How Bradley Beal Fits With The Suns And The Questions That Remain For Phoenix

When reports of Bradley Beal’s murky future with the Washington Wizards swelled, teams like the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, and Sacramento Kings were all linked as potential suitors for the three-time All-Star. Then, on Saturday, another face was introduced to the festivities: the Phoenix Suns.

A day later, Phoenix and Washington were finalizing a deal that would send Beal to the desert in exchange for Chris Paul, Landry Shamet, a slew of second-rounders and multiple pick swaps. Beal’s acquisition marks the second star to join Phoenix via trade since the arrival of new owner Mat Ishbia, who made waves in February when the Suns landed Kevin Durant. After emerging as title hopefuls in 2020-21 and 2021-22 by way of a harmonic starting five, led by Paul and Devin Booker and a cast of excellent role players, the Suns have eschewed that ethos and pivoted to a top-heavy identity fully defined by their stars.

Paul and former head coach Monty Williams, two pillars of Phoenix’s turnaround, are gone. This is a new era for the Suns. Booker and Durant are the figureheads, as is now Beal, a divisive, albeit ultra-talented player, who spent his first 11 seasons with the Wizards. Stars always drive winning and Phoenix is overwhelmingly banking on that philosophy proving true. Durant and Booker are All-NBA superstars. Beal is a complementary third star. The rest of the roster is unknown and will be largely composed of role players on small deals fighting for minutes to punctuate the rotation.

Much of the divisiveness surrounding Beal involves his contract. He’s owed $208 million over the next four years. Only six players — LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic — will make more than him in 2023-24. The company his contract keeps does not align with Beal’s game, but that does not preclude him from being very good in his own right. The haggling over his salary and Washington’s listlessness has distorted evaluations of his game. Beal will absolutely amplify Phoenix, particularly as he shifts from an under-qualified primary option to a platonic tertiary option alongside Booker and Durant.

While the Wizards’ incongruent roster slogged through a 35-47 campaign last year, Beal was doing a whole lot of excellent things offensively, averaging 23.2 points (59.3 percent true shooting) and 5.4 assists (2.9 turnovers). He netted a career-high 55.4 percent of his twos (82nd percentile among combo guards). He ranked top 10 in points derived from drives per game. He converted 72 percent of his attempts at the rim (94th percentile) and generated 31 percent of his shots there (72nd percentile).

The former Florida Gator entered the NBA billed as a dynamite off-ball shooter, but has built himself into one of the league’s premier slashers. He is explosive, powerfully yet carefully discards defenders downhill, and touts the body control to spiral around help for finishes inside from a variety of angles. His blend of interior pressure and efficiency will help diversify the Suns’ offense, which has ranked 30th in rim frequency the past three years. During the 2022-23 playoffs, they were also dead last at 19 percent. An over-reliance on tough shot-making sunk their offense against the Denver Nuggets. Beal could help alleviate some of that and enable Durant to be the mid-post, off-ball scorer he’s optimized as rather than the overextended initiator Phoenix’s previous roster construction required.

There’s been some talk about redundancy between Booker and Beal offensively, but the Suns would’ve benefited from duplicating Booker last season. His driving and finishing were critical and scarce across the rotation; they needed more of it after reshaping the roster. Although Booker is not a Beal clone, he instills some necessary similarities, particularly around the hoop and off the bounce.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Beal ranked 16th in advantages created per 100 possessions, just behind Durant (12th) and Booker (13th). He’s adept producing shots at the rim and tilting the defense from a standstill. Phoenix welcomes that. The offense will be better for it.

For all the periods Beal operated on the ball, however, he’s a rather proficient off-ball scorer, comfortable flowing through pindowns, snagging handoffs, darting backdoor, and spraying spot-up triples. There’s no basis for what new head coach Frank Vogel’s offensive schematics will look like with this particular group, but Beal will not infringe upon Booker and Durant. He can slide into the background and be selective in his on-ball endeavors when the starting unit is all on the floor together.

Much is made about his pedestrian three-point numbers (34.7 percent since 2018-19), yet that’s a product of heightened responsibilities. Beal is still an effective stationary marksman. Over the past five seasons, he’s knocked down 37.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot long balls. Teams do not ignore him beyond the arc; they cannot guard him the way Shamet, Paul, Cameron Payne, Torrey Craig, and Josh Okogie were guarded in the second round. He’s a threat to shoot or drive and will benefit the spacing of this Phoenix attack, in addition to his other off-ball signatures. Upping his volume (.265 three-point rate the past three years) will be paramount in an offense already short on shooters and anchored by a pair of midrange mavens.

Beal and Kristaps Porzingis formed a symbiotic two-man game together out of ball-screens and Delay sets the past 1.5 seasons. Regardless of whether Deandre Ayton is around once the year begins, monitoring how much value Beal and the Suns can extract from his off-ball savvy is important. Ayton is not much of a DHO or elbow hub like Porzingis and there’s no guarantee his (possible) replacement is either. Maybe, Durant occupies that role to collaborate with his new teammate. Letting him act as a big man more often offensively would behoove him and the entire offense.

I also wonder to what degree the other two members of any lineup featuring Booker, Durant, and Beal can command attention as spacers. Phoenix struggled in the second round to field a consistent five-man unit, in part because of insufficient ancillary shooting that enabled Denver to sell out on Booker and Durant. If defenses can crunch the floor against Beal by sending aggressive help when he’s working around handoffs or pindowns, that dampens the utility of his off-ball scoring. Beal is not a bad passer, but he is limited and prone to identifying openings a beat slower than preferred. If Phoenix unearths viable spacers who can burn that type of gambit and play deep into the postseason, the air becomes cleaner for its star trio. Beal also thrives navigating narrow openings and wields a dexterous handle to wiggle through congested lanes, two traits that might mitigate some spacing foibles.

Beal’s iffy processing speed as a passer are broad shortcomings shared with Booker and Durant to different degrees. Booker is a brilliant player and high-level playmaker, but still owns blemishes that may be magnified by the shallow depth around him. Durant’s shaky handle and rigid passing vision were on display in the playoffs. Phoenix is constructing its championship aspirations around a turbocharged offense with these three stars. I hold some reservations about if they’re good enough facilitators to elevate the offense to the requisite heights to offset concerns potentially stemming from surrounding context and personnel.

Teams are going to defend them like the Nuggets did. Beal in the fold provides another adroit ball-handler, slasher, and spacer, but doesn’t immediately give this team a reliable quintet to close playoff games. That was the root of the Suns’ issues, not a dearth of star power. This problem still exists, which is more a point regarding their overall quality as contenders rather than anything specifically damning about the Beal trade. Can he render their lineups more synergistic? Does a third star quell worries about interior defense and who can capitalize on the gravity of their stars with quick, impactful decision-making? Those were two glaring problems prior to this deal occurring. Their already slim avenues to rectify them are smaller after netting Beal.

The offseason is just beginning, so Phoenix could address some of these questions in completing the rest of the roster. Trading away Ayton to improve its depth might be another domino that gives the Beal move more clarity and sensibility. These critiques and questions are aspects to keep tabs, not condemnations about a team far from finalized in makeup or development.

Bradley Beal is an awesome player. He will help the Suns in numerous manners. He will not help them in every manner, though. Whether that difference even ends up mattering will be determined over the next 10 months and puts considerable onus on the linchpins — stars, coaching staff and front office — to ace the ensuing steps ahead. That was already the Suns’ reality before nabbing Beal, though. Acquiring him could make it easier to ace the ensuing steps. How much easier, if at all, is yet to be seen.