What to make of the recent stretch from the Valley Boys?
The Phoenix Suns were one of the very few pre-season title favorites coming into the season. With almost all of their cards played by Matt Isbia and James Jones in the offseason the Suns as expected have been under the microscope all year. We knew the biggest question surrounding the three max contract pieces in Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal was simply availability. Booker had kicked off the season on a bum foot injury and early on played through nagging calf and ankle injuries. Durant, who just turned 35 years old in September has also missed his usual handful of games to this point due to lingering lower extremity injuries. Bradley Beal, who was supposed to be the transcendent offensive star scorer that would alleviate Booker and Durant of numerous coverages and blitzes, has dealt with a couple niggling injuries himself. Beal dealt with an understated back injury that kept him sidelined 19 of the first 22 games. After returning finally from his persisting back issues, three games later Beal nastily sprained his right ankle against the New York Knicks and proceeded to miss the next five games. All the uncertainty and health concerns amongst the big three clouded a promising outlook of what was initially thought to be, a potential juggernaut of an offense.
Despite the early ongoing health conflicts and handicapped flexibility in the front office, there have been plenty of glimpses and flashes that all will turn out to be okay if — the big three can stay on the court together as a whole. Kevin Durant is currently averaging 29.6 points (5th in the NBA), 6.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists in 36 starts on flat-out astronomical precision and efficiency. Durant is still shooting north of 50% from the floor, shooting a career-high 46.4% (!!!) from deep on just a miniscule 5.1 three-point attempts a night, and 88% from the line. Durant is amidst arguably his hottest stretch this season to date. Fresh off winning last week’s NBA Western Conference Player of the Week, Durant has dropped back-to-back 40-point performances, both resulting in wins as the Suns are 8-3 now in January and have won 11 of their last 14.
Franchise superstar Devin Booker is fresh off of a 52-point barrage on 60% shooting against the New Orleans Pelicans a couple of nights ago and has ascended a level as a complete offensive weapon. Booker is putting up 26.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 7.6 assists (career high) a game setting the tone for Frank Vogel’s offense on a nightly basis. The Calipari product is shooting 48% from the field, 53% on 2P field goals, 37% from three, and 88% from the charity stripe. His vastly improved passing and vision have been a difference maker throughout this season as he’s proven that he can impact the game immensely with his playmaking just as much as his scoring. Still quite impressive for someone of his caliber who came into the league at the two-guard position and has been able to evolve into this lethal dual-threat offensive player that utilizes every spot on the floor. Per Second Spectrum amongst all players that have at least 200 possessions this season as the Pick & Roll Ball Handler, Booker is T-5th (Luka Doncic) in the NBA in points per possession (1.05). That’s a superior mark than Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Trae Young, and Jalen Brunson. Booker’s shot-making ability at this very moment is at an unprecedented apex in terms of versatility. There doesn’t seem to be one particular shot he doesn’t take confidently on the floor right now. Booker is shooting 43.1% on pull-up jump shots, 50% on shots 10-14 ft out, and 47.7% on shots 15-19 ft out. Granted the sample size is quite skewed compared to those with increased volume, but Booker still averages 1.17 points per possession in post-up situations. A higher clip than the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum, Karl-Anthony Towns, and DeMar DeRozan. There’s only a handful of players that demand the defense’s attention on every single possession and can dictate the game significantly with both their scoring and passing prowess. Booker is one of the handful.
Bradley Beal, the third premier scoring threat has gotten acclimated very well in his new ideal spot and has helped give an already prolific Suns offense a different wrinkle. Beal is averaging 20.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on 54/38/81 splits over his last 12 games. With the current “Suns need a point guard” narrative taking on a life of its own, Beal has been a great complement to both Booker and Durant with the extra passes he’s making and impacting the game on the defensive end as a help point-of-attack defender. The blockbuster three-team deal between the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, and Milwaukee Bucks this past offseason that landed Grayson Allen in the Valley has been nothing short of a seamless fit. This season Grayson Allen is the only qualified 50/40/90 player in the NBA right now and he’s doing so while leading the league in three-point percentage (48%). Allen has been a great plug-in play shooter and secondary scorer while Beal dealt with his own injury woes early on. Jusuf Nurkic on the year is putting up 11.9 points and 10.6 rebounds on 49.5% shooting. Nurkic is a willing playmaker and has been very proactive as the roll man with this excess of shooting and space at his disposal compared to previous pit stops. Nurkic is still a little bit too turnover-prone when trying to make those connective, pocket passes off the bounce but has proven to be effective. Amongst all big men that rolled at least 90 possessions this season, he has the second highest turnover rate (11.7%), just a couple ticks below Portland Trail Blazers big men, and former Sun DeAndre Ayton. Veteran journeyman Eric Gordon has provided solid additional shooting on the perimeter as well as another scoring presence off the bench. Frank Vogel has done his best rotating big swingmen Keita Bates-Diop, Yuta Watanabe, Chimezie Metu, and Bol Bol effectively to see who’ll be a spark plug in the front court during key non-Durant minutes but consistency on both ends of the floor continues to be a concern for that second group.
