From early struggles to midseason success, retooled Phoenix Suns target championship run in second half

In the second half of the NBA season, Devin Booker, left, and Kevin Durant face a pivotal period where the Phoenix Suns aim to solidify their playoff positioning and make a championship push. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Coming into the 2023-24 NBA season, expectations were sky-high for the Phoenix Suns.

They brought in new coach Frank Vogel, swung a blockbuster deal for Bradley Beal, pulled off a trade for starting center Jusuf Nurkic and starting wing Grayson Allen, unveiled new uniforms and partnered with Arizona’s Family to broadcast games. With Devin Booker the only remaining player from the 2021 Finals team, president of basketball operations James Jones and team owner Mat Ishbia reformed the team in their image.

“You can’t guard all of us at once,” Durant said about the Suns’ Big Three ahead of the season. “Play fundamentally sound ball, don’t turn the ball over, rebound, and we’ll be in solid shape on offense.”

While the Suns entered the All-Star break with a 33-22 record, good for fifth in the West, the year didn’t start out bright. After an opening night win against Golden State, the Suns lost twice at home to the Spurs, who have just 11 wins on the season, finding themselves at 14-15 following an embarrassing Christmas Day loss at home to rival Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

Since then, the Suns have become one of the hottest teams in basketball by posting an 19-8 record since the holiday, a run that included a seven-game win streak. During this time they rank sixth in points per game, fifth in three-point percentage and offensive rating, ninth in defensive rating, and are second in team effective field goal percentage.

January was marked by scoring outbursts from Booker and Durant. Booker put together 62-, 52- and 46-point games en route to a month where he averaged 30 points and 6.3 assists per game on 53.9 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from deep. His performance led to him being named the Western Conference January Player of the Month.

Durant recorded the Suns’ first game featuring a 40-point performance without a made free throw, and was named the West’s Player of the Week for January 15-21. The 14-time All-Star also made his mark on the defensive end of the floor, too, helping elevate not only his game, but that of his teammates.

“I think KD (Kevin Durant), a few games back, really set a tone with guarding Kawhi (Leonard) and LeBron (James),” Vogel said in January after a game against the Pacers. “He’s really been vocal and his leadership has been great in the last few games as well, just setting a tone for our guys, communicating more than usual and he’s a big part of this.”

Something Phoenix needs to work on is closing out teams late in games – it owns the worst plus-minus in the fourth quarter since Christmas. Of course, the Suns haven’t been completely inept during late game situations. Two of their signature wins this year have been late comebacks against Sacramento and Chicago.

In the Sacramento game on January 16, the Suns became the first team since 2020 to trail by 22 points or more in the fourth quarter and still win. The rally featured an historic performance from Allen, who tied a franchise-high with nine triples to lead all Phoenix scorers with 29 points.

“We have the ability, offensively, to put up a lot of points in a hurry,” Allen said after the Sacramento game. “That ability, when you are down 20, you are always in the game. So, for us the fourth quarter was about getting some good stops.”

A week later, the Suns again found themselves facing a major points deficit against the Chicago Bulls. This time, Kevin Durant rose to the occasion with 43 points, eight assists and six rebounds, including a Michael Jordan-esque game winner over Chicago’s Patrick Williams and Alex Caruso.

“I said before the game he thrives in those moments,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said of Durant, who he coached in Oklahoma City. “He does it in such an efficient way where he has an expectation to put the ball in the basket and he doesn’t shy away from it and so I’ve always admired that about him.”

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Some of these wins are attributable to production from unheralded players such as Bol Bol. The spindly 7-foot-3 center/forward was brought in on a league minimum to serve as a third-string option and only played 16 minutes total before the calendar flipped to 2024. Since then, he has averaged 13.8 minutes per game and provided a small scoring punch, defensive rebounding and been a deterrent at the rim.

“He wants to learn, and he wants to be out on the court,” Booker said. “You would be surprised that everybody does not have that type of mentality. He will come to you and ask you questions. He wants to learn and wants an opportunity, and he is taking advantage of that right now. I mean, I am geeked for him.”

The tiniest moves Bol makes tend to elicit oohs and ahs from the Footprint Center crowd, and every other arena he goes to for that matter.

“The crowd loves him so much,” Nurkic said of Bol. “Wherever we go, it doesn’t matter whether it’s home or away, we’re just happy to see him out there too.”

