ALMOST EXACTLY TWO years ago, the Phoenix Suns came within two wins of their first-ever championship with one aging superstar, four core young players, and a hodgepodge of transients who all somehow made sense together.
Only two members from that team remain: Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. The Suns traded the other half of that young core four -- Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson -- plus every available first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Durant last season.
The Durant deal was a line of demarcation. The Suns' brain trust and new governor Mat Ishbia decided the 2021 holdovers, including an aging Chris Paul, were no longer good enough to win the title -- and would never be so again. Once the Suns had gone all-in for one superstar import, flipping Paul and leftover second-round picks and swaps for another -- Bradley Beal -- was almost an inevitable denouement. In two linked transactions, Phoenix bet on superstar talent over continuity and chemistry.
Beal is now the nominal starting point guard, alongside Booker, Durant, Ayton and a fifth starter to be named later, with Keita Bates-Diop and Josh Okogie probably the leading candidates from Phoenix's army of minimum-salary signings. Another minimum signing -- Eric Gordon -- might close games as part of an all-offense lineup that will be very hard to contain for any length of time.
Point guards typically have the ball the most, and hold it the longest. That is one potential structural flaw skeptics see in this tossed-together would-be superteam: all three of its central stars are good at running an offense, and there are diminishing returns in shifting too much control of it to the Suns' third-best player -- Beal -- at the expense of Booker and Durant.
It's easy to overthink these things. If Durant, Booker and Beal are reasonably healthy, the Suns' offense will almost certainly be awesome. When all three stars can shoot, dribble, and pass at high levels, their combined talent tends to overwhelm any issue of overlapping skill sets. Durant is perhaps the most malleable superstar in league history, capable of dominating games without dominating the ball. For all the attention on the decline of Beal's 3-point shooting, he has been consistently at 38% or better -- and often over 40% -- on catch-and-shoot looks. He should get many more in Phoenix than he did on moribund Washington Wizards teams -- more than at any time since John Wall was spraying passes around D.C.
If the Suns ever feel like they are succumbing to the dreaded "there's only one ball!" problem -- if the offense feels stagnant or somehow out of balance -- they should tap into one way the Washington Wizards deployed Beal last season more (by far) than ever before: using him as an on-ball screener instead of an every-possession ball handler.
Phoenix is in the inner circle of title contenders, but whether the Suns win it all -- and upend the Denver Nuggets, still rightful favorites in the West -- depends more on health, depth and defense. Those three variables interact. The last -- defense -- requires the first two.
AYTON IS THE make-or-break factor in Phoenix's defense being good enough to win four playoff series. He developed from a confused, out-of-his-depth rookie into a reliable centerpiece during the Suns' 2021 Finals run. As last season unraveled, the balance Ayton had worked so hard to hone eluded him. He abandoned ball handlers too early on the pick-and-roll, turning his back to them, retreating from live dribbles, conceding driving lanes he had once shut off. Needed help rotations never came. Ayton regressed into that addled rookie again.
It's hard to quantify, but some of that backslide must have resulted from obvious tension between Ayton and several corners of the organization. The front office forced him to seek out an offer sheet elsewhere in free agency. His relationship with Monty Williams, then the Suns' head coach, deteriorated after the team's meltdown in Game 7 of the second round against the Dallas Mavericks in 2022. Teammates -- including deep bench players just watching -- did not hide their frustration with Ayton's bouts of passivity.
There is no viable trade right now turning Ayton into the kinds of players (or picks) that would maintain or boost the Suns' title odds, per league sources. The Suns' top priority -- from Ishbia to Ayton and down to the 15th man -- should be doing whatever it takes to repair their relationship with Ayton, to lift him back up. The Suns' likely path toward a good-enough defense is switching a ton across the perimeter while keeping Ayton closer to the paint as the last line.
Like most bigs, Ayton might defend with more verve if he feels involved on offense. Even for superstar-heavy teams that score well in the big picture, the ecosystem can be so delicate as to waver under postseason pressure.
Durant's level of involvement within the Booker-Durant-Paul trio was an issue right away in the Suns' Game 1 loss in the first round to the LA Clippers, when Durant went about 5:30 of consecutive court time in the fourth quarter without attempting a shot. He mostly stood around as a floor-spacer. Durant is as dangerous in that role as anyone in league history, but even with two other All-Stars on the floor, the Suns must do more to leverage the full breadth of Durant's skill set -- as shooter, on-ball screener, pindown screener, post threat and ball handler. The same holds for Booker, who might be the Suns' best pick-and-roll passer after leaning into his Point Book alter ego and dishing 7.2 assists in the playoffs -- including 33 dimes in four games Paul missed in Phoenix's second-round loss to Denver.
BUT BEAL WILL siphon a good deal of ballhandling from both Booker and Durant -- even with all three on the floor. As the smallest player in Phoenix's starting five, Beal will often be defended by the smallest opposing player. In that alignment, any pick-and-roll combination involving Beal as the ball handler -- Beal-Booker, Beal-Durant, Beal-Ayton -- will force defenses to either snap into rotation or switch Beal's undersized defender onto a dangerous interior scorer.
(Booker doesn't post up much, but he's very good at it -- with a bully streak and some old-school shoulder-shaking guile. Phoenix averaged 1.175 points per possession last season when Booker shot from the post or dished to a teammate who fired -- one of the best marks in the league, per Second Spectrum. Durant is one of the most efficient one-on-one players ever.)
Some defenses might try stashing their smallest defender on the fifth cog in Phoenix's starting and closing lineups, but that's hard for certain rosters. If, say, the Dallas Mavericks hide Kyrie Irving on Bates-Diop, who is Luka Doncic guarding among Ayton, Durant, Beal and Booker? What about bigger forwards -- Zion Williamson, Michael Porter Jr. -- in that same predicament?
