The Phoenix Suns were in a problematic position with the Jae Crowder situation, and one of the issues was their depth should a serious injury occur on the wing.
Eight games into the season, his replacement in the starting lineup Cam Johnson potentially suffered a torn meniscus, by Athleticism Shams Charania. We’ll see until a schedule and if that will carry over to the end of the regular season and potentially the playoffs, but it’s an immediate challenge for the Suns.
The Sixth Man of the Year finalist’s move into the starting lineup was a resounding success. Discounting the Deandre Ayton part of the equation to get the largest possible sample size, the four-man unit of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Johnson edged the teams by 29.5 points per 100 possessions. in 148 minutes thanks to a 130.8 offensive rating. and defensive rating of 101.3.
That would serve as the No. 1 offensive rating in the NBA with over 10 points and nearly the best defensive rating.
Johnson is irreplaceable, one of the best shooters in the league with size that scores well in all the game’s intangibles. The Suns have good players who can help cushion the blow of Johnson’s absence but he doesn there are no good solutions.
Torrey Craig can help defensively and on the glass while Ish Wainright was capable of NBA minutes last year. There are the options of going big with Jock Landale and Dario Saric or going small with Damion Lee and Landry Shamet.
But there is no way to avoid a huge fall. Even if Crowder returns, something I highly doubt will happen unless he gets paid off, it’s a blow to offense and spacing.
Aside from those immediate roster replacements, let’s look at this from two different angles, short-term and long-term.
The short-term wonder here is whether that’s what drives Paul to get his shot like himself.
For over a decade now, Paul has been the type to go through more than a quarter and only take a hit or two. But what he has a keen eye for unlike everyone else in the league is when taking control of the game’s pockets, transforming into an unstoppable midrange maestro after playing quarterback.
We haven’t seen the maestro yet. It’s no different for him to have a slow start to the season with goal production, but the 36.0% mark from the field entering Saturday’s game and the distinct reluctance to shoot when he has room have everyone emotionally invested just wanting to see this killer return briefly to quell concerns about the 37-year-old.
In a nod to the old noggin for a later moment, when Booker was doubled off the ball in Friday night’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers with five seconds left, Paul had no one near him on the left wing.
The ball, instead, went to Bridges on the elbow, where he was still able to make a play. But for Chris scaring Paul, not getting the ball back when it’s this open requires more observation in-depth to find out if he will start scoring again with his past frequency. The offense can’t afford to have someone whose defense just sags like the Dallas Mavericks did with Paul last postseason. And especially when he’s such a good shooter like Paul.
It’s up for debate when it comes to which individual needs to step up the most in the long run while Johnson is out. For me, I call Bridges.
In nine games, Bridges has attempted 10+ shots once (13) and is averaging 9.2 per game. The latter number is actually down from last year, an odd twist considering Paul’s drop from 11.3 to 8.3. The Suns said they wanted to give him and Johnson more chances on the ball in training camp. It did not materialize.
Bridges, now 26, has the offensive skills at this point in his career to comfortably put up 15 points a night and threaten for 20.
Last year, he shot north of 70% at the rim for the third season in a row, posting a bonkers best of 79%, per Cleaning the Glass. In the midrange, while he more than doubled his attempts from the previous season from 146 to 314, his elite efficiency of 49% two years ago has improved further to 51%. He also proved to be a very good 3-point shooter for two consecutive years.
Bridges has an elite touch on the court, is the team’s best finisher and has improved his demeanor dramatically since joining Phoenix four years ago.
The tools are there for logic to align with a higher usage role. Like Ayton, it’s up to Bridges himself to chase the ball more and up to the Suns themselves to design the offense more around him.
Ditto for all of this when it comes to Ayton. The growth we saw from him offensively last year in the small roll and use of his dribbling is a good reason to prioritize him more.
And beyond the development opportunity for Ayton and Bridges, these two secondary options becoming consistent will reduce the load on Booker during the regular season. Paul taking a back seat is fine, as long as the infrastructure is in place so Booker doesn’t have to carry the offense. It’s here. The Suns just have to trust him and use him more.
Finally, there’s the big picture of the list itself.
The construction of the list of championship contenders can be broken down into three basic elements. There are the stars and vital parts that command the majority of salary figures. Next are the mid-level salaries, the ones that are important to maximize in free agency, as this is the best way to sign good players when they go over the cap and also create some maneuverability in the trade market. . Finally, there are players at or near minimum, where good GMs will find a guy or two of rotational caliber.
Most of that is ironed out for the Suns. The problem right now is mid-level salaries.
Crowder is one of them and isn’t with the team waiting to see what his new one will be. Shamet is another and needs to have a rebound season. Saric is the last and he is out of the rotation.
Crowder and Saric, in particular, blatantly explain why Phoenix’s depth is in the position it is.
The Suns own all of their future draft picks and trades. While it’s harder to find the right deal at this time of year, moving one or both with draft assets attached for an important player who would log more than 20 minutes per night seems straightforward enough. Even though Johnson’s recovery is taking longer than expected, this franchise still has the aces in place to fight, and losing a shot at a championship seems insane.
We’re still waiting for a deal involving Crowder or Saric, which has convinced me personally that the Suns believe they’re going to be able to move those salaries, those picks, and all that really game-changing stuff. It could be Kevin Durant. It could be someone else.
If that’s really what’s going on here, it’s a dangerous game to treat it as a near certainty. And if the Suns stay too patient while Johnson recovers, it becomes a gamble.