Less predictable bench offense:
Historically, when Devin Booker is not on the floor, the Suns look lost on offense. (There was a pleasantly surprising run of dominance from the Suns bench that anchored their 8-0 bubble run, but Cameron Payne and Dario Saric won’t be shooting lights out every night.)
A simple pick-and-roll game from the bench players did not and does not cut it, especially when Jevon Carter hasn’t really established himself as a ball handler. He takes great care of the ball but is not yet the certified playmaker the bench needs. In fact, there isn’t a certified anything on the bench (except Cam Johnson, who I personally certify as a sniper).
Monty has addressed this partially by adjusting Chris Paul’s minutes: Paul sits for the second shift of the first quarter and enters the second quarter as a primary facilitator while Booker is on the bench.
There is still a bit of a scoring issue: They can individually hold their own and theoretically work well together, but there needs to be another gear. This falls both on Monty Williams and on the second unit; can they create and execute a system that works despite lacking an offensive focal point next to Paul?
If so, it will ideally involve much more motion: more attacking, more slashing, more aggression at the basket. This hasn’t really been happening, but it doesn’t need to when the threes are falling. When they are not, however, the offense remains stagnant, and the interior presence is severely lacking without Ayton and rookie Jalen Smith, who is still rehabbing an ankle injury.
The bench can work around Paul, Carter, Payne and Saric, while getting scoring help from Johnson and new addition Langston Galloway. This lineup lacks size and athleticism, but they can more than make up for it with energy and ball movement. Setting the physical tone and getting unpredictable but comfortable looks for everyone on the court is the key to Sun’s bench success in 2021.
Another issue that caused some chaos last season was the lineup construction during both healthy and injury-plagued periods of time. For example, Kelly Oubre should not have been a starter over Cam Johnson.
Oubre is a better player, but this is a matter of fit: Johnson (certified sniper) needs to be in lineups where other players are respected, and this was not the case last season. He was forced into a lot of bad three-point attempts due to simple offensive inability from the second unit.
At the same time, Oubre is a spark player who lacks passing skills. His defense is great, and he was correctly in the closing lineups, but he took a lot of possessions away from Rubio, Booker, and Ayton early in the game. He would have been much more effective as the sixth man, where he could flourish as the focal point of an otherwise ineffective offense, likely opening up the other spots on the floor.
We didn’t get to see this. Actually, we saw it exactly one time, in a Feb. 10, Ayton-less blowout loss to the oversized Lakers. The other 55 games he was healthy, Oubre started all 55. Of course, there are many reasons why Monty is a head coach and I am not, but I see this as an experimental failure. The starting lineup that included Cam Johnson in the bubble speaks for itself.
With a deeper roster and hopefully better luck with injuries this time around, this issue will not be as severe. However, Monty can look to teams like the Raptors and Blazers for inspiration just in case. Both of these teams were also slammed with injuries for most of last season but found ways to win and build off of their reserves. We hope for health but must prepare for the worst, and this duty to fully understand his players and his system falls on Monty himself.
Thus far, the lineups have worked quite well; we can’t complain too much after a 5-2 start, and Monty’s game plan with Paul anchoring the second unit was a great idea. The only issue is that Jevon Carter has lost his form a bit. He was a key player in the bubble but has now lost control of the ball while sharing the floor with Paul and Payne. His defense and hopeful return to 40 percent three-point clip will certainly keep him on the floor, but he has yet to find his rhythm and so far has not gotten the open looks he needs.
The issues have been mostly addressed, but turnovers, rebounding and Booker’s free-throw shooting have become concerns. However, after a 6-2 start, with both losses being close, there is not much to complain about. It has been a joy to watch every player perform at an elite level, and hopefully Jalen Smith can make a return and find his role as well.