On Sunday in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder (36-36), Phoenix Suns (38-33) head coach Monty Williams went 12-deep in his rotation, and that was even with a pair of starters out injured. Kevin Durant remains out with the ankle sprain and Deandre Ayton missed his first game with the hip strain.
No team has 14 players ready to make a positive contribution in a competitive NBA game.
Even crazier, those 12 players who got in the game on Sunday played in 29 different 5-man lineup combinations. All-Star Devin Booker, who played 36 of the 48 minutes, took the floor with 23 different 4-man combinations around him. Chris Paul (33 minutes) played with 18 combinations. Torrey Craig (31 minutes) played with 17 combinations.
Their heads were on such a swivel that their 21 combined minutes was a -13 for the game, and that’s including the opening 5.5 minutes where they were +4.
As a team, the Suns got outscored 67-51 in the second half with all 12 players getting at least 2:51 of playing time (in 24 minutes).
Since the trade that sent away three of his top seven players from the last two deep playoff runs, leaving him with a mishmash of 8th-man types behind his Big Four, Williams has been trying desperately to find combinations where the sum is greater than the parts.
Much like the middle of the Western Conference this year, where the 4th best team has only three more wins than the 12th best team, the difference between the Suns 5th best player and 16th best player is negligible. Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright are simply not that far apart in NBA value.
Now put yourself in the Suns coaches’ shoes. You can imagine how hard it is to justify playing one guy over another, especially if the guys you chose don’t play well. When Okogie and Craig can’t make a shot and Cam Payne commits the worst kind of turnover at the worst possible time, it’s human nature to switch it up and try something else.
But some restraint must be applied. Whichever players you choose need a chance to get comfortable not only in their role but with the guys around them in the lineup.
Sounds like Monty Williams is ready to decide who’s in and who’s out.
“From this point on, it’s going to be more of a concise rotation,” Williams said to Duane Rankin of azcentral.com after practice yesterday.
“We’re going to try to lock in on that nine and a half. I’m going to do my best to shrink the rotation and let the guys we’re playing get a rhythm.”
The Suns have 11 games left in the regular season before the playoffs start. They currently have the 4th seed in the West, which would give them home court advantage in round one over the 5th seed, but their lead over the 5th-seed Clippers is only one game (2 losses) at this moment.
While there might not be that much talent difference between Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright, or between Damion Lee, Landry Shamet and Terrence Ross, or between Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo, some decisions need to be made.
Certain rotation spots
- Big Four: Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton
- Next Four: Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig, Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet
Those Next Four won’t blow anyone’s socks off, but they have all established their value this season in their own way.
Okogie and Craig will vacillate as the 5th guy around the Big Four as a defense-first wing who takes on the opponent’s best mid-sized player. Payne is Paul’s only real backup at point guard and Landry Shamet has the best combination of shooting and defense among the rest of the roster. Plus, Monty loves him.
After those eight, only 1-2 available spots remain available if everyone’s healthy.
The easy cuts
- Darius Bazley: -20 in 24 total minutes played in 6 weeks with Suns
- T.J. Warren: -5 in 51 total minutes played; only 9 points scored on 14 shots in 6 weeks with Suns
These guys have not fit in well this season. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t return next season and play well. Just means it’s not happening this season.
The much more difficult cuts (only 1-2 of these guys plays each night)
- Damion Lee: he’s a +2 since the All-Star Break, making 52% of his threes, but he just can’t stay in front on defense and keeps getting targeted
- Terrence Ross: team-worst -23 in 158 minutes since ASB; making 43% of his threes, but like Lee is getting targeted defensively and losing almost every battle
- Bismack Biyombo (when Ayton and Landale healthy): -22 in only 50 minutes played since ASB
- Jock Landale (when Ayton and Bis healthy): somehow 3rd best on team with +47 since ASB, but when Ayton is healthy one of Bis or Jock is going to sit
- Ish Wainright: he’s somehow 7th best on team with +26 since ASB despite playing mostly in these mishmash second units. He holds his own defensively, but is mostly cold on shooting (33% overall, 32% on threes since the ASB)
One of the players in the rotation when Ayton is healthy will be Jock or Bis. Likely, Jock.
The other one? Comes down to Ross or Ish, depending on whether Monty wants shooting or defense that night.
Some guys have seen their last playing time this season, and some more will lose it when Ayton and Durant come back.
I’m curious to see how it all shakes out.