With the increased playing time, Bol could find himself a permanent fixture of the rotation.

“There’s lessons to every game, wins and losses, you know,” Vogel said about the season. “We really try to remove the result from our process, to coach all the little instances that happen that pop up throughout the course of the game, so that you’re better prepared next time you see that scenario.”

Looking ahead:

Wing defense had also been a weakness for the Suns this season, prior to the trade deadline. With Durant, Booker and Beal all expending most of their energy on the offensive end, Phoenix’s perimeter defense was spearheaded by Josh Okogie and Allen, though both usually guard other teams’ guards rather than wings.

Thus, Phoenix went out and acquired three wings: they traded for Royce O’Neale from Brooklyn, David Roddy from Memphis, and then signed Thaddeus Young after he was traded to Brooklyn and subsequently waived.

O’Neale stands at 6-foot-6 and will likely play the most minutes out of the three newcomers, as he averaged 24.5 minutes per game this season in Brooklyn, shooting 36.6% from three and providing very solid defense. The former Net carved out a role in Utah to start out his career, turning himself into a valuable 3-and-D player, and is hoping to use his intangibles to help the team.

“(I can) be the dirty work player,” O’Neale said in his introductory press conference. “Knock down open shots, try to make my teammates better any way I can and learn from them in every way.”

O’Neale shared limited time with Durant on the court for Brooklyn in the 2022-23 season before the blockbuster trade that sent Durant to Phoenix, and they meshed well together. When sharing the court together in 37 games, the duo outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. O’Neale’s experience playing alongside stars while consistently guarding the other team’s best perimeter player will bring lots of value to Phoenix.

“Playing with KD last year, played with Grayson in Utah, and taking the challenge of guarding Book and Brad … just to learn from those guys every day, pick up all the little things I can from them and just grow every day,” O’Neale said giddily.

In his first game with Phoenix on Feb. 10 against Golden State, O’Neale played just 11 minutes to adjust to a new team, and scored three points while grabbing four rebounds.

Vogel is excited to see O’Neale’s continued fit.

“He gave us some good minutes, knocked down a three … showed what he can do defensively, and he’s gonna help us,” Vogel said after the Warriors game.

Roddy, a 22-year-old 6-foot-4 power forward, carved out a small role on the injury-riddled Grizzlies this year, averaging 8.4 points per game while playing 23.2 minutes. “Big Body Roddy” is undersized for his position when looking at his height, but he brings great strength and physicality weighing in at 255 pounds. He is also confident in his shot, shooting over three three-pointers per game at a 30% clip, and scored 15, 14, and 16 points in his last three games with Memphis.

With the Suns being a deeper team at Roddy’s position, his minutes are likely to be scattered unless someone goes down with an injury. However, a common theme between the three newly acquired Suns players is their team-first mentality; they know their roles and know how to play with superstars.

“(Phoenix is) a great team. They’re loaded with starpower, so whatever I can do to help. Guard, defend, rebound, just making the right plays and making their job easier is something that I plan to do, and I think it’s something that can be special here and I’m excited to get to work,” Roddy said.

The Suns’ third pickup, Thaddeus Young, has been around for a long time – he was in the same 2007 draft class as Kevin Durant – and will provide veteran savviness and leadership that is always needed in locker rooms. Young’s minutes may come sparingly as well, but he does everything well. Young, LeBron James and Magic Johnson are the only players to average 12.1+ points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 50.1% from the field and 30.2% from three.

These three players won’t necessarily be the deciding factor in the pursuit for a championship – Durant, Booker and Beal will need to bring their A games throughout the playoffs for the Suns to win it all – but they each bring something unique to the table that Vogel and Phoenix can utilize to help their superstar trio.

The Suns roared out of the All-Star break with a marquee matchup on the road against Luka Dončić and the Mavericks Thursday night, and then get four-of-the-next-five games at home as they look to climb up the competitive Western Conference standings in their quest for home-court advantage, and ultimately, the Larry O’Brien trophy.

David Bernauer DAY-vid BER-now-er (he/his/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

David Bernauer expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Bernauer has previously worked in the Phoenix Sports Bureau and TV Production & Graphics Lab, as well as interning with the Florida Collegiate Summer League. He is a contributing writer with The Sixth Man Show.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Asher Hyre expects to graduate in August 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hyre has interned at Position Sports in Phoenix as a marketing coordinator.