2019–2020 NBA Season Previews: Phoenix Suns
Head Coach: Monty Williams
Last Season: 19–63, 15th in Western Conference
- PG: Ricky Rubio
- SG: Devin Booker
- SF: Kelly Oubre Jr.
- PF: Dario Saric
- C: DeAndre Ayton
Additions: Aron Baynes, Jevon Carter, Cheick Diallo, Jared Harper (R), Ty Jerome (R), Cameron Johnson (R), Frank Kaminsky, Jalen Lecque (R), Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric.
Losses: Dragan Bender, Jamal Crawford, Troy Daniels, Jimmer Fredette, Richaun Holmes, Josh Jackson, George King, De’Anthony Melton, Raymond Spalding, T.J. Warren.
It’s hard to believe that a decade ago the Phoenix Suns were one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the NBA. Led by the fast-paced play of Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and former head coach and current Rockets bench boss Mike D’Antoni, the Suns revolutionized the NBA by making the most 3-pointers and scoring the most points from 2000 to 2010.
Fast forward ten years from the 2009–10 Suns, the last Suns squad to make the playoffs, and we have an organization that lacks consistency and has gone through its fair share of turmoil. From the 2010–11 season to present day, the Suns have had one winning season, zero playoff appearances and will have their seventh different head coach this season in that span in Monty Williams. To put it lightly, this organization has been an absolute mess from the top down.
After losing 63 games last season, the most by the franchise in 50 years, the Suns look to right the ship this year and inch back to the playoffs. Their moves in the draft and free agency, while they weren’t spectacular, should help them win more games this season.
If we’re going to talk about the Suns players, we may as well start off with Devin Booker. The four year veteran out of Kentucky has been one of the more perplexing players in the association throughout his tenure, with many questioning just how much of a “star” he really is.
Booker has showcased his ability to score the rock plenty of times in his career thus far. Last season he became the youngest player in NBA history to score 50 or more points in consecutive games. In the 2017–18 season, Booker became the third youngest player in NBA history to score 4,000 career points behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
In his four NBA seasons, Booker has averaged 21.4 points per game on 16.9 attempts per contest and a 43/35/85 slashline. And not to mention, on March 24, 2017, Booker became the youngest player to score 70 points in a game when he dropped 70 on the Celtics.
While these stats are encouraging, many have questioned whether or not Booker’s stats are empty and if they are actually helping the Suns win games.
The simple answer to the wins questions is no. The Suns win totals in the last four years have been as follows: 23, 24, 21, 19. Obviously the blame does not lie solely with Booker, but I do not believe he has lived up to the five-year, $158 million contract extension he received on July 7, 2018. When doing a win shares career comparison for Booker, the two players whose careers were most compatible to Booker’s first four years were Jordan Clarkson and Pablo Prigioni. Yikes…
Booker’s defensive struggles have been well documented throughout his career. While he has improved as an on-ball defender, he still lacks lateral agility, struggles to work through screens and often gets caught ball watching on the defensive end. His motor on the defensive end has been questioned as well, as he often gets stuck in place on that end of the floor. Booker’s current career defensive box plus-minus sits at an uninspiring -2.6 (0 is the league average).
Offensively, while he is certainly capable of filling up stat sheets, Booker does have his limitations. His shot selection is still spotty, as he often settles for rushed, pull-up 3-pointers. He has improved as a passer, but still has progress to make in that department as he often struggles to find the roll man in pick-and-roll situations.
While the Suns were better as a team offensively with Booker on the floor last season, his 110 individual offensive rating ranked 28th among team leaders in the NBA.
Overall, Booker still has an immense amount of potential, and at just 23 years of age, he should continue to develop. That being said, I still question whether or not he can be the number one option for a winning team. I believe Booker has tried to force the issue too often offensively throughout his career, which could be a product of not having that much talent around him.
One player who may be able to take some of that pressure off of Booker is Ricky Rubio.
While Rubio isn’t an elite point guard and his contract isn’t that favorable, the Spaniard provides veteran leadership, playmaking and defense to a backcourt that desperately needs it. Rubio is the first true point guard the Suns have had since Eric Bledsoe back in the 2017–18 season. Since then, and Suns fans may want to cover their eyes for this, here is a list of true point guards the Suns have used.
- Isaiah Canaan
- Josh Gray
- Shaquille Harrison
- Mike James
- Elfrid Payton
- Tyler Ulis
- Elie Okobo
- De’Anthony Melton
- Tyler Johnson
- Jawun Evans
While Rubio may not be the point guard to lead the Suns to the promised land, he’s certainly an upgrade from anyone on this list.
Shifting back to the young core, former number one pick DeAndre Ayton put together quite an impressive rookie season. While he was overshadowed by fellow rookies Trae Young and Luka Doncic, Ayton still put impressive numbers of 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds on 58.5 percent shooting.
