The Suns are more than Devin Booker. He has been incredible in the NBA bubble, averaging 31.0 points on 49.7 percent shooting and 6.1 assists per game. But that’s nothing new for the star guard. Instead, Phoenix is 7-0 in Orlando because the team has finally put the right supporting cast around him.
Since the season’s restart, Phoenix has gone to a new starting five of Booker, Ricky Rubio, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson, and together they have been electric. The group has a net rating of plus-12.4 in 94 minutes, and everyone fits into their role. Booker is the star; Rubio is the do-everything point guard; Ayton is the roll man; and Bridges and Johnson are the 3-and-D wings.
Over the past seven games, this team has shown that it was built with a purpose. This roster can win, even though it was put together in an unconventional way. Just last summer, Phoenix’s front office, led by GM James Jones, was widely panned for its decision-making, especially regarding the team’s draft-night trade for Johnson. Now, though, after this recent run of success, James and Co. look like the smartest people in the room.
Last June, the Suns sent the no. 6 pick to the Wolves (a.k.a. Jarrett Culver) in exchange for Dario Saric and the no. 11 pick. Phoenix used that pick to take Johnson, and the team was criticized for it. Not only were there concerns about Johnson’s medical history after he underwent hip surgery in college, but his profile raised eyebrows among many statistical-minded analysts. He was a relatively one-dimensional shooting specialist who didn’t excel in any other area of the game. He turned 24 in March, meaning he’s older than Booker, a five-year NBA veteran. And he bloomed late in his NCAA career after transferring from Pittsburgh to North Carolina.
Some of those concerns were valid. Johnson didn’t have as much room to grow as many of the younger prospects ranked ahead of him. But what Phoenix realized is that growth doesn’t always matter. Johnson had an unusual combination of size (6-foot-8 and 210 pounds) and agility for an elite 3-point shooter (45.7 percent on 5.8 attempts per game in his last season at UNC). He seemed to be a finished product that would make any NBA team better—and that’s exactly what has happened in the bubble.
Johnson’s per-game averages in Orlando (13.0 points on 47.8 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists) don’t jump off the page. But his ability to space the floor, move the ball, and defend multiple positions improves every lineup that he’s in. The Suns have a net rating of plus-14.7 in his 229 minutes on the floor, and they’re plus-3.0 in the 107 minutes that he’s off. That plus-minus swing is bigger than Booker’s.
His size helps him on both ends of the floor. Closeouts don’t impact Johnson like they would a shorter player. Look at how little space he needs to get his shot off:
Johnson doesn’t have elite athleticism by NBA standards, but he’s good enough to hold his own—which is all he needs to do at his size. The Suns don’t ask him to do too much on defense. His primary assignment in their win over the Clippers was Marcus Morris Sr., not Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. But he can survive when he does wind up on those types of players:
The same principle applies on offense. Johnson doesn’t have to do much to be effective. He’s never going to be a playmaker who has the offense run through him. All he needs is the threat of his shot to set up his drive, get into the lane, and make the next pass:
Johnson is taking 68.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc this season. He knows his role and sticks to it. He’s no. 12 on the Suns in touches per game (25.3) and no. 14 in average time of possession (0.6 seconds). Both of those statistics are zero-sum in the NBA—just about everyone wants more. But for a team like Phoenix that has three guys—Booker, Rubio, and Ayton—who like having the ball in their hands, having a player who can put up points with a limited amount of touches is particularly valuable.
There’s little chance that Culver could have had a similar impact on this team had the Suns selected him instead of trading down for Johnson. Culver shot 29.9 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game in Minnesota this season. Defenses didn’t have to guard him on the perimeter. The only way for him to be a threat would be to run plays through him so that he could create for others. But featuring a raw 21-year-old like Culver has its own set of challenges. He shot 40.4 percent from the field and averaged 1.7 assists per game this season.
