NBA fortunes and outlooks move swiftly. A week ago, the Phoenix Suns were floundering without Devin Booker and trounced by the Atlanta Hawks, 132-100, at home on national television. A week later, Booker is back in the lineup after a six-week absence because of a groin injury, Phoenix has won three in a row and sits fourth in the West, and superstar wing Kevin Durant is en route to the Valley.
Late Wednesday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Suns were acquiring Durant and TJ Warren in exchange for Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, four first-round picks and a 2028 first-round swap.
The move instantly shifts Phoenix from a middling Western Conference club jockeying for homecourt advantage to among the West’s elite. Averaging 29.7 points (67.3 percent true shooting), 6.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, Durant’s performed like an MVP candidate when healthy this season. He’s one of the five or so best players in the league and amidst the first year of a four-year, $194 million deal.
Phoenix will probably be shaky until Durant returns from a sprained MCL post-All-Star Break, but the West’s jumbled nature is a boon for its ability to stay afloat in the interim. When the 13-time All-Star does eventually don Suns purple and orange, his widespread talent will be an obvious windfall. More than that, though, his specific skillset addresses many needs that confronted Phoenix during its last two playoff defeats.
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Broadly, the team relied far too much on Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll creation, which was stunted by the Dallas Mavericks last year and the Milwaukee Bucks two years ago. Rangy defenders took away his pull-up jumpers and passing windows. The pockets of space he covets and exploits dissipated. Both teams exploited his insufficient lateral movement defensively and attacked him in space on or off the ball. The Suns didn’t have a better option and needed to squeeze whatever offensive juice it could from his game, so it tried to weather his shortcomings.
Dallas’ exquisite hedging on Booker’s patented handoffs bothered him over the second half of the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals as well. Phoenix was left to keep trusting him because the alternative, Paul, could barely handle on-ball work at that juncture in the series. Booker’s a very good scorer and playmaker, but has gaps in his arsenal and the Mavericks pinpointed them.
Durant remedies those conundrums. Booker is not the lone legitimate creator anymore, nor is he the leading one; containing his DHOs will be second on the to-do list moving forward. Bridges is a stupendous role player, but the emphasis to bestow him grander on-ball duties this year stemmed from previous failures and spoke to the roster’s offensive limitations, though he displayed considerable progress the past few months.
Paul, who remains a brilliant passer, can drift into an even larger table-setter role and avoid being tasked with full-fledged initiating. He’s hoisting catch-and-shoot threes at his highest rate (11.9 percent) since NBA.com started tracking them in 2013-14 and has netted a sizzling 54.5 percent of them. His overall three-point rate this year (.400) is only exceeded by his two seasons with the Houston Rockets. As he presumably steps aside for Durant and Booker against stingy playoff defenses and continues to age, that subtle growth is worth monitoring.
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Flowing off of pindowns, veer actions, ram screens, and other off-ball actions, Durant excels beginning possessions away from the play before commandeering things. Booker is similar. They’re by no means a one-to-one comparison, but there is undoubtedly significant overlap in some of their tendencies and deployment. Durant’s history operating alongside proficient off-ball scorers in Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry should accelerate his tango with Booker a bit. His own on-ball talents will enable Booker to be selective in his creation reps whereas Paul’s issues against Dallas and Milwaukee in the playoffs stripped away that optionality.
Much like ancillary cogs in Bridges or Paul were prone to let Booker boogie off the ball before punctuating possessions, Royce O’Neale and Ben Simmons often served a similar purpose for Durant. The two star scorers love operating on the move, most notably around pindown screens, and leveraging their high release point against mismatches. That transition will be seamless for Durant and the Suns as they become accommodated with one another’s inclinations.
Not only that, but he’s well-versed in operating out of Chicago action, Delay series, and Wide action. The Suns and Nets trust their bigs to facilitate these sets. Whereas Booker typically functioned as the handoff/screen recipient, Durant has the size and shooting chops to replace Bridges or Johnson as his pick man. Of course, he’ll fill Booker’s role regularly, but there’s a duality to his prowess. While he’s not the movement shooter of Johnson, his off-the-bounce jazz is far superior. The ethos of how Phoenix and Brooklyn utilize them are similar, albeit not identical in arrangement.
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Durant eases the burden for Booker and Paul, and exponentially heightens the potency of this offense. That much is evident. He’s also comfortable fading into a smaller designation and enhancing sets with his off-ball game akin to Bridges and Johnson. Due to the sheer fact he is unable to be two players at once, he won’t mitigate the entirety of their departures. That said, he’s primed to periodically assume their jobs as floor-spacers, screeners, cutters, and secondary ball-handlers. He’s cozy working from the corner and reading defenses, a la Bridges. He’s a dynamite spot-up threat (98th percentile in points per possession, per Synergy), a la Johnson. He can puncture reckless closeouts as a driver or pull-up sniper, a la Bridges and Johnson. Booker and Paul will still garner their touches. When they do, Durant’s value won’t be erased. He’ll plug a hole elsewhere.
I’m curious to see how much of Bridges’ secondary scoring usage he gleans, given their commonalities as lanky wings with high release points and deft midrange touch. Bridges saw a good deal of focal point opportunities spearheading bench-heavy units. Those opportunities could be Durant’s in an array of manners, as well as posting mismatches like Booker and Bridges are known to do.