I believe that Ayton is the complete package at the center position. He is athletic, has length and has an array of post moves that he constantly puts on display. While he did not make any 3-point attempts last season, he has a fluid shooting stroke and should improve as a shooter as his confidence grows. He also has a true point guard this season in Rubio who is a maestro in the pick-and-roll. Rubio should bring out the best in Ayton and their lobs should be a lot of fun to watch.
Ayton’s only true flaw lies on the defensive end. His defensive intensity and motor leave much to be desired as he will have to improve his effort on that end. The Suns do not project to be a very good defensive team, and part of that lies with Ayton. He has the natural tools and instincts to be dominant on the defensive end, but if the effort isn’t there, then it all goes for not.
Dario Saric is another player I’m interested in in terms of development. Saric was shipped to Phoenix in a questionable move that saw the Timberwolves move the power forward and the 11th overall pick (Cam Johnson) to the Suns for the sixth overall pick (Jarrett Culver).
For Saric, this is already his third team in the association (76ers and Timberwolves), but I believe this situation could be his best chance to thrive yet. With the Suns having relatively low expectations again this season, Saric can play with essentially no pressure and should continue to showcase his skills as a smooth, fundamentally sound scorer and playmaker. He has his limitations defensively and commits unnecessary fouls at time, but should be still be a good fit next to Ayton as he should provide soild floor-spacing and rebounding.
Speaking of the 11th overall pick in this past year’s draft, many questioned the Suns decision to take the sharpshooting North Carolina wing Cam Johnson in the lottery. Johnson isn’t your prototypical lottery pick, but should be a solid role player for the Suns moving forward. After shooting a blazing 45.7 percent at UNC this past season, Johnson will look to carry that success into the professional ranks.
The Suns other first round selection, Ty Jerome, is one of my favorite picks of the first round. The former Virginia Cavalier should provide quality backup minutes right away to Rubio at the point guard spot and can also play both guard positions due to his shooting and playmaking abilities.
Rounding out additions, the Suns brought in Frank Kaminsky and Aron Baynes to help provide frontcourt depth to Saric and Ayton. While neither of these moves are glamorous, both players should provide decent minutes off the bench in limited roles. Baynes gives the Suns some much needed defense on the low block, while Kaminsky provides floor spacing at the four or five spot.
X-factor: Mikal Bridges
I was debating between Saric and Bridges for this selection, but I’ll stick with the latter mostly because I’m unsure of what role he will have this season.
If it were up to me, Bridges would be the starting small forward for the Suns. He has all the makings of a top tier 3-and-D wing and he showed that during his rookie season. Bridges can guard any position on the floor and developed good range as a shooter over the past few years.
Despite his potential, I believe the Suns may end up hindering his growth. What perplexes me is that despite having a up-and-coming wing in Bridges, they continue to bring in other young small forwards on a year-to-year basis. First it was Kelly Oubre Jr., and now Cam Johnson in the 2019 draft.
The biggest question with Bridges is just how many minutes will he get as the Suns continue to add more wings. Bridges played 29.5 minutes a night and started 56 games last season, but both of those numbers could see a decline with Oubre and Johnson now in the fold. If Bridges gets the opportunities he deserves, then he should continue to provide much needed production on both ends for Phoenix.
How does Ricky Rubio fit with this team?
Ricky Rubio should prove to be a great fit next to Ayton, Booker, and the entire team for that matter. As mentioned, Rubio should bring out the best in Ayton and take some of the playmaking responsibilities away from Booker. Booker has gotten better at facilitating over the years, but he is no Rubio in that category.
Overall, Rubio should bring out the best in the entire offense. His passing is top-tier and should also be able to instigate a fair share of transition buckets for the Suns due to his quick hands and ability to get steals.
Where is the defense?
The Suns defense has been downright catastrophic in the past couple years. This was especially the case last season, as the Suns posted a franchise worst 115.1 defensive rating that ranked 29th in the NBA.
While things shouldn’t be as bad this time around on the defensive end, their defense still leaves much to be desired. Outside of Rubio, Bridges and Baynes, there aren’t any decent defenders on this roster. The offense should be good, but if the Suns want to even sniff the playoffs they’ll have to tighten things up on D.
Will the Suns actually improve this year?
If the Suns don’t improve their win total this season, it may be time to go to DEFCON 1 in the desert.
To answer the question, I do believe this team improves its record this season. While nothing they did this off-season was glamorous by any means, the Suns are finally starting to put together a competent roster for the first time in years. General Manager James Jones seems to have the ship steered in the right direction as fans may finally have something to be hopeful about this year.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but the Phoenix Suns are not making the playoffs this year. Will they improve? Yes, they will, but not to the point where they crack the top eight of the competitive Western Conference.
That being said, there is still much to be excited about at Talking Stick Resort Arena (did I mention how much I dislike that arena name?). DeAndre Ayton and Devin Booker have the chance to be first-time All-Stars this season, and if those two continue to progress, this team should be on an upward trajectory.