The Phoenix Suns are looking to rebound tonight in the City of Trees as they take on the 16-10 Sacramento Kings. As they face the tough task of containing Domantas Sabonis, who is averaging 18.7 points and 12.2 rebounds this season, they will be without one player who has been the foundation of their lineup. Jusuf Nurkic, who has started all 27 games for Phoenix, is out due to personal reasons.
Suns injury report vs. Kings tomorrow:— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) December 22, 2023
Josh Okogie - Questionable (Right Hip Strain)
Jusuf Nurkic – Out (NWT-Personal)
Bradley Beal - Out (Right Ankle Sprain)
Damion Lee - Out (Right Meniscus Surgery)
One thing to watch for with Jusuf Nurkic out tonight will be how the Suns perform in small-ball lineup constructs. So far this season, they’ve spent just 98 minutes — or 178 non-garbage time possessions — without Nurkic or Eubanks on the floor. In those, they have both lost and not fared particularly well.
On the season, said non-garbage time renditions have a rating differential of -15.6 — and an all-inclusive -10.54 net when those two are off. Offensively, they’re beyond subpar, with a rating of 108.4 (a 13th percentile placing, which, for good measure, would place as the 27th worst rating on a season-long status.
What will be intriguing within these units is what pairings will be used.
Josh Okogie is slated to return and, among Suns non-center screeners, he is the best roller. Additionally, he’s also the most likely to be gapped off defensively, so using him as a screener is a way to optimize him with spacing and shooting around, but also to keep him involved for short-roll play, as the Kings have been far from shy with putting two to Booker.
In the same vein, and used even more frequently in this context, has been Jordan Goodwin as a screener.
Jordan Goodwin is a hidden gem with his awareness to show his numbers on a double, then playmake either as a short-roller or off the spray as he does here— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) December 16, 2023
Good discernment in playmaking in this context — engages Hartenstein before the dump off pic.twitter.com/DSpIi8rbLN
Goodwin has a connecting dynamic to his game and has often been used as a screener for Booker and Durant over the last month.
He’s still getting a feel for angles and how long to hold and create the desired advantage of either a switch or two to the ball to then play out of, but his playmaking in this context has oftentimes been fluid.
Back to back with inverted PnR, using Goodwin as the screener in tandem with Durant— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) December 14, 2023
Nets in switch & double again, & Goody is quick with his decision on the short-roll
These shots will be funneled to Gordon & Allen more moving forward, but Watanabe *has* to hit his looks pic.twitter.com/oLszAz4rRu
Having one of these two on the floor in the small ball renditions is imperative for this reason, which I’ll get to shortly.
Another key piece to the screening dynamic is Chimezie Metu. Now, when he’s on without either of Nurkic or Eubanks, the Suns have a non-garbage time rating differential of -7.6.
He provides a piece that can not just roll or short-roll, but also pop or ghost in these actions — enabling the Suns the opportunity to be more versatile and not allow the Kings to anticipate what the screener does as much.
This is the side of the floor where things have been most disappointing as, with a small ball lineup, there are a few things that have to be checked off.
Among a few other entities, said lineups need paint or rim pressure pieces (that can do so in multiple contexts: via drives, cuts, rolls, and post-ups), and they need a defensive base that is connected.
The former part isn’t an issue for the Suns, especially when healthy on the perimeter. The latter has been a microcosm of their defensive issues all season, and something I’ve continued to speak to.
They have the requisite “switch anchor” to feature in these lineups, with Kevin Durant able to sort through messes and reorganize behind the action on the perimeter — using scram and kick-out switches to keep the shell + matchups intact.
The issues have come, however, on the perimeter.
Part of it comes from these lineups not having one of their point-of-attack defenders on the floor — which takes away their ability to contain the ball at the inception of opposing possessions.
Stemming from these lineups often not having either Okogie or Goodwin on the floor, they have issues with their defensive principles at inopportune times, and this results in the defense being compromised.
These reps will be great for their process, but they need to transition from this to sustaining successes in a connected manner there — as I feel switching will need to be a key cog in their defensive process late in the season.
At the moment, they have a defensive rating of 124.0 in lineups not featuring Nurkic or Eubanks. Needless to say, that’s a putrid number, but the minutes and occurrences within those on film certainly match, and look a lot like the play clipped above under the tweet.
Seeing a more communicative and connected unit, across multiple renditions, will be needed, and — though we have best wishes for Nurkic and hope he can return soon — these reps without him present a perfect opportunity for the Suns to take strides in minutes without him, where they’ve struggled.
Also, featuring Okogie and Goodwin for their defensive prowess at the point, but also featuring them for their offensive connect-ability (and not having them only spot up without being guarded for 24 seconds) is important to their process.
The Sacramento Kings and their player/ball movement present non-negotiable communication moments from defenses, and this one — on the road — will be a fun challenge for this Suns team.