5 Suns lineups we want to see more often

Published 3 months ago • 10 min read

The Phoenix Suns have two (actually three) newer pieces to explore, but they're running out of time to experiment. Here are 5 lineups they need to tinker with before the end of the season.

-Gerald Bourguet

5 Suns lineups we want to see more often

The Phoenix Suns only have 24 games left to get Bradley Beal healthy, integrate Royce O'Neale, figure out how to use Thaddeus Young, fill their 15th roster spot with a buyout candidate (or Saben Lee), build more chemistry, make a push up the Western Conference standings and try to compete for the franchise's first championship.

All this, despite being at a severe continuity disadvantage compared to the league's other contenders.

Time is of the essence, and coach Frank Vogel has only gotten 22 games with the Suns Big 3 available. He's been committed to exploring every inch of his roster, trying different starting lineups at various points due to both necessity and a desire to thoroughly evaluate his options.

However, with two new additions (and really three, if you count the recent ascension of Bol Bol), the Suns need to make the most of these remaining 24 games. To that end, here are five lineups we want to see more of before the regular season ends.

1. Devin Booker-Grayson Allen-Royce O'Neale-Kevin Durant-Jusuf Nurkic

Call this the temporary starting lineup until Beal returns. Beal has missed the Suns' last four games with a left hamstring injury, and his status for Thursday's rematch with the Houston Rockets is unclear. Beal did some non-contact work at practice on Tuesday, including full-court sprints and quick-twitch actions like their defensive shell drill. But he's still feeling discomfort, and the key will be how his body responds to the work.

For as long as he's sidelined, this is the starting lineup Vogel should roll with. No offense to Eric Gordon, who's showed that ample minutes and shots help him be effective, but Phoenix could really benefit from Gordon's shooting off the bench...and everything O'Neale would bring to the starting group.

Vogel appreciates that O'Neale has been a starter for the better part of five years now, and he has an affinity for the high-caliber Utah Jazz teams he started on. O'Neale's ability to tackle primary defensive matchups, knock down 3s and add size to a normally undersized group is not lost on Vogel either.

“I think he's a great option in the starting lineup," Vogel said. "We got a lot of different ways we can go. I like Eric in there, and obviously when Brad's healthy, we like that group as well, but Royce is a high-level role player. And we knew that coming in, but he keeps exceeding expectations. I played him 37 minutes the other night, banged six 3s, played great defense, crashing the boards, just doing a lot of little things that help you win basketball games.”

We saw glimpses of all that in the Suns' dominant win over the Los Angeles Lakers, when this five-man lineup started together. In 23 minutes spread across two games, they're only a +2 overall, but they've shot 54.5 percent from the floor, racked up 16 assists to just 7 turnovers, and sported a 119.2 offensive rating, 113.2 defensive rating and +6.0 Net Rating.

“He's been here before, he's a veteran," Devin Booker said of O'Neale. "He knows how to play the right way and he's a 'do whatever it takes' guy, so last game, he was defending at a high level and hitting big open shots.”

For the time being, Vogel said they'll continue to chose their starting lineup based on who's available on a game-by-game basis. O'Neale knows what he needs to bring to the table in Phoenix, and it doesn't matter whether he's starting or coming off the bench.

“It felt great, to [get] the first start and win, but whatever group is out there, I'm just gonna be myself, play my game," O'Neale said. "No matter who's out there, just play the same way every time.”

Still, considering O'Neale "playing the way he plays" helped contribute to the Suns' 32 assists and 17-of-40 shooting from 3-point range in that Lakers win, it's a lineup Vogel needs to seriously consider until Beal's back...and maybe even beyond that.

2. Devin Booker-Bradley Beal-Royce O'Neale-Kevin Durant-Jusuf Nurkic

Let's clarify that last comment: No, Bradley Beal isn't coming off the bench. Nor should he. When Beal returns, the Suns go from dangerous offensively to downright scary.

