Frank Vogel came to the Phoenix Suns with a blank canvas and was allowed to take this paintbrush and begin his masterpiece. Through 31 games, we’ve seen some strokes of genius. We’ve also seen some finger painting.
When you begin the list of challenges for the Suns this season, numbers one through four are labeled “health”. After that, you delve into offensive sets, defensive schemes, roster construction and lack of flexibility, rotational challenges, and effort on both ends.
One thing you might not mention on your list is the performance of the bench unit. Sure, the issues listed above play into their productivity, but it isn’t in your “Top Five Issues for the Suns”. Yet, whenever KD or Booker take a seat on the bench, the team looks more lost than my keys when I’m late for work.
Through their first 29 games, which culminated with a very un-merry loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Christmas night, the Suns’ bench unit was 26th in the league with 29.3 points a game. They shot 44% from the field (25th), 28.8% from three-point range (30th), and were a -36 (23rd).
An adjustment to the bench rotations needed to be addressed. Bradley Beal’s return on Friday surely would assist, but before that news, Frank Vogel had already got the ball rolling on changes. Drew Eubanks and Jordan Goodwin would combine for 0 minutes in the Suns' 129-113 win over the Houston Rockets.
Enter the two-way boys, Udoka Azuibuike and Saben Lee.
How would you define the Suns’ lineup as it relates to physicality? While the 16-15 team leads the NBA in blocked shots, you probably wouldn’t use words like “dominating” or “brick wall interior”. Phoenix is more of a finesse team that, while possessing length, isn’t elite on the inside. They are 15th in total rebounding for a reason.
Jusuf Nurkic has been worth every penny he earns thus far this season as he has provided consistent effort at the center position. Yes, he’ll be outplayed by more athletic fives and can be the target of late-game isolations from opposing guards, but he has given us stability at the position (especially given his contract price for value paid) that we haven’t witnessed in a couple of years.
The difficulty for Phoenix has been behind him in the lineup, particularly over the last month.
Drew Eubanks has underperformed following an exciting start to the season. Standing at 6’9” and sporting a chiseled 245-pound frame, Eubanks burst onto the scene and into our hearts with his electric finishes at the rim.
The former Blazer filled the same role in Portland, backing up Jusuf Nurkic, and was familiar with how to perform in that capacity. In his first 12 games with Phoenix, he averaged 8.1 points and 4.9 rebounds.
But his production has faltered. In 16 games since, he averaged 4.8 points and 4.0 rebounds, with his turnovers rising to 1.2 a night in limited minutes. What has compounded issues is his defense has been sub-par and opposing teams have targeted him as a result.
Jordan Goodwin is another player who began the season with a spark off of the bench.
His defensive approach and tenacious effort are desirable traits that can not be understated. He has possessed the best individual defensive rating on the team throughout the season, although this can be a reflection of the lineups he has played in.
Jordan Goodwin has excelled, but that has primarily occurred when he is on the court with Devin Booker. Of his 521 minutes played this season, Goodwin has played alongside Booker for 193 of them. He has a 121.3 offensive rating in those minutes. That rating drops to 108.0 when Booker is off. And that’s 309 minutes of play. Not ideal.
Why have we seen Vogel go away from Jordan Goodwin? Probably because he is only a productive offensive player when he's on the court with Booker (who he should be subbing in for):— John Voita (@DarthVoita) December 31, 2023
Goodwin with Booker: 193 minutes, 121.3 OFFRTG
Goodwin without Booker: 309 minutes, 108. OFFRTG pic.twitter.com/Doy23GMiqn
After a good start on the offensive side of the ball, like Eubanks, he too has fallen off. Shooting just 16.7% from three-point range in his last 12 games, Goodwin has become an offensive liability. He needs to be substituted in for Booker, not play alongside him.
There was the challenge. Drew Eubanks and Jordan Goodwin simply were not getting it done. The second team unit, which you need to sustain leads, looked lost when either Kevin Durant or Devin Booker was not on the floor.
Frank Vogel had to adjust, and that adjustment was dipping into his two-way contract players in Udoka Azubuike and Saben Lee to provide some minutes.
It’s been just two games against less-than-stellar competition, but the adjustments appear to be working.
When Doke is on the court, you feel it. The interior of the Suns’ defense becomes a no-fly zone, and you will have a hard time rebounding the ball as well. Words like “physical” and “tough” enter our vernacular.
Where Drew Eubanks has a 14.97 rebounding percentage (an estimate of the percentage of missed shots a player rebounded while he was on the floor), in his 59 minutes Azubuike is putting a Nurkic-esque 20.41%. Nurk is at 21.31%.
Why have we seen Vogel go away from Drew Eubanks? Udoka Azubuike is a better rebounder and Phoenix needs to negate opposing offensive rebounds.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) December 31, 2023
Eubanks: 14.9% pic.twitter.com/uBFZEPh7eg
At the point guard position, Saben Lee has his challenges. But offensively, he is much more engaged. Small sample size, yes, but his offensive rating when DevinBooker isn’t on the court? 126.1 in 38 minutes. Quite a different result than Jordan Goodwin, eh?
Are these adjustments a permanent solution for the Suns? No, Two-way players are designated with those contracts for a reason. They will come back to earth. Opposing teams will scout these players and find their weaknesses. An adjustment to the adjustment will be required.
But what we have seen is the ability to make the correct adjustment, something we’ve been waiting for Frank Vogel to do since arriving. He’s been making adjustments based on player availability, but as his roster becomes healthy, he is trying to pull different levers to see what successes they bring.
Remember that Suns bench unit that shot 28.8% from three over their first 29 games? The second team Suns have shot 47.1% from deep in their last two. Energy levels are up. Engagemnt is ocuuring. Winning has followed.