A great team is only as strong as its weakest link. At least that’s the consensus among every motivational coach I’ve ever heard. But for the sake of this space, it’s true for NBA contenders as well. I’ll examine the weak spots in some of the most iron-clad lineups in the NBA entering the 2023 season from upper-echelon teams stuck with recycled players playing vital roles to cardboard cutout coaches.
Kendrick Perkins dropped a bar on NBA Today this week about the Phoenix Suns heating up nylon to its melting point of 515.9°. I’d offer up 10,000 as a number that could define the Suns. That’s the temperature on the surface of the sun (Fahrenheit) and approximately how many points Phoenix should score this season. Only six teams have ever scored 10,000 points in a season. No team has done it since the 83-84 Nuggets. The Kings came close but needed an 83rd game. The Phoenix Suns would need to average 122 points a game.
Based on what we’ve seen in the preseason, that might not be too far off — if everyone remains relatively healthy. Durant is coming for the offensive rating record his teams have broken twice before. The 2019 Warriors left the record at 116.1 in KD’s final season as a member of that dynasty. In 2021, the Nets shattered the record by losing a 118.3 offensive rating, and a few months ago, the Sacramento Beams set the new high bar for points per 100 possessions at 119.4. And they’ll do it without a point guard.
Phoenix’s Point Godless Offense
Nearly 20 years ago, Phoenix became renowned for Steve Nash authoring the paradigm-shifting 7 Seconds or Less Suns offense. Truthfully, I don’t think I’d ever seen a team win an NBA title that didn’t have a point guard in some shape or form delegating the rock in a starting lineup. Jordan Goodwin being the only point guard on Phoenix’s roster on a 2023 Suns contender is Copernicus-level blasphemy. Golden State essentially has had two point guards on the floor in Draymond Green and Steph Curry during their run. Now they have an overabundance with Chris Paul in uniform.
The defending champions were unique in that Nikola Jokic operated as their nominal point-center alongside combo guard Jamal Murray. In the postseason however, Denver leaned into Murray as a more traditional playmaker, and his connection with Jokic as the scorer was the NBA’s most prolific by a mile.
A reliable floor general puts his weapons in a position to attack and against better teams, the Suns offense’s execution could suffer if Beal and Booker melt under the pressure of being scorers, and facilitators. Kevin Durant’s philosophy is all about organized Me Ball, but Phoenix’s roster construction takes it to dizzying extremes. We never got a great view of the pop-up shop Kyrie-Harden-KD Nets, but everyone took turns on offense. These Suns are an extension of the 2021 Nets team that came an inch away from defeating the eventual champion Bucks.
The Suns have done away with the idea of even running with a pencil pusher, middle management point guard ala Mario Chalmers in Miami. Devin Booker is probably as much of a point guard as Jamal Murray. While teams like the Atlanta Hawks are concerned with their panoply of traditional point guards running Quin Snyder’s offense, Phoenix is going in the opposite direction. They threw away Chris Paul — an aging icon at the position and the last Suns lead guard brilliant enough to earn the point god label — deciding to scrap his job entirely.
Durant has played with some of the league’s premier point guards in his 15 years as a professional. Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Harden. Could Booker be next?
For a while, the league got carried away with the Kobe comp for Book, but he’s more amorphous than that. He was essentially Klay Thompson at Kentucky and a finesse volume scorer earlier in his career. After a run in 2017 where Booker popped off with six dishes a night as the Suns’ de facto point guard, then-Phoenix coach, and former NBA point guard Earl Watson was effusive about Booker’s capabilities.
“I don’t know if I’ve said this publicly before, but he reminds me a lot of James Harden.”
Phoenix can finally push forward with their delayed plans for Booker to be their Harden-lite.
The Overlap Problem
The downside is what we’ll define as Nuggets general manager, Calvin Booth’s Overlap Problem. Lost in the hubbub over his comments about Bones Hyland was this gem that whittled down modern team building:
“Overlap is a silent killer,” Booth said about his team-building philosophy, citing the Lob City Clippers as a case in point. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan both helped define that team, but they lacked the ability to space the floor, and neither was a great perimeter defender. In the backcourt, Booth said that JJ Redick and Chris Paul had too much overlap: “Both have the requisite skills for the position, and both were kind of undersized.”
Too many of Phoenix’s best players do the same job well. These guys can score from all over the floor, but spreading the ball around for easy shots is not their forte. However, they ignore a multitude of elements of the game in the process. A choreographing point guard would come in handy, but it may not be the end all be all. Wing defending could be a problem with this lineup as will depth. Teams can shift away from Jusuf Nurkić when he’s not setting screens. Occasionally, he’ll burn them with his passing or finishing ability as the roll man, but it’s a chance worth taking when Phoenix has three super scorers on the floor.
The preseason favors the informality of the Suns trio. However, there will inevitably come a time when the offense gets bogged down in a seven-game series against stout defenses. It happened to Irving and Durant in Brooklyn when they were swept by Boston. That team could have used Harden, which is presumably where Beal comes in as the potent third wheel tipping a playoff series in their favor. Phoenix is testing the limits of conventional basketball and it could be a legacy-defining experiment for everyone involved.
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