His potential as weakside release valve, popper in Double Drag and early offense angle pick-and-roll screener for Paul entice me. Bridges performed all three responsibilities. The nuance and timing of these plays were qualities Bridges mastered. It may be a bit before Durant settles in as snugly as Bridges did. He also has a much bigger margin for error in certain regards because he’s an all-time great.
Durant is a simple fit in so much of the Suns’ base schematic principles. They love to run sets from the elbows and out of Horns, areas in which he’s experienced. A bunch of Spain pick-and-roll variations are in the playbook. Aforementioned actions like Double Drag, Delay, and Chicago are mainstays; Durant is fluent there.
Exit screens as a primary choice or to grease up Paul-Deandre Ayton pick-and-rolls are common. To what degree can Booker or Durant emulate Johnson and Bridges as a movement shooter in those situations? Surely, opponents will worry as much about them as they did Johnson and Bridges. At least, that’s the hope for Phoenix, though not a make-or-break component of this partnership’s success by any stretch.
The former MVP also provides sought-after frontcourt creation and mismatch scoring. Ayton’s mercurial scoring approach presents problems when switches neutralize Paul and/or Booker. Bridges isn’t that level of bucket-getter at the moment either, despite his improvements. I like screening actions involving two of Booker, Durant, and Paul. The latter seems to be used more as a screener this season, but both he and Booker are quite good at it.
Booker and Durant will be a headache to switch against. Bigger defenders will grapple with Booker’s burst, deceleration, and quick vertical pop. Smaller defenders will wrestle with Durant’s blend of size, shooting, and mobility. The possibility of second-side actions involving Durant or Booker as Paul, Booker/Durant, and Ayton potentially lead the strong-side is intriguing.
Off-ball screening, such as flex actions or pindowns, between Durant and Booker hints at bountiful results, too. Delay sets where Durant sets a flare screen on the wing for Booker and they swing into an angle ball-screen could be a doozy for defenses. Capitalizing on their immense gravity and keen screen usage, while Paul’s historically good passing and processing locates ideal openings, feels paramount to maximizing all of them together.
Snug pick-and-rolls involving Durant and Ayton should be a feature. Durant is a stellar interior passer and developed rapport with Nicolas Claxton and Andre Drummond the past two years. He could amplify Ayton, foster synergy and render his play-finishing less dependent on Paul, whose on-ball aptitude has declined in recent years at key spots.
The Suns didn’t leave the 2021 and 2022 playoffs ringless solely because of offensive foibles. Its defensive rating against the Mavericks was 114.3. Its defensive rating against the Bucks a year prior was 114.9. Both marks were more than four points higher per 100 possessions than their regular season defensive ratings.
The existence of multiple rim protectors in the rotation has linked together some of the most effective postseason defenses over the past decade (2022 Warriors, 2021 Bucks, 2020 Lakers, for instance). The Suns didn’t holster that aspect until now. It was costly against dominant slashers, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Durant has been a sensational defender in a litany of avenues this season. I broke it all down a month ago here.
Among his exploits is secondary rim protection. Players are shooting 8.2 percent worse than their average within 6 feet of the basket when Durant is the primary defender. No longer is Ayton the lone representative on the backline. That’s a huge addition.
Durant isn’t of Bridges’ ilk as a perimeter stopper, particularly when wiggling around screens, but he’s quite good nonetheless. His 7-foot-5 wingspan allows him to slink off assignments without removing himself from their airspace. He’s constantly deterring or influencing shots against high-level dudes and touts dexterous limbs.
At their apex, Bridges and Ayton formed a premier defensive connection together. Durant and Ayton’s imprint will unfold differently and probably not as productively. Yet it could still trouble a bunch of good offenses if Ayton reaches pre-2022-23 levels again.
Durant’s a very good on-ball defender who does it across the positional spectrum, which bodes well with the Suns frequently switching 1-4. He even dabbles in the small-ball 5 world while retaining big man traits defensively. They shouldn’t be hesitant to embrace that wrinkle occasionally.
Durant’s arrival bolsters the Suns substantially. I do, however, wonder how they fill out the backend of the rotation — although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them be a player on the soon-to-be robust buyout market given their sudden stature as a favorite for players to hunt a ring with.
Torrey Craig, Damion Lee, Cameron Payne, TJ Warren, Darius Bazley, Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo (among others) isn’t a group flush with trusty playoff players to construct spots 5-9. I don’t want to harp on that too much, but it’s a question to answer. People beyond Durant, Booker, Paul, and Ayton still have to absorb minutes and not be completely over their head deep into the playoffs.
Williams has gravitated toward bench-heavy units. Those must be exiled. Depth wasn’t a strongsuit of the roster before acquiring Durant. It’s very much not now. Constantly keeping two of the Big Four on the court and deciphering how to best stagger their minutes is imperative.
Nothing is ever perfect when building an NBA roster. That’s why winning a title is so rare and arduous. These are, though, the sorts of ambiguities a playoff team will gladly welcome to bring in Durant, a malleable megastar who reopens the Suns’ championship window and dramatically reshapes their identity for the better.