick up the slack.

Now, what can the Suns do about that bench this offseason?

Luckily, the Suns have a lot of room to maneuver, thanks to short-term commitment up and down the roster.

Unrestricted free agents —

  • JaVale McGee
  • Elfrid Payton
  • Bismack Biyombo
  • Ish Wainright
  • Iffe Lundberg
  • Aaron Holiday

The whole back end of the roster are unrestricted free agents this summer, almost certainly including Aaron Holiday. The Suns tendered their qualifying offer on Deandre Ayton this week, but have not done so with Aaron Holiday. That allows Holiday to sign with any team (including the Suns).

The Suns ‘spending power’ on any of these players is the same as any other free agents around the league: Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception ($6.4 million) and veteran minimum salaries (@ $2 million).

Expect at least 5, if not all 7, of these names to change in the coming weeks.

Restricted free agents —

  • Deandre Ayton

At this point, I think the DA trade chances are no higher than 50/50 because many of the reported ‘suitors’ for DA have already whispered they are going in a different direction. The Pistons are supposedly pivoting to Miles Bridges after drafting an 18-year old center. The Hawks are leaking that they want to keep Clint Capela as their starting center. The Pacers are hinting they are not actively trading starting center Myles Turner. The Spurs are supposedly trying to trade All-Star Dejounte Murray to Atlanta for picks and cap space so they can tank for the 2023 Draft.

That all could be because the winds are blowing only in a couple directions from the Suns: either DA is part of a much larger picture (i.e. Kevin Durant, LeBron James) or all the other teams know DA is getting matched on any offer sheet to stay with the Suns. That’s just my guess. No specific intel.

One-year guarantees —

  • Jae Crowder ($10.8 million)
  • Dario Saric ($9.24)
  • Cameron Johnson ($5.89)
  • Torrey Craig ($5.12)

Two-year guarantees —

  • Cameron Payne ($12.5 million over 2 years; only $2 mil guaranteed after this year)
  • Landry Shamet ($40 million over 4 years, but only $10.25 mil guaranteed after this year)
  • Chris Paul ($89.2 million over 3 years, but only $15 mil guaranteed after this year)
  • Devin Booker (has 2 years left, but will quickly be extended into a 7-year contract)

Three+ year guarantees —

  • Mikal Bridges ($90 million over 4 years, all guaranteed)

The Suns would like to make some moves among these players not named Booker, Paul or Bridges, and they would only include Cameron Johnson if the return was HUGE.

I’d expect the Suns would be active in trying to swap any number of Crowder/Saric/Craig/Payne/Shamet for an upgrade, however small, in the areas of playmaking and ‘getting something out of nothing’ that really hurt the Suns in these playoffs.

“We’ll sit as a staff and look at our style of play and, ‘Do we need to change anything to fit the playoffs a bit better?’,” head coach Monty Williams told the media the day after getting eliminated from the playoffs.

Williams knows they need more shot-creation ability among the ball handlers.

“When you watch all these games, everybody has three or four guys maybe that can put the ball down and go get a bucket,” Williams said.

The Suns only had Chris Paul and Devin Booker who could truly create their own shot from the top of the key. Everyone else on the roster needed assistance from the playmaker to get a play started. This offseason, look for the Suns to get at least one more proven shot getter.

On the whole, I’d expect a good deal of movement on the Suns roster this summer. You don’t experience that playoff ending and convince yourself to totally run it back.

Sure, Booker and Paul will be back. Almost certainly Bridges and Cam Johnson too.

Beyond that, I’d expect only 2-3 names to stay the same throughout the rest of the roster.