Mikal Bridges is the understated linchpin in the Suns rebuild

Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images /

Mikal Bridges’ numbers are underwhelming at first glance, but he’s the linchpin behind the Phoenix Suns’ recent success and their long-term goals.

In most cases, a 3-and-D wing averaging fewer than seven points a night and shooting below 30 percent from 3-point range would be considered wholly underwhelming, and that’s before adding the designation of being a top-10 draft pick. Fortunately for the Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges could be the rare exception to the rule.

In his second NBA season, the former Villanova product is no closer to being a productive offensive player than he was as a rookie. In fact, his numbers have actually declined from the 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 29.5 minutes per game he averaged as a rookie to 6.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 22.5 minutes a night.

He’s only making 29.7 percent of his 3s in 2019-20, his long-range attempts have plummeted from 3.8 per game to a meager 1.6 a night, and a simple look at his shooting form in warmups is cause for alarm; a man who was once a routine 40 percent sniper on six attempts per game in college has now become a worrisome Markelle Fultz imitation.

And yet, thanks to his defense, intelligence and intangibles, Bridges remains an intrinsic part of the Suns’ short-term efforts to stay in the playoff race and their long-term goals of becoming contenders again. In Sunday’s 100-92 win over the Charlotte Hornets — yet another tight contest where Phoenix closed out with a five-man unit featuring Bridges at the 4 — it became abundantly clear what this team’s best lineup is.

“The glue, to me, and I don’t wanna overstate it, but I think Mikal gives us an ability to increase the pressure,” head coach Monty Williams said. “He gets up, and we never trap, but he caused them to pass to a different initiator, and that allows for us to get into their shot clock.”

In a tight contest against the Hornets, and also in a narrow finish against the Orlando Magic on Friday, the Suns closed successfully with Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Bridges and Deandre Ayton. The numbers and the latest results clearly identify this as Phoenix’s most potent lineup.

“I think he gets up and he’s pressuring and then Ricky’s behind the primary ball-handler, and then you have DA as a rim protector,” Williams said. “Kelly and Devin are smart enough to man the wings, that’s something that I think allows for us to be versatile with that group. And then the ability to switch with those three guys and at times four with DA.”

“It’s a really scrappy group,” Devin Booker said of the Suns’ new closing lineup. “One possession, Mikal got the steal and about four people hit the floor, we got it, Kelly went and dunked the ball. That’s just one of the possessions I’ve seen in multiple games we’ve switched everything and used our length and athleticism as an advantage.”

Against the Hornets, that chaotic sequence ignited by Bridges’ swipe did indeed lead to an easy dunk for Oubre, extending the Suns’ lead to six points with 45.2 seconds left to essentially ice the game.

With their latest late-game stand, that five-man lineup now boasts a Net Rating of plus-37.2. In 39 minutes of action over eight games, they’re a plus-31 overall.

“Mikal is all over the place,” Deandre Ayton said. “He can guard 1-5 and he is our secret weapon when it comes to switching on guys with mismatches, whether it’s a guard or a big. That is our secret weapon.”

In truth, the raw numbers don’t paint Mikal Bridges as some essential part of what the Suns are building in the desert, but the advanced numbers aren’t a mirage either. Though there’s ample reason for concern over the hitch in his shooting stroke (which was nowhere to be found in college), he’s still shooting 50.3 percent from the field overall.

In fact, since the start of December, Bridges has been a much more effective player, even on the offensive end. In that span, he’s bumped his numbers up to 7.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game on .541/.361/.806 shooting splits. He’s also been a team-high plus-31 in that time, dwarfing Rubio, the next-closest Sun (plus-14).

Okay, so plus/minus numbers aren’t really your thing? Bridges’ on/off-court splits are eye-opening too:

  • On-court: +2.7 Net Rating, 107.0 O-rating, 104.4 D-rating
  • Off-court: -3.5 Net Rating, 109.5 O-rating, 113.0 D-rating

While Phoenix’s offense slightly improves with Bridges resting, the defense is a shell of itself compared to when it has its versatile, switchable lockdown wing out there.

“It just gets me going, it gets me comfortable and confident,” Bridges said of his defensive mindset. “I’m out there defending, and I think that’s the biggest thing, that’s where I get my confidence from, just out there defending and knowing that I can be aggressive on the other end. If I miss some shots, at least I’m out there doing everything else.”

