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Suns mixing, matching, trying to find effective lineups despite massive injury issues

The Phoenix Suns are in danger of falling out of the playoff picture in the coming days.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are down bad. They’ve lost 10 of their last 14 games and are a total sieve on defense.

It’s not going to get better yet, either. They will play 6 of their next 8 games away from Phoenix, and are only 5-12 on the road this season. All but one of these next 8 opponents is .500 or better. Meanwhile, five of their top eight rotation players are injured/out, with no hard timetable for their return.

December was the worst month for the Suns since before head coach Monty Williams arrived. The Suns 5-11 record in December was their worst winning percentage since January of 2019, in the middle of a 19-63 season that spawned massive roster changes during James Jones’ first offseason as the new General Manager.

Many of the Suns problems can be explained simply with the note that seven of their top eight rotation players missed time in December, and the eighth (Mikal Bridges) played through a hyperextended knee.

But the dark days are not behind us yet. Five of the top eight players remain out and an extended road trip continues.

Let’s dive into the mixed and matched lineups.

Paul — Ayton — Bridges three-man lineups

No matter what injuries the team is facing, shouldn’t Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges be able to carry the Suns to wins?

Paul is a 12-time All-Star, Ayton is a former No. 1 overall pick and Bridges was a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year last year. All make $20-30 million per year, so the Suns should be able to lean on them for results.

Lately, their good box score numbers — same as always, in fact — have simply not translated to success. They were a -22 per 100 possessions in December, as the second most commonly used trio (236 minutes).

Compare that to +7.8 per 100 possessions in 1,030 minutes together last year, and +7.2 in 1,460 minutes the year before.

Maybe it’s their own performances individually. And maybe it’s the players around them. Or maybe it’s a lot of both.

Booker — Paul — Ayton — Bridges

For one thing, incumbent All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul did not play much together at all in December, and when they did it was to really bad results.

The Booker-Paul-Ayton-Bridges 4-man lineup had always been good. Before Paul got hurt in early November, they were a +13.1 per 100 possessions. That was only 8 games, and 140 total minutes. This compares favorably to the 2021-22 season for that 4-man group (+8.5 in 813 minutes) and 2020-21 (+6.7 in 1,219 minutes). Doesn’t matter who that 5th guy was — Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric or Torrey Craig — they were a positive.

But in the month of December, as Paul returned from foot problems, the results for that four-man group were unbelievably bad.

For one thing, they were only the 11th most commonly used foursome after years of being the in the top 4. They played only 43 minutes together in December, after averaging about 200 minutes per month together in the two prior years.

And when they did play together, they were terribad — to the tune of -48 points per 100 possessions. That’s like the loss at home to the Celtics, times two.

Maybe it depends on that 5th guy? Well, you might be surprised to see that those four with Damion Lee were actually pretty good in December. It’s the starting lineup with Torrey Craig that was awful and every other 5th guy that got run out there with the fearsome foursome.

Don’t pin all this on Torrey Craig though. In previous years, that lineup with Torrey was good. Heck, even THIS YEAR in November 2022 — a whole month ago — the Suns treaded water quite well with Torrey and Cam Payne filling in for Cam Johnson and Chris Paul.

December was a bad month.

And January doesn’t look at that great either, considering Devin Booker will miss the whole thing.

Paul — Bridges — Ayton — Craig (no Booker)

First, let’s look at the most-used Book-less four-man group from December of Chris Paul — Mikal Bridges — Torrey Craig — Deandre Ayton. They got by far the most minutes together (214), but with really awful results — a -27 points per 100 possessions.

Here’s a fun fact: December was the first time those four ever played together for any real length of time, despite them all being on the same team for 93 games over the past three seasons.

Could it be they just need time to gel? Seems like Craig ought to work just as well as anyone else would. He defends with effort, fights for offensive rebounds and makes enough threes (40% on a career high 3.6 attempts per game this year) to be a respectable rotation player. Maybe he needs more time to settle in to where he needs to be offensively and defensively when on the floor with the team’s three best Book-less players.

Let’s hope he just needs more time. Because until Cameron Johnson comes back and/or another ‘like sized’ player comes in return for Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig is their best option as the other forward in a lineup with Ayton and Bridges on the front line.

Who’s the 5th?

You’ve got a most-common four-man of Paul, Ayton, Bridges and Craig... at least until Cameron Johnson comes back. That leaves space for someone, anyone really, to fill out the group. That 5th guy could be a playmaker to join Paul, or a shooter to stretch the defense, or a banger to help rebound.

Unfortunately, almost all the results have been bad so far. Damion Lee has been the only bright spot, actually. Tack him on as the 5th guy and and they’ve actually been effective with a +9 rating. In fact, Lee’s been good in most lineups this year. But he’s 30, with limited upside, and it’s only December/January. Should the Suns be playing Lee ahead of younger guys who might end up better in the long term, like Landry Shamet, Josh Okogie or Duane Washington Jr.?

Shamet’s been a net-rating disaster. As the 5th guy with the main non-Book four, the Suns net rating is an abysmal -41. Okogie is not much better with that four-man group, at -31 net rating, while in all other lineups he’s been a plus. Washington hasn’t even sniffed this lineup yet, since he’s been playing as Paul’s backup and the only scoring option in backup lineups when the starters rest.

Those guys have all been better as part of a second unit than with the starters. Weird, I know, but think about it: As part of a second unit, they’re going against opponents’ backups. As part of the starting unit, they’re going against opponents’ starters. Of course they’re going to look worse. They’re backups!

Of that group, Shamet seems like he has the best chance to become a positive with the starters because of his scoring skillset. He should have the same impact as a Damion Lee in that lineup.

Things will get better as better players return. Right now, the Suns are playing only 3 of their top 8 players (Booker, Johnson, Payne, Shamet and Crowder all out). Ideally, Torrey Craig is a 9th-man 10th-man, not a 4th-man.

Luckily, some are coming back soon.

  • Landry Shamet, the 8th guy ideally, is already day-to-day, meaning he could return on Monday.
  • Cam Payne, the 7th guy ideally, was hoping to be back before the end of the road trip too, which ends on Wednesday.
  • Cam Johnson, the 5th guy ideally, is doing more and more each day, and could be back in the Suns lineup within the next two weeks

Those three will help a great deal, as least to play respectable basketball. But it’s going to take getting Booker (the 1st guy ideally) back, and replacing Crowder (the 6th guy ideally) with someone else who can play as the 6th guy or better.

Until then, it’s just a lot of mixing. And matching. And hoping.

Next Up

The Suns (20-17) play the New York Knicks (19-18) on Monday afternoon.

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