With the approval of the trade to acquire Kevin Durant, the Phoenix Suns (32-27, 4th in West) finally made significant changes to their roster for the first time since acquiring Chris Paul more than two years ago.
Since signing Paul, the Suns have been very very good. They have won more regular season games than anyone else, more postseason games than almost anyone else (second to Bucks), and won the Western Conference once (out of two chances).
“We’ve built something that the league has picked up on,” Booker said after practice this week. “We were probably the laughing stock of the NBA about four or five years ago and just turning that around to something serious to championship contenders.”
I’ve talked in this space a lot about continuity. Continuity is a good thing when your team is winning, but sometimes even good things get a little stale.
Here’s a stat for you: Until a week ago, the Suns still had a shocking NINE players who’d played in the 2021 Finals, almost two years ago. NINE! The only ones who’d left the team since July 2021 are Frank Kaminsky (29 minutes played), Abdel Nader (8) and Ty-Shon Alexander (1).
You probably won’t be surprised to know that very few teams in the past twenty years have suffered an NBA Finals loss and kept even their top two players and coach together for two more seasons after that, let alone their top NINE!
The Suns head of basketball operations James Jones is, if nothing else, a patient man. When I asked him just a few weeks ago about this unprecedented continuity, he opined that the Suns were different than most Finals teams because they were so young, that few of their top players even became unrestricted free agents in the next two off-seasons.
To be sure, of the nine remaining 2021 Finals players, only Chris Paul, Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig had become unrestricted free agents at any point since. Paul and Payne re-signed to team-friendly deals with massive non-guaranteed monies beyond this current season (only $17.8 of $66 million guaranteed beyond this season, combined). Craig briefly left for the best money of his career ($10 million over 2 years) before being re-acquired a few months later. All of the others have been under contract this whole time.
Continuity is well and good when your team is a contender, and one could argue that all the Suns needed was health to make another Finals run this spring. But we all knew that this top-nine core had come up short twice now, and the trend was going in the wrong direction.
Enter Kevin Durant.
Excuse me: Kevin. Freaking. Durant.
With the Durant and subsequent Dario Saric trades, the Suns cut that continuity by half. And now you can add Terrence Ross to the mix too, who signed with the Suns this week.
“The guys that left, everybody knows how we feel about them,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said on Tuesday. “We also feel an affinity for the guys that came here. They understand what we are trying to do.”
“You can’t put it into words,” Devin Booker said of Durant joining the team. “It’s something you’ve got to be around. It’s a feeling when you’re around greatness. When you’re around one of the best to ever do it. It’s a different look. It’s a different feel.”
Here’s an updated salary chart.
Now, the Suns ‘only’ have three starters and two role players left from the 2021 Finals — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul, Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig.
Joining them in in the rotation, for sure, is Kevin Durant.
The pairing of Durant with Booker might be the best 1-2 punch in Suns history, and could prove to be the best 1-2 punch in the league but we won’t know that until June.
A quadrangle of those two plus Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton gives the Suns arguably the best four-man combo in the whole league.
But after those four, it’s a steep dropoff in talent among the rest of the roster.
Let’s re-visit the ‘Suns Rank’ we posted before Opening Night just four months ago. Rankings were crowd-sourced among 13 Bright Side writers and podcasters.
Gone are 4-7 from this list. Based on our preseason rankings, everyone else are just deck chairs on a cruiseliner.
Some of those deck chairs are shinier than others, at least.
Luckily for the Suns, especially considering all the injuries/holdouts this year, Torrey Craig and Damion Lee have massively stepped up. Are they consensus “top 9 on a Finals team” quality? Probably.
Craig has been starting nearly all year, as the main alternate starters for the injured or traded. He’s third on the team in total minutes played, has already reached career highs in starts (46), and is on pace to set career highs in minutes (25.8 per game), scoring (7.9), rebounds (5.7), assists (1.6), and three-point percentage (39.9%). He’s not a great starter, but he’s been an iron man and a good reason the Suns were able to survive those months of injuries.
Damion Lee has been a surprise off the bench, also filling in nicely during a wave of injuries. He’s led the league nearly all season in three-point percentage and is still making a career high 43.7% despite a recent slump.
I’d expect those two to stay in the rotation all season. That gets us up to eight players in a postseason rotation, though Lee and Craig would ideally only play 10-20 mpg roles.
You know one of Bismack Biyombo or Jock Landale will get some minutes behind Ayton every night, so that’s nine.
For what it’s worth, Monty Williams plans to trust the guys who’ve been there all year, rather than tossing them aside for too many of these new players.
Although, he did mention Terrence Ross, along with KD, as newcomers who will likely get into the rotation.
"We're going to try to stick to the rotations we've had just because we want to try to develop a rhythm and you're talking about Kevin coming back and Terrence once that becomes."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) February 15, 2023
"Can I say that right now? No? Can you rewind that in Twitter world?" Monty Williams #Suns https://t.co/n5uiPvWiZ5 pic.twitter.com/tTWyfMhQcB
The Suns are rumored to be signing Ross this week once he clears waivers.
Still, there’s a LOT of change happening because of the loss of Bridges, Johnson and Saric while gaining Durant, T.J. Warren, Ross and Bazley.
Let’s rank the contenders...
- T.J. Warren — career 15 ppg starter coming off a two-year bout with injuries but finally looking healthy. Once scored 53 points in a game. Just acquired last week.
- Landry Shamet — career 39% three-point shooter, had 60 points in 2 games this December but injured foot and hasn’t been seen since
- Josh Okogie — physical defender but not a good shooter, draws zero defensive attention
- Terrence Ross — Career 11 ppg scorer; can get a jumper off the bounce (not just catch-and-shoot); once scored 51 points in a game.
- Ish Wainright — making 34% of his threes, tries hard on D, can defend up to 4 positions; fairly redundant with Craig and Okogie
- Darius Bazley — good defender but terrible on offense; longer wingspan than any of Craig, Okogie or Wainright, but just barely. Just acquired last week.
Seems like T.J. Warren, who can get his own shot any time he wants, is a lock for a regular rotation spot. He’s got to, right?
Could Okogie take Craig’s minutes on a regular basis? Will Ross or Shamet take Lee’s minutes? Could Bazley grab some minutes from one of the wings?
Some guys are going to win. Some will lose out.
“None of it is fair,” Williams said to Duane Rankin of azcentral.com. “That’s just the way it is, and I think guys, if you been around long enough, you understand it when it seems unfair to you, you know it’s not personal.”
Note: y’all really need to subscribe to azcentral to get all of Duane’s stuff. Best beat writer in the business. Travels with the team. Tireless. And gets more quotes than anyone else. Just hit that link and let yourself subscribe to one more thing. It’s worth it!
On one hand, the Suns will have no shortage of competition for minutes.
Remember, it’s more like shuffling the deck chairs into the perfect formation than finding that next star player. The Suns will win or lose the championship based on the play of four guys — Durant, Booker, Paul and Ayton.
They just need to stay healthy, and hope some of those deck chairs are sturdier than they look.