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New starting lineup levels Suns back up to contender status

With Devin Booker back, the Phoenix Suns can start riding high again.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For only the 7th time in 56 games this year, the Phoenix Suns were able to roll out their preferred starting lineup on Tuesday night, a 116-112 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

The 5-2 record with that lineup is tainted by the loss of Cameron Johnson just five minutes into the 6th game with a torn meniscus. A better number is their +24.8 net rating, which was one of the two best net ratings in the league (behind the Warriors best five) at the time of Cam’s injury.

Now finally, 48 games later, the starting five of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson is back together again.

Let’s compare this season’s starting lineup health to the last two:

  • 2020-21: 1st in league 52 games together (of 72 possible)
  • 2021-22: 4th in league with 38 games together (of 82 possible)
  • 2022-23: tied for 455th in league in 7 games together (of 56 possible)

No team gets through a season without injury, but the last two years the Suns have been luckier than most. That luck ran dry this year.

Johnson replaced Jae Crowder in the starting lineup this year, a move meant to further bolster the starting lineup while also having Jae coming off the bench and/or subbing into the starting lineup in case of injury. Lineups with Johnson had always rated higher than lineups with Crowder, albeit on a much smaller sample size.

Crowder screwed that plan up first by holding out for an extension, and Johnson scuttled it just eight games later with his injury. That’s why we have 43 starts from Torrey Craig, who’d entered the season expecting to play 15 minutes per game as a 9th or 10th man but has so far played the 3rd most minutes on the team this season!

And it’s not just the starting lineup. The once healthy Suns turned into the league’s most-injured this season, leading the league in ‘impactful’ injuries by a wide margin. Booker missed almost two months. Same with Chris Paul. Cam Johnson missed three. Landry Shamet and Cam Payne have missed nearly two months as well.

The Suns are the big blue bubble in the middle of the chart (and it doesn’t even include Jae Crowder in the calculation).

The sheer number of injuries has been hard to process. I mean seriously, when’s the last time we asked ourselves why Torrey Craig is getting big minutes, considering he’s been a negative on the court this season despite probably winning this year’s hustle award? Craig in Cam’s place in the starting lineup (with Paul, Book, Bridges and DA) has been outscored by 48 points this season, compared to +41 with Cam on much shorter minutes. No knock on Craig, but he’s not as good a fit the starters.

Now finally, almost two-thirds of the way through the season, the Suns have their starting lineup back together, even if Booker and Cam are still on minutes restrictions while getting their NBA legs back under them.

The Suns are 30-26, still in playoff position in 5th place in the West but only 1.5 games back of 3rd place with 26 games to play. If they can finish the season on a high note and climb into 3rd, or maybe even higher?, the Suns can enter the postseason playing their best basketball.

I remind you that the Suns starting lineup is killer, they’re going to get Cam Payne back eventually and they’re going to replace Jae Crowder soon. Dario Saric is playing well again.

They’ve won 9 of their last 11 games — the first several of which were without Booker or Cam. Booker was playing at MVP caliber levels earlier this year. Mikal Bridges has grown into a clutch scorer. Deandre Ayton is playing some of the best basketball of his Suns career, and last night he became the first Suns player in history with back-to-back 30/15 games on 75% shooting (only Amare Stoudemire and Charles Barkley even had two of those at any point in their Suns careers).

A lot of signs are pointing up, with the biggest sign being that awesome starting lineup getting healthy again.

The Phoenix Suns will introduce new owner Mat Ishbia at a press conference at Footprint Center at 11:30 AM today. A little while after that, I will also have a private one-on-one with Mat that I’ll upload as a podcast. Stay tuned for all the Ishbia coverage.

Also, the trade deadline is now barely a day away. Stay glued to the phones/social media for breaking news as trades happen. The Suns are seen as ‘very aggressive’ in trade talks.

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