Without Devin Booker, the Phoenix Suns have slid and are in danger of falling out of the playoff race. How do they turn things around?
Since Devin Booker reinjured his groin, the Suns have endured a brutal stretch losing six of their last eight including an embarrassing loss to the Knicks. Unfortunately, history doesn’t bode well for Phoenix playing without Bookerbut with the Suns falling to the ninth seed they need to pivot quickly if they’re going to survive without him.
After their loss to the Knicks, Deandre Ayton called the Suns out and to his credit, he showed up the next game ferociously defending Jarret Allen limiting him to a single bucket. However, he only attempted 12 shots and with an unhealthy Booker that’s a red flag; Monty Williams echoed that sentiment too. With a $133 million contract, Ayton needs to be more than a vocal leader hustling by example. He needs to be dominant.
Criticism of Ayton is nothing new and while he’s a great defender, rebounder and interior force he doesn’t shoot particularly well nor can he create his own shot. There’s also speculation he’s disliked by his teammates. In reality, he’s a goofball who can often be found dancing at practice or taking circus half-court shots before games, but it’s no secret offseason contract drama frustrated him. Not to mention, him and Monty Williams are known to have a potential rocky relationship.
It’s no easy task filling the void of Booker’s 27 points a game, as the key to the Sun’s offense is their shooting gravity. Phoenix operates best when Booker is running off-ball forcing defenses to adjust to prevent him from getting easy looks. Considering their reliance on shooting, acquiring a stretch 5 for Ayton could make sense. Trade rumors have revolved around Nikola Vucevic, an excellent scorer and rebounder (albeit defensively limited) who could be packaged with DeMar DeRozan in what could produce a win now, title contender in the Suns.
The other prime candidates to shoulder the scoring load are Mikal Bridges and Chris Paul. Sadly, it seems Paul has reached the point where he can’t reliably be the number two option, but that’s not a criticism — Father time gets everyone. As for Bridges, he’s a perfect 3-and-D swingman, but it remains to be seen if he’s a top-tier role player or an all-star.
Ultimately, the Suns need several ingredients if they are going to survive.
Here’s how the Suns turn things around without Devin Booker:
1. The Suns need to acquire firepower that doesn’t put unnecessary pressure on role players like Torrey Craig and Landry Shamet. It’s unclear why Crowder hasn’t been flipped yet, but if he could somehow be worked into a trade for the Pistons’ Bojan Bogdanovicthe Suns would be in business.
2. The Suns need to prominently feature Ayton on offense or find a viable trade partner if they don’t believe in that formula. A stretch 5 like Nikola Vucevic or a better defender like Myles Turner could be a great fit.
3. Mikal Bridges needs to flex his true, two-way abilities. We all know Bridges is a Defensive Player of the Year caliber defender, but without Booker, he needs to get aggressive looking for his shots and potentially step into the next phase of his career — think Paul George’s ascension into a primary option with the Pacers all those years ago.
4. Cameron Johnson is close and Cam Payne can contribute. When it was announced Jae Crowder wouldn’t be returning to the Suns it seemed clear Cameron Johnson was the next man up. Before going down with a torn meniscus Johnson was impressive and he’s close to a return. Of course, Johnson isn’t a superstar, he will need time to ramp up and won’t immediately solve the team’s issues, but he has an undeniable ability to score. As for Payne he’s admirably filled in for Paul when needed and can not only dish assists but provide a scoring punch. Payne has been dealing with lingering foot issues but could return as soon as Sunday against the Cavaliers.
4. The Suns need to lock down defensively. They were inefficient on defense last month, but have the pieces to be a strong defensive team. Bridges can guard any opposing team’s best player, Ayton is a paint beast, CP3 regardless of his age is brilliant and Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie and even Bismack Biyombo are energetic, defensive spark plugs. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to effort.
5. Paul needs to be an inspired leader. While he’s lost a step he’s still the most important, cultural piece for balancing out the team’s struggles and motivating their efforts. It feels like yesterday the Brooklyn Nets were a circus as Kyrie Irving was publicly apologizing, Ben Simmons was air-balling lay-ups and Durant was criticizing his own teammates. Now the Nets are one of the hottest teams in the league. There will be highs and lows in basketball and Paul needs to be vocal in shepherding the Suns through it.
As the trade deadline nears it will be interesting to see Phoenix’s approach, but with the absence of Devin Booker the Suns need to make some major adjustments and fast if they’re going to survive.
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