A three-game losing streak should not take away from the positive start the Phoenix Suns have made to the season. Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks outlines what they must do to sustain it throughout the campaign.
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After a 2019 NBA Draft night in which they traded down from the sixth overall position only to land a low upside senior, gave up a second-round pick to salary dump young veteran TJ Warren and traded a future first-round pick for only the No 24 selection this year, many analysts - this one included - were pessimistic about what the Phoenix Suns and their new management had chosen to do.
In the ensuing free agency period, the Suns were finally able to address their long-standing point guard shortage in signing Ricky Rubio from the Utah Jazz, before further adding former Charlotte Hornets seven-footer Frank Kaminsky for some reserve frontcourt scoring. The cumulative returns, however, did not seem impressive considering the assets that the team had to work with, and all the losing that had gone on before.
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Additionally, they made a big dumping trade at the start of the offseason when they 2017 fourth overall pick Josh Jackson, along with 2018 second-round pick De'Anthony Melton (who the previous season received 31 starts and nearly 1,000 minutes) in exchange for only the filler contract of Kyle Korver and low ceiling reserve point guard Jevon Carter from the Memphis Grizzlies.
Not only did they give up two formerly prized young players, but they also gave up two second-round picks to do so; combined with the one (subsequently used on KZ Okpala) given up in the Warren salary dump, the distinct lack of upside of all the players brought in and the plethora of role players acquired without the second star around whom they were to play a role, and an important offseason looked to have been a washout.
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To say that the Suns have had a spotty draft record in recent seasons is to undersell the problem. Jackson, salary dumped after only two seasons, is the embodiment of this but far from the only one. All these seasons of losing are supposed to be worth it for the talent gained via the draft, but Phoenix has a very poor recent track record in this regard.
Jackson managed only two years and is still yet to play for the Grizzlies, Dragan Bender managed only three and is now at the very bottom of the Milwaukee Bucks' rotation, Marquese Chriss has changed teams multiple times and needed tremendous luck to make the Golden State Warriors' roster as an unguaranteed free agent this summer, and Alex Len played his best basketball after leaving Phoenix.
Perhaps more pertinently, the Suns got nothing significant in return for any of these players. And perhaps even more pertinently than that, on multiple occasions, they gave up quite a lot to get these players in the first place.
The rights to Chris were acquired for two first-round picks, a second-round pick and the draft rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic, a massively one-sided deal in the Sacramento Kings' favour which could have been even more so have they not misused the two firsts. Furthermore, in order to move up a mere five spots in the 2018 Draft to get Mikal Bridges, the Suns gave up a completely unprotected future first-round pick of the Miami Heat. Lots of losing and lots of picks equalled lots of squandered opportunities.
However, amidst it all, the excellent 2015 selection of Devin Booker has provided some hope. After a 5-2 start to this season, including impressive victories over the LA Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers (and with the two losses each by only one point to the competitive Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz respectively), the Suns put in one of the best stretches the franchise has seen in the last decade.
While it is often wrongly used synonymously with 'athleticism', 'talent' - difficult though it is to define - is always the aim of the rebuilding exercise. A team's ceiling is determined by its talent level, and thus to a team near the bottom of the NBA, upping it is the major priority.
After the offseason they had, Phoenix might have lowered theirs, but what they did do was acquire players more commensurate in their playing styles with each other, as well acquire hungry young veterans and established veteran role players who attack with a hunger in their second and third efforts that keep trying to come back and compete in situations where previous more fragile Suns line-ups would just capitulate. And it is this renewed vigour that saw the Suns get out to the start that they did.
A three-game losing streak has seen Phoenix drop to 7-7, rather taking the shine off the nice season-opening storyline. It is however indisputable that injury problems have been responsible for that.
In particular, Rubio has missed two of those games and was distinctly hobbled in the third one by back spasms, while Aron Baynes - whose breakout performance as a shooter, defender, screener, passer, up-faker, playmaker on the move of all things and even as a dribble-driver at the five-spot in the absence of the suspended DeAndre Ayton has been incalculably useful - has also been out of the line-up in that span.
The Suns of the past week, then, have not been the ones of the season as a whole, literally and figuratively, and thus the regression back to a .500 record should not be too much cause for alarm.
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Even in these losses, the team has continued to fight rather than roll over and have its belly tickled, as would have been the case in previous seasons. The Suns that began this season were greater than the sum of their parts, and in team sports, that is of course always the aim.
What the injuries and the losses have done however is expose the significant lack of depth that the lowered ceiling has brought about. Notwithstanding the above, they could sorely do with more parts.
In particular, there has been a very heavy reliance on Rubio as a ball-handler and passer. Behind him, the options are as scarce as they have always been. Tyler Johnson has not impressed and the slow decline he has been on over these past few seasons continues, while Carter is a good defender who has minimal offensive impact because he can move no opponents around.
Second-year point guard Elie Okobo is not ready for consistent minutes, and while Booker's experience of playing the point guard spot in recent seasons allows him to take on these duties if required, he is the most direct beneficiary of all of having Rubio alongside him. Without him, Booker will simply be trapped all the time by opposing defenders. He needs that experienced pressure release valve and has done for three years.
The shortcomings in the rest of the roster have been exposed by the absences. In particular, starting power forward Dario Saric has been streaky in all aspects of the game and has missed a lot of close-in attempts for a de facto big, while although his energy has been more consistent than usual and his athleticism on the wing welcome, Kelly Oubre Jr simply never passes. Bridges, one of the few young pieces with a presumed high ceiling based on his talent and athleticism, has been often lost offensively, developing a hitch in his jump shot and lacking confidence in it.
Reinforcements are on the way, the biggest one being when Ayton returns from suspension next month. The significance frontcourt shortage that has seen Kaminsky play as the starting center recently - which means having someone who can neither rebound, protect the rim or rotate laterally to an NBA average level at the most important defensive position on the team - will soon be abated. What has been evident over this recent stretch however is that for the feel-good story to continue, the Suns cannot afford many more missed games by their starting unit.
It has nonetheless been good to see that even when threadbare, and even without ideal defensive personnel, the new Suns play with defensive motor. They give up the fewest three-pointers in the league because they play with close-out energy, not something that could have been said of Phoenix teams of the recent past.
Rookie forward Cameron Johnson, the one they saw fit to trade down for, has been as sweet of a shooter as expected but also has held his own as a stretch power forward defender, perhaps a low upside player but also one with a high floor. And when healthy, line-ups such as Rubio/Carter/Bridges/Oubre/Baynes make for strong defensive units. The Suns may lack a bench still, but at least they now have starters.
To get back to where they were and keep up the feelgood season, Ayton needs to return and show some growth from his rookie season in terms of his own defensive motor, scoring versatility and overall rhythm. Bridges needs to rediscover his offensive game, and although it will rely upon bucking a five-year trend, Oubre needs to calm down offensively.
But these things are all very possible. So although the lesser talent level, the draft pick failures of recent seasons and the lowered overall ceiling as a result still create valid concerns about the long-term projection of the team, the short-term success can be sustained due to the potential for internal growth throughout the season that they are young enough still to have.
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The Suns have cultivated an atmosphere of commitment on the court and got some good vibes going among the fan base. Long may it continue.