It’s not that Culver isn’t talented. He’s a 6-foot-6 wing with the length and athleticism to be a plus defender, and he led Texas Tech in points and assists while carrying the team to last season’s NCAA championship game. The problem is that drafting a perimeter player with a shaky jumper is always a gamble. The Suns found that out the hard way with Josh Jackson. They weren’t going to try it again.
Culver might ultimately become the better player of the two. He won’t be as old as Johnson is now until 2023. But Phoenix couldn’t afford to wait that long. The team had averaged 22 wins over its past four seasons, and Booker was too good to be on a bad team forever. The Suns had to find players in the draft who could help him win now, and no prospect fits that mold more than a polished 3-and-D wing like Johnson. Outside of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, he was the closest thing to “can’t miss” that there was in this draft.
So the Suns did the smart thing. They moved down to take the guy they wanted all along, and in the process picked up another good player in Saric. Saric has been a key part of a bench unit that has been blowing teams off the floor in the bubble, averaging 14.6 points on 56.9 percent shooting, 7.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game.
At times this season, it’s been hard to determine what Phoenix’s plan was. The Suns got off to a blistering start behind a starting lineup that featured three veterans (Rubio, Saric, and Aron Baynes) and one younger 3-and-D wing (Kelly Oubre Jr.) around Booker. But coach Monty Williams had to start over once Ayton returned from a 25-game PED suspension in December. Ayton and Baynes are very different types of players. The former is a better scorer but not as good a shooter or defender. Williams couldn’t swap them and keep everyone else in the same role, so he found a Plan B in January by going smaller and benching Saric for Bridges. That lineup was dominant until Oubre tore his meniscus in February. Plan C was replacing Oubre with Johnson.
It all makes sense once you take a step back. The Suns have been targeting young 3-and-D wings to pair with Booker over the past few seasons. The draft-night deal of Culver for Johnson was a repeat of the one they made in 2018, when they exchanged an athletic slasher with a shaky jumper (Zhaire Smith) for a wing shooter with size in Bridges. That trade has been just as successful as the one that followed it. Bridges has used his 3-point shot (35.8 percent on 2.6 attempts per game this season) to become a key cog in Phoenix, while Smith hasn’t shot well enough to stay in the rotation in Philadelphia.
The Suns pulled off an even bigger heist at the trade deadline last season, when they took advantage of a desperate Washington team and swapped a 34-year-old 3-and-D wing (Trevor Ariza) for a 23-year-old in Oubre. Oubre was having a career season before his knee injury, averaging 18.7 points on 45.3 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 35.2 percent from 3.
Heading into Thursday, Phoenix is on the outside of the tight race for the play-in game in the West. The team needs to beat Dallas and hope that either Portland loses to Brooklyn or Memphis loses to Milwaukee. Unfortunately, neither Brooklyn nor Milwaukee has anything to play for.
But the Suns have a bright future even if they come up short. They should be even better when Oubre returns next season, and while Rubio has been a great veteran caretaker at the point, their best lineup could be surrounding Booker and Ayton with all three of Bridges, Oubre, and Johnson on the wings—a unit that played only seven minutes together this season. That is a massive group with no one shorter than 6-foot-6, four 3-point shooters, and three multi-positional defenders to cover for Booker on defense.
Jones took over as the GM in Phoenix in October 2018, and has aced Team Building 101 ever since. He identified the strengths and weaknesses of his franchise player and assembled a supporting cast that could complement him. The most impressive part is that he did it while under the immense pressure of keeping Booker happy. The rumors were already flying about the star’s future in Phoenix, even though he’s only just begun a five-year max contract. No player as good as he is likes having the checkered reputation that comes with a losing situation. That is changing now that he has the right pieces around him. The Suns will probably always regret some of the mistakes of the past regime—most notably taking Ayton over Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr. in 2018. But this new group made the most of the hand they were dealt.
Phoenix was lucky to sneak into the bubble and change the narrative surrounding the franchise. But the basketball gods help those who help themselves. For the first time in a long time, the Suns are doing just that.