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The Whiteboard: What’s up with the Phoenix Suns’ starting 5?

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By almost every measure, the Phoenix Suns have been an elite team this season. They have the NBA‘s third-best record and are second in the loaded Western Conference. They boast the league’s third-best point differential, and they’re one of two teams in the entire association with a top-10 mark in both offensive and defensive rating. To this point, they’ve looked like a legitimate contender.

But when it comes to actually contending, the conversation shifts. The biggest concern about this team is probably that Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson — four of the Suns’ seven most-important players — have never played in a playoff game before. That inexperience matters, even with seasoned, battle-tested playoff warriors like Chris Paul and Jae Crowder on the team.

However, in terms of tangible reasons for concern, there’s a more pressing one to worry about, and it’s Phoenix’s head-scratching woes with its starting lineup.

The Phoenix Suns need to figure out the right starting five

There’s an old basketball adage: “It doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes.” That may be true, but it’s a lot less relevant if the team in question starts so poorly it digs itself into holes it can’t climb out of, because when that happens, “who finishes” just as easily translates to “the third string in garbage time.”

In a way, it’s almost remarkable how good the Suns have been in spite of this nagging thorn in their side. Despite an ongoing search for the right starting lineup, despite Booker and CP3 taking some time to get acclimated, and despite dropping multiple contests against inferior opponents in games where they led by double digits, the Suns are still where they’re at.

New superstars need time to build chemistry, and young teams need to learn how to protect leads, but the one hurdle that still stands is Phoenix’s inability to find a suitable starting lineup that will remain viable once the postseason begins. Paul, Booker, Bridges and Ayton are surefire starters, but filling that 4-spot at the start of games has been a nightmare for head coach Monty Williams.

The most obvious solution, and Williams’ first choice at the beginning of the season, was starting Jae Crowder with that group. The returns, for whatever reason, were abysmal. The Suns struggle to close out stops with defensive rebounds with that group, especially when teams force Ayton to switch onto the perimeter and Phoenix is left outmatched trying to protect the offensive glass. But that problem alone doesn’t explain that unit’s inability to get stops, or how little synergy that group has displayed on the offensive end.

In 324 minutes together (the most of any five-man lineup for the Suns), that Jae Crowder starting five has registered a minus-4.9 Net Rating, with the brunt of the damage being done on the defensive end, where they’ve hemorrhaged 117.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Suns’ fifth-ranked defense only surrenders 108.5 points per 100 possessions on the season.

Phoenix has somehow gone 21-8 in the 29 games where that five-man lineup has appeared, but it’s mostly been because of this team’s unstoppable bench. The Suns’ bench leads the league in total point differential with a plus-128, and to paint a full picture of how dominant that second unit has been, the second-best bench in the NBA belongs to the Chicago Bulls … at plus-86.

Even with the Suns’ bench bailing the starters out time and time again, it didn’t take long for Williams to realize he needed to try and change up the formula. Unfortunately, moving Cam Johnson into Crowder’s place didn’t work either.

On paper, it looks like it did. In 123 minutes together this season (third-most of any Suns lineup), the Cam Johnson starting lineup has posted a plus-8.2 Net Rating, with the team’s offensive and defensive ratings surpassing their overall marks. However, the Suns have only gone 12-6 in the 18 games where that lineup has seen action, and both Johnson and Crowder’s numbers dove off a cliff with the role change.

In nine games as a starter, Johnson averaged 9.7 points in 30.5 minutes per game, shooting a meager 38.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3-point range. The Suns went 4-5 in those games, and Johnson posted a minus-0.3 point differential. In his 25 games off the bench, however, Johnson has found his comfort zone, putting up 10.7 points in just 21.9 minutes per game while shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from deep. The Suns are 19-6 in those games, and funnily enough, he’s attempted far more 3s per 100 possessions with the bench too.

As for Crowder, the contrast is similarly stark. In 20 starts, he’s put up 11.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while posting .423/.401/.871 shooting splits. Those numbers plummet to 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on .362/.338/.667 splits in the 15 games he’s come off the bench.

So when Johnson fizzled as a starter, and when the Suns’ schedule brought on a slew of opponents with super-sized frontcourts, Monty took the opportunity to try an unorthodox experiment, turning to Frank Kaminsky at the 4 alongside Ayton. Unfortunately for Phoenix, it actually worked.

That Kaminsky lineup has played 164 minutes together this season, making it the Suns’ second most-used lineup. It boasts a Net Rating of plus-7.3, as well as an 11-3 record in the 14 games it’s appeared in.

That’s bad news for the Suns, because a starting lineup with Kaminsky playing the 4 just isn’t viable come playoff time, when opponents have plenty of time to game-plan, strategize and target any potential weakness (i.e. Kaminsky). It’s a band-aid trying to cover up an entire Achilles heel, and Phoenix is already seeing opponents start to take advantage of it, especially since Kaminsky is only a starter in name, not based on how many minutes he’s actually playing.

So what’s the solution? In truth, solving this puzzle is an unenviable task for Monty Williams, especially since he’s running out of time to do so heading into the second half of a shortened, 72-game season.

The best option is probably just sticking it out with the Crowder lineup and hoping the talent and basketball I.Q. there is enough to overcome these baffling issues of cohesion. Crowder plays much better as a starter, and come playoff time, when rotations shorten and Phoenix’s insane depth becomes less of an advantage, you want your best players on the floor as much as possible.

The numbers show that lineup is at least moving in the right direction. Over the last month, in 109 minutes together spread over 11 games, the Suns have improved that Net Rating to -0.3 — still definitely not good, but far better than the -4.9 Net Rating it’s posted for the whole season. What’s more, Phoenix is 9-2 in that stretch.

If that “grin and bear it” approach doesn’t work, however, Phoenix could simply try moving Dario Saric — a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate and the NBA’s Net Rating king in his small-ball 5 role off the bench — into the starting rotation. How he’d fare next to Ayton, with that lineup, in longer minutes and against better competition is a mystery, but he’s been one of Phoenix’s smartest and most important cogs all season long. It might just be as simple as playing your best players and cobbling together a shorter bench rotation without Saric leading the charge.

There’s also the trade market. While aiming for a major acquisition like Harrison Barnes could be too far out of their offer range, someone like P.J. Tucker is very attainable. A package of Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway and a second-round pick or two gets the job done financially and probably asset-wise in terms of what the Houston Rockets would want for him.

The Phoenix Suns are in a better place than they’ve been in the last decade. They’ve been elite, and the scary thing is, they still have another gear to reach. Lack of playoff experience aside, whether they actually ascend to that higher plane may come down to solving the persistent riddle of their starting lineup.

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