After a promising start to the season, the sun has stopped shining on Phoenix.
The initial boost of hiring Monty Williams and signing Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes has given way to another rough stretch of Suns basketball. Phoenix just had an eight-game losing streak that was bookended by wins over the lowly Timberwolves and Kings. The offense is middling, despite Devin Booker taking another step forward. The best thing that can be said about the defense is that it’s no longer a bottom-three unit in the league, while the general ineptitude of the bottom of the Western Conference has kept the Suns in the playoff picture, even if their recent play leaves much to be desired.
In order for Phoenix to look back upon this season as anything more than just another year of being an also-ran, things have to change. Here’s what the Suns should be wishing for when the calendar flips to 2020 to turn their season around.
#1: Continued growth for Devin Booker
The improvement of Booker has been the major bright spot in this Phoenix season. Playing alongside a true point guard in Rubio has unburdened Booker on the offensive end and allowed him to become an efficient scorer instead of just a volume bucket-getter. His true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, and he’s still assisting at nearly the same rate despite handling the ball less than he has in previous years. The space afforded by the five-out offense has allowed Booker to thrive finishing in the paint, and he’s converted 70 percent of his shots at the rim. Booker still has the killer instinct and ability to take over when necessary, but sharing the offense with Rubio has been healthier for his game, and for the Suns as a whole.
Booker’s game has generally been regarded as empty calories around the league, and his lack of hardware reflects that. Booker made the All-Rookie team but has never been in consideration for other major honors, which should change this year. Phoenix can mount a legitimate campaign for Booker as an All-Star, which would be the team’s first since Steve Nash in 2012. There is also some stealth All-NBA buzz around Booker, too, as Zach Lowe picked him for the third team in his early ballot.
The Suns may not have the level of team success they envisioned during their hot start, but Booker’s ascension into the star level of NBA players could mitigate some of that.
#2: A defensive overhaul
A 5-2 start, including wins over the Clippers and the Sixers, seemed to suggest that Williams and the Suns had figured some things out on the defensive end. As it turns out, that was mostly fools gold created by poor opponent shooting. That luck has since evaporated, and Phoenix’s system hasn’t been up to par.
The Suns are kind of like the anti-Bucks. They allow a ton of shots at the rim, but very few threes. Then again, why would a team want to take threes when the paint is wide open? Even though Baynes is an intimidating presence at the basket, the volume of shots that Phoenix is conceding at the rim would overwhelm even a good defense, particularly because the Suns foul frequently — only the Bulls and Knicks send teams to the line more often than Phoenix. When opponents do decide to take three-pointers, it’s generally because they’re good looks, and they’re shooting 38 percent from downtown against the Suns.
Phoenix has the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the league. Even though they sit only 1.5 games out of the eighth, the Suns will need internal improvement to overcome the morass in the West. The easiest way to do that would be to start playing some defense.
#3: Trade for Kevin Love
These last two options are essentially an either-or proposition, because acquiring Love would not improve Phoenix’s defense in the slightest. However, the power forward position for the Suns has been bleak, and Love would be an instant upgrade from an offensive perspective, provided his current level of play is lottery malaise and not a sudden decline. Love and Baynes make a fantastic frontcourt pairing, and Love would fit right into the spacing principles Williams has tried to implement in Phoenix.
The Suns haven’t exactly tried to pursue the path of a rebuilding team — they spent their offseason unloading assets to create cap space, so trading for a just-past-his-prime star fits right into their M.O. They could make the math work by combining Tyler Johnson’s expiring contract with some filler assets, like Mikal Bridges and some picks, which works for a wing-deprived Cavaliers team. Love isn’t a perfect player by any means, but reuniting him with Rubio and pairing him with Booker makes for a fascinating offensive system. If Phoenix wants to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, this could be the team’s best bet.