After making a blockbuster trade for three time All-Star Bradley Beal the Suns looked poised to run the West, but so far it has been the opposite. The Phoenix Suns are currently 22-18 which lands them as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Most of the Suns struggles have been due to injuries, however injuries are not the only reason why the Suns have yet to reach their full potential.
Earlier this summer the Suns fired their former Coach Of The Year, Monty Williams, and hired the defensive minded Frank Vogel, who coached the Lakers to an NBA Championship in 2020. With the front office and many fans excited for Vogel to make the Suns an elite defensive team, that has yet to be seen.
Currently they are 16th in defensive rating and 18th in steals, all the while allowing 17.9 points per game off of turnovers. I don’t think the blame is with Vogel, but with the underperformance of the Suns players.
Many of the offseason acquisitions made by the Suns seemed like they would be impactful on the defensive end, bringing in names like Grayson Allen and Keita Bates-Diop plus returning players Kevin Durant, and Josh Okogie, how could they not be an elite defensive team?
Last season in San Antonio, Bates-Diop averaged 9.7 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 39.4% from the tree point line in a career high 21.7 minutes per game. After being coached by legend Gregg Popovich and taking in the defensive San Antonio culture for three seasons, Bates-Diop looked ready to bring his defensive versatility to the Valley.
Before the season began I believed he was the best choice for the fifth spot in the starting lineup, now he has only started 8 games and averages 16.4 minutes per game. Disappointing is the easiest way to describe Keita Bates Diop so far in Phoenix, on both ends of the floor.
His shooting efficiency has fallen tremendously from last season, from 50% to 39% from the field, and an increased 2.3 fouls per game compared to 1.6 fouls last year in per 36 minutes. After recording seven straight DNPs followed by seven straight played games with little production including an 0-6 shooting night, it is clear the Keita Bates-Diop experience has been nowhere near what was expected.
Not all of the blame can go to one place, while Josh Okogie is a terrific defender, his limited offensive ability and questionable shot selection find him hard to play at times. Josh can miss plenty of wide open jump shots and take some ill advised layups, but some plays he may have a polarizing poster dunk like he had in the teams recent blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
With his playstyle leaning too far on one side of the court, Josh can find himself struggling to find minutes. The Suns would be a much better defensive team if Okogie could earn consistent minutes, and that starts with him finding his rhythm on offense.
Another hole on the defensive end has been starting center, Jusuf Nurkic. There is no doubt that Nurkic is a talented player on the offensive end, but the defense has been nonexistent. Nurkic will have the occasional block and steal, and sometimes have a pretty good defensive game, but for the most part it is the other way around.
There have been a handful of games where Nurkic had to be subbed out due to his shortcomings on defense, for example during the fourth quarter of the amazing comeback victory against the Sacramento Kings. Nurkis is known to frequently leave the game with foul trouble, he has had 4+ fouls in fourteen of his thirty six games played.
He was brought in as a good rebounder, and great passing big man who can occasionally hit the long ball, but I never thought the fit was perfect here in Phoenix. With offensive superstars in the Suns big 3 of Beal, Booker, and Durant, plus the sharpshooting Grayson Allen, defense is needed in the frontcourt and Nurkic does not provide that.
Defense is not the only reason why the Suns have looked shaky, another factor could be the inconsistent and questionable rotations. It is not surprising to see Frank Vogel go deep into the bench at times, and all he is trying to do is find the right set of players before playoff time, but he needs to figure it out soon.
With the Suns playing their first fully healthy game this season against the Lakers, minus Drew Eubanks (illness) and Damion Lee (torn meniscus), it is important to have players in the right roles so they can build continuity and chemistry. It is hard to be confident when the player doesn’t know how many minutes they are going to play, or if they are going to play.
I can see why the Suns are starting Grayson Allen because he has been lights out from deep and is a tireless defender, however come playoff time I think Vogel will come to find that they need a bigger defender in the lineup.
Chimezie Metu provides the length and athleticism missing in the starting unit, along with his defensive presence and shown ability to stretch the floor at times and given the reps and time to gel with the starters in practice, Metu could end up being the best option to start alongside the Suns big 3, and Nurkic.
We all know the biggest factor behind the Suns struggles and it has been injuries. The newly formed Big 3 has only played in nine full games together, while only having a 5-4 record in those nine games. Being healthy going forward would help Vogel figure out the rotations, allow the role players to be role players and not be forced into an excess workload.
The potential is NBA Championship aspirations if the Suns can stay healthy, and be active players in the trade and buyout market here in the next two months. With a seemingly healthy roster for the foreseeable future, hopefully the Suns can finally click and reach their full potential.