The Sixers continue their West Coast trip tonight as they face the Phoenix Suns, who have had an impressive start to the season that has fans more hopeful than ever about their future.
To talk about this young Suns team, I talked to Gerald Bourguet, a Suns reporter who does writing for FanSided and The Step Back.
As the Sixers have continued attempting to construct a championship roster, I have maintained that the focus needs to be on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as in the NBA, you win on the backs of stars. For the Suns, the hope is that those players are Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Do you think those two will ever have the ability to be major cogs on a championship team?
I do, though it’s all about putting the right pieces around them. It’s the same thing with the Sixers or any championship team, only Booker and Ayton are more flawed pieces to build around than Embiid and Simmons, who are elite defenders despite all the chagrin over their three-point shooting ability. Booker has been criticized for his lackluster effort and awareness on defense for years, and Ayton -- though he improved over the course of his rookie year -- was one of the worst rim protectors in the league last year. Whether it was laziness or awareness or poor conditioning, he regularly failed to even contest shots around the basket that a man of his size, length and strength should be challenging.
However, if those two can make marginal improvements on that end of the floor and the Suns put the right blend of defensive versatility and floor-spacing around them, these two could serve as the cornerstones of a future title contender.
Booker’s scoring ability is unquestionable, and even on a career-worst 32.6 percent shooting from 3-point land last year, he improved every other area of his game, posting a career-high 58.4 true shooting percentage and evolving in his playmaking with 6.8 assists per game. With an actual point guard like Ricky Rubio to make his life easier and set him up for more off-ball opportunities, this should be a big year for Booker, who can now devote more attention and energy to the defensive end.
As for Ayton, there’s no way around it: The 25-game suspension is a major bummer that derails the chemistry this team needs to start building to become a playoff squad one day. But his touch around the rim is infallible and if he can just be more aware off the ball, around the rim and in the pick-and-roll, he’s got the defensive tools to be an anchor on that end. It’s just unfortunate questions about his maturity and decision-making -- which were already prevalent before the suspension -- are going to continue to swirl until he proves otherwise.
Now taking a much shorter view of the future of the Suns — this feels like a pivotal season after the abomination that has been the last few years of Suns basketball. With Ricky Rubio brought in, our friend Dario Saric added to the fold and the assumption that the young players will improve, how big of a leap is a reasonable one to expect from this team?
Before the Ayton suspension, something in the realm of 30-35 wins felt attainable. This team won 19 games last year, so with a new coach at the helm and a bunch of new faces who needed to get acclimated, it was unreasonable to expect much more than that -- especially in such a brutal Western Conference where there are no nights off. The season opener was a great start, with a 29-point win built on defensive effort, a team effort on offense and having an actual NBA point guard like Rubio to alleviate the load on Booker’s shoulders. Having established, NBA-caliber players was a revelation for the Suns, whose supporting casts for Booker have mostly been over-the-hill veterans, draft busts, rookies and G League callups the last few years.
Unfortunately, the Ayton suspension throws a major wrench into the works. The Suns have improved frontcourt depth to make it through this upcoming stretch if his sentence isn’t reduced, but even with Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky, the Suns will definitely miss Ayton’s impact. Baynes isn’t a 30 minutes per game kind of guy, and Kaminsky still has a lot to prove despite how good he’s looked in a Suns jersey so far. An 11-game improvement in the win column seems hopeful if Ayton misses a quarter of the season, but the Suns should still be aiming for 30 wins.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about a Sixers legend: Mikal Bridges. Both Sixers-Suns games in his rookie season came early in the year, so some Sixers fans haven’t seen him play in quite some time. How did he finish his rookie campaign, and what are your expectations for him in year two?
Mikal Bridges is a godsend on the defensive end. He’s already proven to be fully capable of matching up with some of the best wings in the NBA and not only holding his own, but even giving a few of them problems with his length and pickpocketing hands. It won’t be long before Bridges’ lockdown abilities and versatility make him a staple in late-game situations. His talent on that end is what reassures me Phoenix can build a future contender around Ayton and Booker if they become even average defenders.
The offensive end is where Bridges underwhelms. He only shot 33.5 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie after being a 40 percent sniper in three seasons at Villanova. In the season opener, he missed both of his long-range attempts and repeatedly dribbled himself off the 3-point line as he tried to attack closeouts, which ultimately went nowhere. His defense is already there, and his impact doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet outside of plus/minus but he’s had a tendency to disappear on the offensive end. That will have to change for him to usurp Kelly Oubre Jr. for the lion’s share of minutes on the wing.
Thank you to Gerald for taking the time to chat!