Handing Beal the keys is fine in the right doses. It will result in Beal taking more long 2s than might be ideal, but he has hit almost 50% of those shots over the past three seasons. Add enough pace and variety, and the offense will hum almost no matter how Phoenix distributes touches among its stars.
But when an elite postseason defense constricts the pace and the court, even the Suns will have to be diligent about getting to their very best actions. And that's where Phoenix can lean into Beal setting on-ball picks for Booker and Durant instead of using him as the ball handler. It puts defenses in the same bind -- should we switch our smallest defender onto Booker or Durant? -- only the ball and the offense are in the hands of Phoenix's franchise player (Booker) and its other incumbent superstar (Durant).
Beal set seven ball screens per 100 possessions last season, by far a career high, per Second Spectrum. It was a clear point of emphasis for Wes Unseld Jr. and his staff -- a way of sowing confusion in defenses accustomed to the same old guard-big pick-and-rolls.
Using an ace shooter as a screener often causes chaos. (This is the bedrock principle of the Golden State Warriors' offense over the Stephen Curry era.) Defenders are afraid to stray from such players; they offer little or no help when a shooter of Beal's caliber sets a pick -- meaning the teammate on the other end of that pick can pop free, triggering a cascade of openings all over the floor.
Beal proved a cagey screener for Washington in a variety of set pieces, mixing up tactics and reading defenses on the fly. Sometimes, he nailed his target with a hard screen (he probably needs to do that more). Sometimes, he aborted his pick early, without making contact, and flew toward an open area -- beyond the arc or into the paint.
This was among Washington's favorite Beal-centric sets:
Beal screens for Deni Avdija and then curves around a flare screen from Anthony Gill. If Gill's screen hits flush, Beal can pop for an easy 3. If Beal's defender trails the screen, he can slice down the gut, take a lead pass, and make the right play from there. It's easy to imagine that same action with Booker in Avdija's place and Ayton -- or even Durant -- acting as the flare screener for Beal. Good luck.
Here's the next layer:
Joel Embiid sinks away from the flare screener -- Daniel Gafford -- to take away the pass to Beal down the middle. You can close your eyes and envision opposing centers doing this same thing to Ayton. Beal chugs along, veering sideways around a pindown from Kyle Kuzma and then into a handoff from Gafford -- a sort of flying pick-and-roll that produces a decent Kuzma 3.
Picture that same action with Durant in Kuzma's spot -- lurking as a spot-up threat, then setting a pindown for Beal. If that is Durant and Ayton instead of Kuzma and Gafford, Ayton might audible into a handoff with Durant the second he spies Embiid drifting back toward the basket to help on Beal's cut. Pivot fast and Embiid might not have time to scamper back out to contest Durant's jumper.
Beal loved this bad boy too:
The Monte Morris-Beal pick-and-roll is almost a decoy; the Wiz likely anticipated the Atlanta Hawks switching it -- and maybe exhaling for a beat after completing the switch. That's when the real play happens: Kristaps Porzingis darting up to the elbow nearest Beal and taking a sudden entry pass just as Beal accelerates into a backdoor-style cut. Again: That action can work with Durant, Ayton or even Booker playing the Porzingis role -- and one of Durant and Booker initiating that first pick-and-roll with Beal. A half-dozen counters (at least) can spring from that one potential handoff.
Beal is a creative and forceful mover; he goes from zero to 60 faster than defenses expect, and explodes to the rim with real power -- often finishing through bigger defenders. When he sets more traditional high ball screens, Beal is good at slipping down the middle and making plays in 4-on-3 situations -- almost Draymond Green-style.
The Wizards used Beal as part of multiple-screener actions -- sets (staggered screens, others) that fit snugly within the old Williams/Paul playbook in Phoenix.
THESE KINDS OF quick-hitting motion sets involving three, four or even all five players are a good way for the Suns to compensate for the lack of a singular elite passer -- one thing they lost in the Paul/Beal swap. Their three best players are all good passers, but there is not quite a next-level point-anything savant here -- no one the level of LeBron James, Doncic, Paul, Nikola Jokic, James Harden or even Green. You can win the championship without that sort of player -- the Milwaukee Bucks did just two seasons ago -- and Phoenix should have both the collective talent and creativity to almost manufacture the appearance of having such a player.
In lots of core lineups, the Suns will surround their three stars with a traditional center and one wing deemed a non-threat by opposing defenses. Keeping everyone moving will help prevent defenses from loading off those two players to clog up everything else.
That equation will change when Gordon is the fourth perimeter player. Damion Lee and Yuta Watanabe are capable shooters (Watanabe mostly from the corners). Okogie is better as a cutter, offensive rebounder and screen-and-dive guy -- a role that overlaps with Ayton's main jobs. That's one reason I'd lean toward giving Bates-Diop -- coming off a career-best 39% on 3s last season -- first crack at the fifth starting spot over Okogie. (Time will tell if that 39% was a fluke; Bates-Diop had never hit better than 33% in any prior season.)
The final hurdle will be playing this way -- in motion, with a certain calculated improvisation -- within the flow, and not only on set plays coming off dead balls. (This was an issue in Washington; the Wizards were not able to carry over this kind of whirring much beyond out-of-timeout plays.)
When games get tight, stars tend to lean on what they know -- predictable, slow, often one-on-one bucket-getting. Phoenix has so much star power it could win four playoff series defaulting to the mud that way late in every close game. But the tougher the competition, the more the game demands of you. The Suns are as all-in for a short window as almost any team ever, and they need to spend the regular season testing themselves, stretching the playbook -- readying for every challenge.