“Not having one of the best players in the league on the floor limits you," Vogel explained. "But offensively, his ability to get into the paint and downhill for us really creates a lot of problems for opposing teams, especially with Book and KD on the backside. And then when those guys were attacking, having him out there as a second-side attacker, it's just very difficult to guard the three of them out there together.”

The question is, once Beal returns, do the Suns go back to their normal starting lineup? Or do they consider giving O'Neale a look with the starters? Replacing Allen with O'Neale is one of the hotter topics of debate among Suns fans right now, and for good reason.

On the one hand, don't fix it if it isn't broken. Their preferred starting lineup is undersized, but that Booker-Beal-Allen-Durant-Nurkic group is the Suns' most-used lineup and has been statistically dominant. They've outscored opponents by 72 points in 266 minutes together, shooting 56.6 percent from the floor and 46.7 percent from 3. They've also racked up 188 assists to just 60 turnovers, all while sporting an astronomical offensive rating of 130.

Pulling the plug entirely on a lineup that sports a +14.9 Net Rating -- the fourth-best mark among all five-man lineups that have logged at least 200 minutes in the NBA this season -- would be bad!

On the other hand, adding a little defense and size to the starters could help against wing-heavy matchups. O'Neale is not the dead-eye sniper that Allen -- the league leader in 3-point percentage -- has been this year, but he's reliable enough to hit open looks.

“Royce is just so experienced as far as playing with Durant and playing with the teams and not afraid to shoot the ball," Nurkic said. "I think that's the main reason we brought him here: When they swing that ball, that he is not in a way hesitant.”

Aside from those obvious benefits, having the firepower of Allen and Gordon coming off the bench might make Phoenix a more well-rounded opponent when they start staggering lineups.

The Booker-Beal-O'Neale-Durant-Nurkic configuration has yet to play a single minute together, but once Beal's healthy, it'd be nice to see Vogel give it a try, just so he can explore what that group looks like. Depending on the playoff opponent, this is a lineup the Suns may need to resort to, so giving them time to jell together now would be wise.

3. Devin Booker-Bradley Beal-Bol Bol-Kevin Durant-Jusuf Nurkic

Because of Beal's injuries and Bol Bol's recent rise in the rotation, we haven't seen this lineup yet either. But we have seen three different lineups that include the super-sized frontcourt of Bol, KD and Nurk, and the length on display really does make for an entertaining watch.

“Love it," Vogel said after a Lakers win featuring that lineup. "I don't know exactly what the numbers are, they've been pretty good, but it's still small doses, small volume, to really evaluate it. But I do like the size. Again, as long as we have matchups that it fits. If a team's too small and too fast, then that could be a problem.”

This group would never start together, but in 14 minutes with that trio, the Suns are a +6, shooting 51.5 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from deep. These are microscopic sample sizes we're working with here, but Bol has proven he deserves rotation minutes, and his ability to play the 4 -- thanks to his secondary rim protection and serviceable 3-point shot -- opens up more opportunity for him.

“I told you he’s not a 5!" Nurkic joked. "He just gives you extra like security in the low man spot, contesting 3s, and he's such a unique player.”

The Suns have also tried their hand at a super-sized lineup with Booker, O'Neale, KD, Bol and Nurk sharing the court. They're a +4 in 5 minutes, and they posted an absurd 69.2 defensive rating in their first (albeit brief) stint together.

“When you look at the top teams in the league, they all have size," Durant said. "You come into a game and you're just taller than the guys you're playing against, it just helps a little bit. So Bol gives us another dimension, and then you got Thad and Royce, who play big as well down in the paint. So we gotta utilize all that stuff.”

4. Devin Booker-Bradley Beal-Grayson Allen-Royce O'Neale-Kevin Durant

We went from super-sized to small-ball real quick, but this might be the group that Vogel has to close games with in the playoffs! Against bad matchups, on the nights where there's foul trouble, or in games where Nurk simply doesn't have it, the Suns will have to resort to small-ball.