Bridges being able to contribute in ways that don’t show up in the box score translates to lineup data as well. According to NBA.com, lineups with Bridges at the 4 that have played at least 15 minutes have been overwhelmingly successful (with the lone exception being one grouping where he and Cameron Johnson oscillate between the 3 and the 4):

  • Rubio-Booker-0ubre-Bridges-Aron Baynes (42 minutes, 4th-most used lineup): +20.9 Net Rating, 106.3 O-rating, 85.4 D-rating, +19 over 13 games played
  • Rubio-Booker-Oubre-Bridges-Ayton (39 minutes, 6th-most used lineup): +37.2 Net Rating, 130.8 O-rating, 93.6 D-rating, +31 over 8 games
  • Rubio-Cam Johnson-Oubre-Bridges-Baynes (36 minutes, 7th-most used lineup): -8.8 Net Rating, 110.7 O-rating, 119.5 D-rating, -9 over 10 games played
  • Rubio-Booker-Oubre-Bridges-Dario Saric (31 minutes, 9th-most used lineup): +1.4 Net Rating, 101.4 O-rating, 100.0 D-rating, +3 over 9 games played
  • Jevon CarterTyler Johnson-Cam Johnson-Bridges-Frank Kaminsky (30 minutes, 10th-most used lineup): +4.3 Net Rating, 97.1 O-rating, 92.8 D-rating, +2 over 7 games played

“Analytically, Mikal has been pretty good at that position,” Williams said. “Our defense is much better when he’s at the 4.”

True enough, narrow wins at home over the Magic and Hornets hardly scream “playoff team” in the crowded picture at the bottom of the Western Conference. Starting Bridges at the 4 is also an iffy proposition, given the physical toll playing him there full-time would exert. But as the Suns have found their go-to, bread-and-butter lineup to depend on, they may have finally gotten back to an established identity, and more importantly, an established rotation.

Williams admitted he had done a poor job of finding a reliable rotation and tinkered with the starting lineup too much, especially with the ill-fated “Bayton” experiment that saw the Suns throwing it back to the 1990s by starting two centers together. However, even if it’s a bit odd to see Baynes starting over a No. 1 draft pick like Ayton, Williams’ starting groups haven’t been logging starter’s minutes for awhile now. It’s the closing lineups that matter most, and lately, both Ayton and Bridges have found themselves finishing games rather than Baynes and Saric.

“To me there’s a number of factors,” Williams said of going smaller. “One, the game sometimes tells you that you have to, and two, I think we have to develop it. Most of the really good teams in the NBA go small.”

And therein lies the importance of Mikal Bridges, especially as the Suns attempt to get back to the defensive identity that helped them get off to a 7-4 start this season. Whether he’s playing as a 3 in more traditional lineups or as a small-ball 4, Bridges has to manage enough offense to warrant the 30 minutes a night his defense demands.

“I feel like sometimes I relax and think I can just come in and just cruise, but now I just come in and go in there and be aggressive defensively,” Bridges said. “And then anytime I’m aggressive defensively, offense will come.”

The 23-year-old wing is a plus-minus god, but his sub-30 percent shooting from deep isn’t going to cut it if the Suns want to contend for anything more than the 7-seed in the future. He’s been shooting 36.1 percent from 3 since the start of December, but even that remains a limited sample size and a far cry from the smooth knockdown shooter he was in college not too long ago.

Williams said assistant coaches Darko Rajakovic and Larry Greer impressed upon Bridges that he’s more than just a guy who should camp out beyond the arc jacking up 3s. That renewed effort on slashing and making plays off the dribble when the ball swings his way has marginally helped as he continues to undergo shot therapy with his stroke.

“I think it makes it easier to knock down a jump shot once you’ve gotten a few layups or a few slashes to the basket for a finish,” Williams said. “So I think Darko and Larry have been really diligent about impressing that upon him: Don’t limit yourself to just shooting 3s. I think that plagued him early on in the season.”

A long-term successor to Rubio at the 1 will become an issue in a year or two. Questions (unfounded or not) will continue to swirl over how far Booker and Ayton can really carry a team. Oubre is about to be extremely expensive when he hits free agency again at age 25, since his two-year, $30 million pact with the Suns is looking like a smart gamble on himself. Amidst that core, with Rubio and Saric unlikely to be around (or this effective) even two years down the road, the Suns desperately need Bridges’ defense, positional versatility, intangibles and yes, improved 3-point proficiency to fill the holes that open up.

For now, his underwhelming offense is nowhere near the Suns’ biggest issue. This is still a young team learning to finish in close games, after all. But down the road, he’ll either be the linchpin that turns Phoenix into something dangerous, or the reason the rebuild stalls yet again.

“I just see a guy who’s gotten stronger,” Williams said. “His IQ is probably going up a little bit, and he just seems more comfortable in those situations.”

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