The Phoenix Suns came into this season with the plan to have thee All-NBA elite scorers help them close out fourth quarters like turning on a fire hose. Just shoot ‘em out of the gym.
Yes, there are great defenses who can shut down big scorers, but with only five defenders can they stop all three? Nah. Oh and there’s that pair of now-untended spot —shooter/cutter/roll divers waiting for the Big Threes’ outlet passes.
Unfortunately, as we all know, we’re not going to get all three all the time. injuries happen. Especially to these Big Three.
Kevin Durant, now 35 years old, hasn’t missed less than 30% of his team’s season in the last five years. Bradley Beal, 30 years old this year, hasn’t missed less than 30% of his team’s games in the last four years. Devin Booker, the young pup at 27 this year, is the healthiest of the group, but started a train of soft tissue ailments that made him miss 35% of last season and 5 of 7 games this season and counting. Not great numbers, Bob.
The Suns obviously knew this. But they decided to roll the dice, trust they will be healthy at playoff time, and live out that unstoppable dream in my intro, They took what’s left of their spending and trading power, stretching the allowances under the CBA, to fill out a roster around the Big Three, including some starter-level fill-ins to insure against injuries.
They turned the one remaining starter level guy, Deandre Ayton, directly into two — Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen. They used their allure to sign another on the cheap, Eric Gordon. Collectively, those guys are proven starters around the league. Allen started 90% of his team’s games the last three years. Jusuf Nurkic has started 82% of his team’s games over 9 years. Eric Gordon started 76% of his team’s games in his 15-year career to date.
With Booker and Beal out, it appears that Eric Gordon is Devin Booker’s primary starter backup, while Grayson Allen is Bradley Beal’s. But since we haven’t seen Beal yet, it’s possible that Allen always gets the nod for Book/Beal and Gordon settles into a bench role.
Stephen showed yesterday that Gordon hasn’t been as good coming off the bench this year in 2 games that Book played, but his 15-year career spits (24% of games played) suggest he’s roughly comparable in either role over the course of a season.
Eric Gordon: Starter numbers on top, bench numbers under those, per basketball-reference.com
I’m not worried about Gordon starting vs. bench. He’s most likely going to end up as the team’s Sixth Man, as long as at least one of Book/Beal plays.
Grayson Allen, then, might get the nod as the primary backup Book/Beal starter.
How’s he been looking? A little better than expected, actually.
Grayson Allen, career per-game per basketball-reference.com
He’s shooting threes better, getting more boards and assists this year than ever, but you can also see he’s down in lots of other areas: FG% inside the arc is down, free throw attempts are down, turnovers are up, and steals/blocks a bit down.
That’s probably because he’s trying to fill much bigger shoes than he was supposed. He’s used to being that fifth starter who does all the little things while the stars do the big things. Now he’s being tasked to take on those big things and that effectiveness wanes as the game goes on.
In fact, that’s true for both Gordon and Allen, which helps explain the fourth quarter meltdowns in the Suns losses. With only Kevin Durant remaining himself — only to be suddenly triple teamed outside the arc with the aim to knock away the ball or at least force Durant to pass out, Gordon and Allen have not stepped up to fill in the scoring void.
In fact, just take a look at this graphic.
Gordon has been really good in first halves. Allen picks it up in third quarters. That’s how the Suns have built 20-point third quarter leads in most games with only a Big One to support them.
But there are four quarters in a game, unfortunately. And you absolutely cannot have your second and third leading scorers stop scoring — especially considering Durant HAS to get a rest in that quarter at some point after taking over the Book minute cadence (all of Q1, closing half of Q2, all of Q3, closing half of Q4). (Good on coach Frank Vogel for keeping Durant in the 25 min/gm range despite these challenges with Book/Beal).
Look at the graphic again! Gordon and Allen are COMBINING for a grand total of 1.3 points in the fourth quarters across 7 games so far. And don’t use the two Book games as an excuse. They’re getting shots but missing them — 15% shooting for Gordon. 14% for Allen. Who are both over 45% shooters any other time.
Neither is a true settle-em-down playmaker, and that’s some of the problem for Gordon and Allen because no one else has been either. They can’t get easy shots when KD can’t even see over his three defenders to outlet to them. Jordan Goodwin has been trying, but he sees a cutter like Keita Bates-Diop (4.7 points per 4th, last three games) or hits Josh Okogie on a runout, or looks for a big man.
Jusuf Nurkic is actually the second second-leading 4th quarter scorer so far this year (not counting Booker’s two games of course) with 2.8 p/gm in 5 appearances, but that’s heavily buoyed by the one 8-point fourth in that game they lost.
Isn’t it crazy that if all a person needs to do to become the second-leading fourth quarter scorer is to make a single three pointer/three point play every time????
This may sound sobering or depressing to you. The sky might be falling on your hopes and dreams for a Suns title.
But here’s the BRIGHT SIDE
Even IF this — two of Big Three out — becomes commonplace, Gordon and Allen will become the beneficiary of the the good ol’ law of averages. They won’t shoot 15% in fourth quarters much longer. In fact, the law of averages is so true that they’ll probably spend much of the season shooting much better than their averages, so that in the end they’re back to 40%. Might not be Wednesday night, it will be soon.
And here’s another BRIGHT SIDE
Let’s say this roster construction behind the Big Three isn’t going to work out the way the front office hoped. Because of the Ayton trade, they now have several fungible contracts to find new high-level supporting castmates — Nurkic makes $17M, Allen makes $9M, and Nassir Little makes $6M. Those are highly tradable. And starting December 15, those minimum salary guys become tradable too. No the Suns cannot trade up anymore, but through this Trade Deadline in February, the Suns can keep aggregating salaries together for a trade on either side, as long as the net return doesn’t add more than 10% more salaries to the Suns books.
If you think the Suns are going to dig their heels into this lineup all season, you have an extremely short memory, or are simply ignoring facts. Since Mat Ishbia stepped in as owner on February 8, the Suns have changed out 13 of 15 roster spots (Booker and Okogie are all the remain of what he inherited).
All is not lost, 7 games in. We are only getting started. The coaching staff needs time to find chemistry and help the front office with the who-stays-who-goes conundrum. January is when any high level trade action would start to happen.
Suns finish their mini-road trip in Chicago against the struggling Bulls on Wednesday, then have a pair of high-leverage home games against the Lakers (Friday) and Thunder (Sunday).
Bradley Beal is upgraded to questionable, expected to play either Wednesday or Friday. That right there will really help those fourth quarters.
Until then, Gordon and Allen need to do more in the 4th to support Kevin Durant.