So far this season, the numbers would tell you that the Suns are a net negative when Kevin Durant plays the 5. But those numbers are foggy, and most of them came before the Suns added an ideal small-ball piece in Royce O'Neale. If you take out all the lineups that include another center (Nurkic, Drew Eubanks and Udoka Azubuike, as well as other small-ball 5s like Chimezie Metu and Thaddeus Young), they're actually a +17 in 130 minutes combined.

Now remove the lineups featuring players who are no longer on the roster, and the Suns are a +34 in 92 minutes where Durant played center. This Booker-Beal-Allen-O'Neale-Durant group has yet to play together, but two similar lineups offer an encouraging outlook.

With Beal out, the Suns have tried a lineup with Eric Gordon in his place alongside Booker, Allen, O'Neale and Durant. That group is a +11 in 20 minutes together.

Adding Beal back to the equation, but keeping Gordon in O'Neale's place as the physical, burly defender who can also knock down 3s at a respectable clip, the Suns have been a +18 in 38 minutes. That Booker-Beal-Allen-Gordon-Durant lineup has shot 58 percent overall together, racked up 22 assists to only 8 turnovers, and boasts a +18.6 Net Rating.

The first key is using small-ball in limited doses to avoid getting beat up in the paint and on the glass. In recent losses to the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, having a banged-up Nurkic forced Vogel to resort to small-ball lineups for longer stretches than he planned.

“I think it was better in a Houston game," Vogel said. "We did feel after the Dallas game that we went to it for too long of a stretch, and we kind of got thin with our depth and spread ourselves out too much. So it's something that we want to use, but in the right doses.”

The other key is putting the right spacing and 3-point shooting around the Big 3. When opponents trap Booker, Durant or Beal, they're going to get off the ball. Surrounding them with guys who aren't afraid to attack the defense, drive and kick, or knock down big 3s is vital.

“We're unselfish players, so understanding that's what the other team is gonna try to do: take the ball out of our hands, make it tough on us, be physical with us," Booker said. "And when you have other guys making 'em pay like that, now that help defense is a little hesitant, rightfully so.”

Grayson Allen revealed that getting up more 3s was a point of emphasis heading into the Lakers game, and it makes sense for a team that is 5-1 when attempted 40 or more 3s; 17-13 when attempting 30-39 3s; and 12-10 when attempting less than 30 3s.

If the Suns want to move the ball and get up more 3s, putting O'Neale and Allen around the Big 3 for short bursts of small-ball could turn the heat up quickly.

"A lot of people say if you're shooting 40 percent from 3, that's good, but there's a lot of shots when you're out there where you're like, 'You have to make that one,'" Allen explained. "When you're one pass away from 'em, when it's that nice one in transition where the guy draws two [defenders], it's like, 'Okay, these are the ones that you have to make.' And I just try to have that mentality of being in that position to be the guy receiving those shots.”

5. Devin Booker-Bradley Beal-Royce O'Neale-Kevin Durant-Thaddeus Young

Finally, we have another small-ball look, only more ideally suited to evaluate Thaddeus Young.

Young has made one appearance since the Suns picked him up on the buyout market, tallying 2 points and 8 rebounds in 19 minutes against Houston. He hasn't had a chance to play with this lineup yet since Beal missed the Rockets game, but being able to go small without putting so much of the burden on KD would yield plenty of benefits.

Durant has taken on all kinds of defensive challenges, but having him go toe-to-toe with stronger, more physical centers takes a toll. Having physical enforcers who can defend up a position like Young and O'Neale would allow him, Booker and Beal to focus on carrying the offensive load. Young's lack of a 3-point shot might hinder the spacing at times, but the other four are 3-point threats, and the connective passing of both Young and O'Neale would keep the offense humming.

So far, Vogel doesn't seem completely convinced Young belongs in the rotation. He's praised Young as a veteran leader, but noted, "that's where Thad's presence is gonna be felt first" and referred to him as a "different type of pitch as a third center."

But with Drew Eubanks being so inconsistent (and let's face it, downright bad at times), the Suns may need to rely on that change-of-pitch option at the 5. And in certain playoff matchups, this type of versatile, small-ball lineup could pay dividends, especially since it still has the size and physicality to get defensive stops without losing too much on offense.


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