Early season takeaways from Phoenix Suns lineup configurations

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

With more than a quarter of the season in the books, the Phoenix Suns sit atop the Western Conference. It’s not a surprise that they’ve yet again risen to the top; they’ve proven themselves to be an elite team over the last two seasons. What is surprising is how they’ve gotten here.

The Suns have been ravaged by injuries to begin the year. Monty Williams has had to promote role players to starters and experiment with different lineup configurations to get the Suns back to the top of the West.

The Suns got off to a great start this season, mainly on the strength of their starting lineup. That unit of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and newly anointed starter Cam Johnson exceeded even the most optimistic expectations with their play. They posted a ridiculous 33.1 net rating in 6 games before injuries started to take hold of their season.

While a number that high will likely come down with a larger sample size, it was still extremely encouraging to see the potential of that lineup. Johnson isn’t the defender or rebounder that Jae Crowder is, but he more than makes up for it with his shooting. Having that extra shooter to clear space for the pick and roll, plus the drive and kick took the Suns’ offensive efficiency to a new level.

Injuries have devastated the Suns’ player rotation

Unfortunately, Paul and Johnson got injured within a game of each other, leading to Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig’s promotions to the starting lineup. The new starting unit got off to a rough start, posting a terrible -27.4 net rating in their first three games together. They’ve quickly rounded into form since then, though, as that number has risen to 14.1.

Payne has been at the center of that improvement;  more than making up for Paul’s absence, averaging 15.3 points with 7.7 assists during that stretch. We’ve always known Payne can score the ball when he’s on, but the assist number is particularly important.

When Paul gets injured, it’s his shot-creating ability that the Suns always seem to miss the most. Payne is now getting players involved at a higher level than ever before which has kept the Suns humming.

A small lineup tweak that the Suns have made recently sees Damion Lee subbing in for Craig to get minutes with the other four starters. Lee is the closest thing to Johnson that the Suns have in terms of shooting the ball, so this composition replicates their preferred lineup structure.

Like the Johnson lineup, this one with Lee has been incredibly effective, with a 15.1 net rating in 47 minutes of action. That extra elite shooter playing alongside the Suns’ core seems to be the key to unlocking their offense, so I think Lee should get more run with the starters until Johnson returns.

One lineup configuration that the Suns haven’t gone to too much this year has been the two-big lineup. This has been a bit surprising considering the Suns’ injuries, plus with Dario Saric back in the fold, it could have been an easy way to get him minutes. When they tried it, the results were mixed.

The two-big lineup that has worked best has been Saric playing next to Jock Landale. They’ve been pretty effective, putting up a 6.1 net rating in 54 minutes together. Two-big lineups are usually matchup-dependent, so the Suns rarely have to go to it out of necessity like they had to last game when Saric started next to Ayton due to the injury to Craig.

Still, Saric playing next to one of the bench bigs can be an optimal way to get him consistent minutes. He has the highest ceiling of the backup bigs if he can get back to being the player he was before his ACL injury.

Coach Williams has started off his Coach of the Year title defense in terrific fashion. His lineup adjustments have been the biggest reason why the Suns have maintained such a high level of play in the face of adversity. Even as the Suns get back to full strength, there are a couple of valuable takeaways from these different lineups that will serve them well going forward.

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