The State of The Suns

Tiffany Hagan

On Christmas day, it felt like the sky was falling for the Suns.
For the first time this season they had dropped to below .500 after a pitiful loss to the Mavs.
Everything seemed lost.
With Guard Bradley Beal only playing in 6 games at that point, the basketball world was ready to call the most recent super team experiment a failure.
After the game, forward Grayson Allen bluntly addressed the team’s recent struggles in a press conference but offered some optimism.
“It’s frustrating because I feel like we’ve been lacking in some games but I feel like if we had a normal offensive night it would have been a win for us,” said Allen.
After the Christmas day blunder, the Suns miraculously rattled off four straight wins and fans began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
While some problems persisted in the small win streak like the lack of offensive consistency and many defensive miscues, fans finally thought the team was coming together.
Then, on January 3rd, with the big three of Booker, Beal, and Durant fully healthy, the Suns fell to the Los Angeles Clippers largely because of an all too common occurrence: a 4th quarter collapse.
This season, those collapses have been commonplace with the Suns ranking dead last in 4th quarter points per game at 24.7.
Even in wins, the opposing team still seemed to find a way to claw their way back into the game in the 4th.
After the loss to the Clippers, the frustration was palpable. A few nights later, on January 16th, the Suns hosted the Sacramento Kings where the Kings quickly jumped out to a double-digit lead and held onto it for most of the game.
Then,with eight minutes left in the game, the Suns erased a 109-87 deficit and somehow won the game 119-117.
That eight-minute stretch was the most complete the Suns had looked all season with high defensive activity and a stellar offense sparked by Coach Frank Vogel’s decision to play Durant at Center.
Since that night, the Suns have not lost, even rattling off another 20-point comeback in their 115-113 win over the Bulls.
The last stretch of games has shown how good the Suns can be at their ceiling which starts with the more active defense the Suns have been playing.
This newfound commitment to defense, along with a slight schematic change where Suns defenders are more willing to switch matchups, has created innumerable opportunities for the Suns in transition where the opponent isn’t able to set their defense up creating mismatches that the Suns can easily exploit.
Vogel’s reputation as an elite defensive coach has finally rounded into form as well.
In the Suns’ blowout win against the Pelicans on January 19th, Vogel tasked Beal with guarding high-flying forward Zion Williamson, who has a clear height and strength advantage, while Durant was tasked with guarding Forward Brandon Ingram.
This defensive adjustment allowed Beal to stay in front of Williamson thus denying him the ability to score in the paint; this, along with Durant holding Ingram to only 17 points, caused the Pelicans’ offense to stagnate leading to many transition opportunities for Booker who had a season-high 52 points.
The offensive dynamic of the big 3 has changed for the better, also. In this stretch of games, one of Booker, Beal, or Durant shoulders most of the scoring load as seen by Durant’s back-to-back 40-point games against the Pacers and Bulls while the other two act as pressure release valves doing enough to force the defense off of the others.
Lastly, the emergence of Grayson Allen has been a revelation for the Suns. Allen has provided a steady scoring output as the fifth starter averaging 13.7 points per game. Since coming into the league, Allen has been regarded as a great three-point shooter, but this year, in part from the great looks he gets as a result of the defense doubling either Booker, Beal, or Durant, his shooting has hit a new high. He currently leads the league in 3-point percentage at 49.1 while also being the only player this season to shoot at least 50% on field goals, at least 40% on threes, and at least 90% from the free throw line. Only 9 players in NBA history have achieved that in a season.
Durant, a member of the 50/40/90 club himself offered high praise of Allen in a press conference.
“He’s [Allen] came here and showed everybody in the basketball world different parts of his game… he can pretty much do it all,” said Durant after Allen’s 29-point performance in the comeback against The Kings where he made 9/14 threes.
Should Allen keep up his incredible shooting, it will force defenses to pay even more attention to him thus freeing space up for others to operate.
While the current win streak is a good indication of success, it should be taken with cautious optimism, for there are still flaws in the team, namely the lack of bench production. Although the team was constructed to be top-heavy because of financial limitations, the Suns need more contributions from their bench to have playoff success. This flaw was exposed in the Suns’ win against the Pacers where the bench scored a measly 9 points compared to 55 from the Pacers’ bench. The problem, though, can be remedied. Before going down with a foot injury, forward Bol Bol cemented himself as a rotation piece with an 11 plus/minus rating when he was called upon.
Vogel also trusts the Suns current bench.
“I love that group…. I think we can win with this group,” said Vogel in a press conference.
The Suns are still expected to seek a forward on the trade market even with minimal assets. Players like Charlotte’s Miles Bridges, who has veto power over trades and can leverage himself to Phoenix, or Atlanta’s Saddiq Bey are names to watch. On the buyout market, the Suns can only sign players who made below 12.1 million dollars on their previous contracts. Possible buyout names that fit this are Former Sun PJ Tucker and Raptors’ Forward Thaddeus Young.
As the Suns prepare for a 13 day road trip, the longest in team history, they appear to be rising again.

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