When the Phoenix Suns decided to remodel their frontcourt with the acquisitions of Jusuf Nurkić and Drew Eubanks, a lot of uncertainty came with that decision. Now a third of the way through the season, we’ve gotten some clarity on their fit with this roster and their abilties as players.
So far, those results have been mixed. Nurkić has exceeded just about everyone’s expectations as a rebounder and passer, while struggling as a scorer and defender. Eubanks, on the other hand, got off to a good start before entering into a deep lull of late.
Eubanks has looked almost unplayable during this stretch as some fans are clamoring for the Suns to make a move to bring in a new backup center. It’s a bit too early to make a significant move with the trade deadline months away, and the Suns should still wait until their full roster sees the floor.
Instead, Frank Vogel can make a radical adjustment by inserting Eubanks into the starting lineup and moving Nurkić to the bench.
The Suns starting five with Nurkić has been one of the best in the league, so it’s risky to mess with that. But the Suns bench lineups have been so bad lately it’s completely offsetting the starting unit. Add in the fact that even the starters are in a slump right now, and clearly something needs to change.
Nurkić’s calling card as a player is his high level passing ability from the center position. That vision was on display often at the beginning of the season with Nurk racking up high assist games and orchestrating the offense. However, a lot of that was in part due to Devin Booker being out with injury. In those games in which Booker didn't play, Nurk averaged 5.3 assists per game.
Since Booker returned, Nurkic’s assists have been on a steady decline, as he's averaging just 3.3 assists when Booker plays. This was always likely to be the case when Booker came back, and would’ve continued in that direction if Bradley Beal didn't get injured as well. As good of a passer as Nurkić is, you’d much rather the ball be in the hands of Booker, Beal, and Kevin Durant.
Moving Nurkić to the bench will allow him to get back to playing the way he’s used to, while also giving that unit the playmaking it sorely misses. It’s been no secret that the Suns are missing a true point guard on the roster, especially of late, but their bench has felt the worst of that. The Suns squad is averaging just the second fewest bench points in the entire NBA.
The Suns tried to stagger Booker with the bench players to give those lineups some juice, but without Beal, there’s just too many occasions without a lead playmaker on the court. Inserting Nurk into those lineups would allow him to be that playmaking hub that we saw at the beginning of the season.
That current lack of playmaking on the bench is also the biggest reason for Eubanks’ struggles at the moment. Unlike Nurkić, Drew is a traditional center who relies on others to set him up, specifically in the pick and roll.
Eubanks is used as a roll man in 27.6% of possessions when he’s on the floor, which is significantly higher than Nurk’s 18.3%. Moving Eubanks to the starting lineup would give him playmakers that can finally utilize his rolling ability.
It will also allow the Suns to play faster, which would be the biggest difference with Eubanks in the starting lineup. Nurkić’s post-ups, whether to score or to pass, have been a big contributor to the Suns’ slower pace. Having the Suns primary ball-handlers bring the hall up and go right into the pick and roll action will be a lot faster than setting the offense with Nurkić.
As for defense, both Nurkić and Eubanks' defensive ratings have been nearly identical this year so switching them shouldn't have any ill-effects on an already average defense. If anything, Nurk playing slightly less minutes will keep him fresh later into games.
Moving a long-time starter to the bench can sometimes be a tricky thing to handle, but Vogel has been moving players in and out of the starting lineup the entire year to try and see what works. None of those other moves have caused any problems, and Nurkić has been a stellar teammate to boot.
With Nurkić set to miss today's game, the Suns will get a preview of what the starting lineup looks like with Eubanks. If the Suns win while playing at a faster pace, it might be a sign to flip the two bigs and see if Nurk is equally as successful on the bench.