NBA Season Preview 2019-20: The 5 biggest questions for the Phoenix Suns

Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images /

With the 2019-20 NBA season just around the corner, it’s time to examine five critical questions for a Phoenix Suns team that needs to get its rebuild off the ground.

1. Which classic rock album is the best metaphor for the Phoenix Suns right now?

The only correct answer here is Boston’s sophomore album, Don’t Look Back. In 1976, the band released an instant classic with its self-titled debut record, which sold over 17 million copies. Boston was a staple in classic rock from start to finish, including three all-time singles in “More Than A Feeling,” “Long Time” and “Peace Of Mind.”

Unfortunately, the glory days didn’t last long. Two years later (which was considered a long gap between records back then), the band released its disappointing followup. Production was marred by problems with the band’s manager. Boston founder/multi-instrumentalist/genius Tom Scholz was caught in the middle of a fight between the band’s manager and his business partner, he had to do most of the recording himself, and the record was considered a rush job.

Don’t Look Back barely sold over 7 million copies, mostly on the name recognition of its first release, and by and large, Boston never came close to reaching its previous heights again. Even the album’s title gave an indication of how to feel about the band’s trajectory in the wake of such an underwhelming followup.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the heyday of the Phoenix Suns — who were once a fixture in the NBA playoff picture — has been over for nearly a decade now. Their lone genius, Devin Booker, is largely blamed for not restoring the franchise to its past glory, despite being surrounded by dysfunctional management and lackluster talent.

Connie Hawkins, the 1976 NBA Finals, Charles Barkley, Seven Seconds Or Less — these are the all-time hits the Suns cranked out to put themselves on the map. Now, they’ve become all but irrelevant, with nine straight years missing the playoffs, five straight years with a new head coach and four straight seasons with less than 30 wins. How much longer will Phoenix be stuck in this rut where the best advice for the fanbase is Don’t Look Back?

2. How much of a difference does Ricky Rubio make for Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker?

Contrary to what ESPN ‘s offseason survey would lead you to believe, Rubio should make a pretty significant difference — and that was the case before he led Spain to the FIBA World Cup gold medal as the tournament MVP.

He’ll take the pressure off Booker to both score and playmake on offense, representing the best facilitating point guard Phoenix has had since … well, Steve Nash. On the other end, his defensive mindset and penchant for racking up steals will only help, since this is the one area Booker needs to improve most.

As for Ayton, the big man feasted last year without an actual NBA point guard, posting 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game on 58.5 percent shooting despite his point guards being Isaiah Canaan, two second round rookies, Tyler Johnson and a 2-guard. Rubio is not the pick-and-roll maestro Suns fans might be expecting (39th percentile last year, per, but he’s an efficient driver who will find Ayton on easy dump-offs around the rim, where the big man was automatic (71.2 percent on shots within five feet). Even having someone who can throw a competent entry pass will be a marked improvement from last year, and Ayton should feed like never before.

The Suns overpaid for Rubio’s services, but it was only a slight overpay. There’s an art to that kind of necessary evil, and Phoenix has enough experience in this area to learn from its past failures. Rubio’s lack of shooting doesn’t make him an ideal fit next to Booker, but after the Suns were ridiculed for years for not having a point guard, it’s pretty ironic how their best move of the summer — getting an actual point guard — has been so widely criticized.

3. Who should be playing the most minutes at the two forward spots?

This is a good question. It really depends on one’s opinion of how often Monty Williams will be willing to go small and how effective the Suns can be with Mikal Bridges or Kelly Oubre Jr. playing the 4 in those lineups.

With that being said, Phoenix targeted Dario Saric in a draft-night trade for a reason, so if the starting 4-spot is plugged up, this comes down to Oubre vs. Bridges for the lion’s share of minutes at the 3. In an ideal world, Bridges gets his 3-point shooting (33.5 percent) back on track with his college numbers (40 percent over three years) and overtakes Oubre for the starting job thanks to his potentially elite 3-and-D skill-set.

However, the Suns just shelled out a two-year, $30 million contract to keep Tsunami Papi — another acceptable overpay in the short-term, but far too much for a sixth man’s salary until Bridges forces Monty Williams’ hand. The Villanova product is already a menace on the defensive end, but until he learns how to stop disappearing on offense, Oubre will probably earn more run.

4. Does Devin Booker have what it takes to, you know… *gestures vaguely*?

Yes. The guy posted a 27-7-4 statline on 58.4 percent true shooting last year despite his 3-point percentage dropping off to a career-worst 32.4 percent. He was more dangerous than ever as a playmaker, pick-and-roll navigator, post-up threat and all-around scorer within the 3-point line. His defense tapered off into “poor” territory after an encouraging start to the year, but as always, Devin Booker was nowhere near the Suns’ biggest problem in a lost season.

The problem, as has been the case since Steve Nash left, is the noticeable lack of accompanying talent. Entering his fifth NBA season, Booker will be playing for his fifth head coach, under his second general manager and with nearly 70 different teammates (not a misprint). He hasn’t had a point guard since Eric Bledsoe. His starting power forward last year was Dragan Bender. It’s no wonder Phoenix’s offense was 8.4 points worse per 100 possessions whenever Booker sat.

Whether he can be the best player on a championship team is a question for another day. For now, Phoenix needs to concern itself with finding the right supporting cast — or any supporting cast, really — to give him some help. The Suns added actual NBA players this summer, so even though the youngsters like Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. need to pan out, it’s time for Book and his team need to take discernible steps forward to prove he can, you know … *gestures vaguely*.

5. Who makes a bigger contribution this season — Frank Kaminsky or Aron Baynes?

Aron Baynes, and I don’t think it’s close unless we’re strictly talking about the stat sheet. Frank Kaminsky might wind up with a higher scoring average depending on how head coach Monty Williams deploys him, and he’s been pretty impressive during the preseason, but Baynes’ impact on and off the court should show best through Ayton’s progress.

Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25. dark. Next

“Bangers” will be the Suns’ backup 5, providing the type of toughness, bricklayer screens and interior defense Ayton needs to adopt himself. Practicing against a guy like that every day should do wonders for the former No. 1 overall pick, so even if Baynes’ numbers echo last year’s ho-hum 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, he’ll make a bigger contribution.

Giving Kaminsky the full room exception for two years was a bit of a head-scratcher, so even if he’s logging minutes as a backup 4, his superior 3-point shooting is really the only possible way he’ll wind up having a bigger impact — especially for a Suns team in need of defensive-minded mentors.