The case for Royce O'Neale staying in the Phoenix Suns' starting lineup

Despite how good Grayson Allen has been for the Phoenix Suns, Royce O'Neale's skillset makes him a better fit in the starting lineup.
Phoenix Suns v Oklahoma City Thunder
Phoenix Suns v Oklahoma City Thunder / Joshua Gateley/GettyImages

Royce O’Neale made a rare start in place of an injured Grayson Allen on Wednesday, as the Suns registered a massive, dominant win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

While the starting lineup’s net rating in that game wasn’t pretty, O’Neale’s seamless integration with the team, his ability as a passer, and his outstanding defense, could make that brief change permanent. 

It seems a bit blasphemous to suggest Allen should be moved to the bench. He’s wrapping up a career-best year, and has improved so significantly that he’s a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate. He’s very clearly the best three-point shooter on the team, and creates a ton of spacing for the stars to work with.  

Allen does have one significant weakness though, which is his defense. He gives a lot of effort on that end, but his lack of size and athleticism hold him back from being a productive defensive player. Those weaknesses get exploited in the playoffs, and a lot of the Suns potential matchups pose massive size problems on the wing and guard spots. 

Allen, paired with Jusuf Nurkić, would give opponents too many options to hunt at the same time. The Suns don’t have a viable player to swap with Nurkić, so that leaves Allen as the only starting spot that can be changed. 

O’Neale has a made compelling argument to justify that switch. Since the Suns acquired him, he's been everything they could've hoped for. He’s one of the best defenders on the team, and his ability to guard some of the bigger wings to take pressure off of Kevin Durant is invaluable.

His reputation as a connector wasn’t exaggerated, as he routinely makes the right play and extra pass when the defense overloads on the stars.

Perhaps the biggest factor working in O’Neale’s favor is how good of a 3-point shooter he’s been since arriving in Phoenix. He may not be as efficient as Allen from deep, but he’s shooting 39% on 5.3 attempts per game.

When adjusting to per-36 minutes, he’s actually taking more threes than Allen is. If the Suns were to replace Allen, it would be essential that the replacement is a high-volume threat from out there, and O’Neale has clearly been up to the task.

Due to various injuries and O’Neale coming off the bench when everyone is healthy, we haven’t actually seen him play with the four other starters for more than a handful of minutes. In 20 minutes together, 17 of which came in the game O’Neale just started, that 5-man has -10.3 net rating.

Considering the current starting lineup’s dominance, as well as O’Neale’s individual effectiveness, that small sample size can flip in a hurry in the event of switch.

Making a starting lineup change this late in the season doesn’t come without risk, as the Suns found out the hard way last season. After reshaping their roster by trading for Durant, Josh Okogie entrenched himself as the Suns fifth starter.

He was playing the best ball of his career, but as the playoffs began Monty Williams didn’t like the matchup the Los Angeles Clippers presented and instead swapped out Okogie for Torrey Craig. Craig ended up playing well, but the move totally destroyed Okogie’s rhythm and confidence, and a shallow Suns bench became even more so. 

That’s a consideration that Frank Vogel has to be aware of when making a similar move, but there’s definitely more working in Allen’s favor for him to adapt to it.

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Allen, while obviously benefitting from playing next to the stars, has been sensational the entire season, including periods where one or two of them were out. With playoff staggering, one of Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, or Durant will be on the floor at all times, so his effectiveness shouldn't dip.

He's showed an improved ability off the dribble as the year has gone on, and that would serve him well in a more on-ball role. Teams would not be able to leave him on the arc either, like they did with Okogie.

There’s also six games left which, while not many, would allow the new starting unit to build some chemistry, and isn’t nearly as jarring a change as before the first playoff game. If Vogel feels that O’Neale would be a better fit in the starting lineup, then that change has to be made now.