Rumors began swirling around about the idea of the Suns’ inquiring about Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges center Nick Richards. Both players would without a doubt bolster a fairly thin bench and make the Suns a better possession-to-possession rebounding team. Bridges is putting up 20.9 points, seven rebounds, and a shade under four assists in 28 starts this season. Bridges has had some legal issues the past couple of years that have kept him off the court and has a veto trade clause in his contract so he’s definitely a unique trade option on an expiring contract. The Suns aren’t exactly in dire need of another player who has a score-first agenda but with health concerns already being a theme to this point, Bridges would be great insurance if any of the big three were to go down. Nick Richards would definitely be the necessary move to make considering the Suns’ big men depth and how team-friendly Richards’ contract is ($5 million annually). Luckily for Vogel, the Suns’ bench limitations aren’t as glaring because they possess three players who have had plenty of repetitions as a number one option and are the focal point of an opponent’s scouting report. So whether it’s staggering Booker with Beal or Durant or letting Beal run the second unit during non-Booker and Durant minutes, there won’t be many stretches where Vogel doesn’t appoint at least two of the big three to grace the floor together.
“I offered myself [Kevin Durant] this summer when we were having conversations about how we wanted to play and I told coach, I told James [Jones], Josh like my job is to be a lockdown defender. Obviously, I’m not going to be perfect every night but to go out there and trust that I can go out there and make life tough for opposing players. I mean I’m long, athletic. I can move. I’m experienced. Why shouldn’t I be held accountable to play top-line defense against anybody in the league? Durant informed reporters after a 119-117 comeback win at home vs the Sacramento Kings back on January 16th. “Like I said I’m not saying I’m stopping everybody but I think I can make life tough for any player in the league .. and there’s some great players out here but I feel like I can play hard and use my length and my attributes to make life tough and I want those assignments.” For a Suns defense that is middle of the road defensively and ranks in the bottom third in 4th quarters, this was a very refreshing stance from the future Hall of Famer. Durant, himself has really started to string along some strong defensive stretches as of late. Back on January 11th when the Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Suns at the Crypto Arena, Durant held LeBron James to 0/3 shooting from the field and forced three turnovers in 5:20 of matchup time. When the Suns hosted the Kings on January 16th during their impressive 22-point comeback, Durant held his opponents to 2/9 shooting and four turnovers including a standout fourth quarter in which he played major clutch minutes at the small ball five. Durant’s length and switching capabilities disrupted the Kings’ execution down the stretch and the Suns were able to come out on top.
During the past 15 games where the Suns have begun to hit their stride, they’ve been able to establish continuity and at least an identity on both sides of the floor — something you couldn’t say about this group a month ago. In 159 minutes spent on the court over the past 14 games, the five-man starting unit of K. Durant, D. Booker, B. Beal, J. Nurkic, and G. Allen all have a net rating of +34. That’s the 7th best net in the NBA of all lineups that have spent at least 100 minutes together during that same stretch. That same 5-man group has the 3rd best offensive rating (126.8) and more notably been more formidable on the other end posting the 9th best defensive rating (114.5) in that span.
If the Suns can sustain the availability of their main rotation players staying in the lineup night to night, I can envision a very special stretch of basketball going forward in Phoenix. Given the financial restrictions in the front office, I’d be fairly surprised if Matt Isbia and James Jones were able to find ways to significantly improve the roster at the deadline outside of keying in on possible rotating swing role guys. With plenty of superstar pedigree and a two-way-minded head coach who has proven playoff runs under his belt, the Suns will be one of the most dangerous teams in the association come springtime.
- NBAJanuary 24, 2024Nass’ Trip Around the Association Vol. 3, page Thirteen
- NBADecember 12, 2023Nass’ Trip Around the Association Vol. 3, Page Twelve
- NBADecember 3, 2023Nass’ Trip Around the Association Vol. 3, Page Eleven
- NBASeptember 3, 2023Nass’ Trip Around the Association Vol. 3, Page Ten