PHOENIX – On Feb. 8, Mat Ishbia was officially introduced to the public as the next governor of the Suns and took questions from the media. Among those he fielded were questions about how active his team would be with the trade deadline looming just 24 hours away.
“I’m going to empower my people to make decisions, give them all the resources and support to be successful, then let them do a great job,” Ishbia said. “I’m not going to be sitting here counting the dollars, I’m going to be focused on how we improve our team.”
That night, Ishbia and Suns President of Basketball Operations James Jones traded a haul of players and picks for Kevin Durant, one of the NBA’s all-time greats still in his prime. Since then, Durant has played only eight games as a result of a right MCL sprain that he arrived in the Valley with, and a sprained left ankle suffered minutes before he was set to make his home debut.
But in that small sample size of games he has played, Phoenix is a flawless 8-0.
“Being on the same page as your team, in a perfect world I would’ve played more,” Durant said Wednesday of his eight games. “But I’ve been in the league for 15 years playing, 16 around the league, so I’ve played with so many different players and under so many different coaches.
“I knew a few coaches here before I got here and have a couple teammates I’ve played on some teams with before I got here, so I think that stuff adds and helps with speeding that transition. Once we’re on the court, basketball is basketball.”
The trio of Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have proven their mettle with a trip to the 2021 NBA Finals and the best regular-season record in 2022, but Durant adds a new layer to the club’s offense as the Suns prepare to open the playoffs Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday at Footprint Center.
The generational forward is the only player in history to put up 55/40/90 shooting splits for a season. He also happens to be averaging an incredible 26 points on a mind-blowing 57% from the field and 53.7% from three since joining the Suns.
Phoenix doesn’t run an isolation-heavy offense, but as the game slows to a more methodical pace during the playoffs, it’s the way offenses tend to shift. When double teams inevitably come Booker’s way, having one of the NBA’s best one-on-one scorers in Durant will go a long way.
The same goes when defenses clamp down on Durant, who can hand the ball off to an open Booker.
There’s no need to overcomplicate things with Durant in the lineup: just keep it simple.
“He’s 6-foot-11, or 7-foot-1, he’s a big target,” said Suns coach Monty Williams, chuckling at his clear reference to the mystery surrounding Durant’s true height. “You can just throw him the ball. You don’t need to look really cute making play calls and run misdirection (plays) to do what you want to do.”
Additionally, having two players with the gravity Booker and Durant have opens up the floor for everyone else. Lineups featuring the duo have the best point differential in the NBA at +18.4 points, and they are in the 98th percentile in points per 100 possessions (124.7) per Cleaning the Glass.
It’s one of the many luxuries of having two of the NBA’s elite shot creators.
“Again, it’s how do we space around that and how do we cut off of that and take advantage of a unique skill set?” Williams asked. “It allows you to get to where you want to get to early in the (shot) clock. It gives you different options.”
All the attention going toward Durant, Booker, Paul and Ayton gives Phoenix’s other role players opportunities to score. Players such as Terrence Ross, Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig, Damion Lee, Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne are likely to enjoy open looks from 3-point range or midrange, while bigs Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale will have easy opportunities at the rim.
“It’s pick your poison, especially with Kevin (Durant) and (Devin) Booker on the floor together,” Shamet said. “It’s like, ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to take Book’s pull-up away? Stay hugged up on Kevin coming up from the corner?’
“It allows us to exhaust a lot of different actions and get different options out of each one. It’s great having a guy that can change the whole dynamic of your offense.”
And perhaps the biggest benefactor is Paul, who will be 38 years old on May 6. Paul is on the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, though his playmaking acumen is as strong as ever with 8.9 assists per game, good for fourth in the NBA. He also remains effective as a midrange scorer and still poses a threat from deep. Now with Booker and Durant in tow, he no longer carries the burden of initiating the offense on virtually every possession when he’s on the floor, or creating shots for himself. For an offense often stymied by the Pelicans and Mavericks in last year’s playoffs, it’s a godsend.
“People helping off him at some times and him getting overlooked … I just think it is something that he is not completely used to,” Booker said of Paul. “(I) think he has always been in a position where he has to make plays for everyone on the court. We want him to be as aggressive as possible; he understands that. It will take a little adjusting, (you’re) always in a good spot if you are looking for a Hall of Famer to be more aggressive.”
The defense with Durant around has been arguably as good as the offense, despite the loss of the team’s best perimeter defender, Mikal Bridges, who was included in the Durant trade along with Cam Johnson, another solid defender.
Durant is averaging 1.3 blocks a night and keeps his hands to himself. With him on the court, the Suns give up 107 points per 100 possessions (97th percentile), have an opponent effective field-goal percentage of 49.8% (98th percentile), and allow opponents to shoot just 61.7% at the rim (92nd percentile) and 32.5% from three (95th percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass.
Those numbers represent major improvements where the Suns rank slightly above average to average with Durant off the hardwood. As Durant gets more reps in with his teammates, expect the defensive metrics to improve.
Durant is keeping things simple, too.
“Just being there on the defensive game plan, just making sure I am locked in with what the coaches need me to do on the defensive side of the ball,” Durant said of his role in the team’s defensive scheme. “We all stick with that mindset though: everybody trying to do their job on the defensive side of the ball.”
Durant has been playing the lowest amount of minutes of his career since joining the Suns, in part to manage his injuries. With the regular season having come to a close and the impending postseason, Durant will see his playing time spike. And if that eight-game sample is an indicator, Phoenix fans will see an even more potent, potentially deadly, Suns team chasing the franchise’s first NBA championship this postseason.