Deandre Ayton Solid, but Suns Fall to LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2018

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 11: Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns plays defense against LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs on December 11, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

Make it 10 straight losses for the Phoenix Suns.

On Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs became the latest team to defeat Phoenix 111-86, dropping the Suns to a woeful 4-24 on the season. Bryn Forbes led the way for San Antonio (14-14) with 24 points and 11 rebounds, making all five of his attempted threes, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 18 points.

DeMar DeRozan was quiet in the contest, managing just five points on only six field-goal attempts, but it hardly mattered against the floundering Suns.

For Phoenix, T.J. Warren (23 points) posted solid numbers and De'Anthony Melton continued to impress (17 points, six assists), while rookie center Deandre Ayton posted a double-double (12 points, 11 boards) and added two blocks.

The Suns are currently on pace to finish the season 11-71, which would put them in the conversation of worst teams in NBA history. The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers currently hold the record for most losses in a season (73), followed by the 2015-16 Sixers (72), 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks (71) and 1997-98 Denver Nuggets (71).

In contrast to Phoenix's struggles, head coach Gregg Popovich made history of a different kind, moving into fourth on the all-time winning list by passing NBA legend Pat Riley:

While the Suns battle futility, the Spurs celebrated greatness on Tuesday.

               

Suns Must Develop Identity Beyond Devin Booker

The Suns aren't particularly good even when Booker is on the floor, but without him, they become tragically bad.

The Suns are now 0-9 with Booker out of action and have been outscored by 157 points in those games, with seven coming by double-digit points. Expand the scope, and the Suns came into the game with an offensive rating of 106.9 while Booker is on the court and a dreadful 95.2 rating with him on the bench.

Additionally, coming into the game, the team was outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possession with Booker on the court, a number that ballooned to 15.6 points per 100 possessions when he's off the court.

The issue for Phoenix is that Booker is the complete epicenter of the team. He's their go-to scorer, their best catch-and-shoot option and also their primary facilitator. The moment he leaves the court, the team's identity goes with him.

The Suns need to figure out who they are without Booker. Do they play through Ayton in the post, spacing the floor and allowing him to either work in isolation or sling passes to his teammates on the perimeter if he's ever doubled?

That might be a lot of pressure on the rookie, who has shown flashes of the immense upside that made him the No. 1 overall pick—he posted 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against the Clippers on Dec. 10, for instance—but has also often flashed the defensive issues, and some of the hustle concerns, that were found on his scouting report as well.

Ayton, to his credit, was not Phoenix's main issue on defense Tuesday night:

Or maybe the Suns, with all of their wing players, double down on the defensive identity and increase their intensity in that regard. They have the wing depth to run switch-heavy lineups capable of closing down passing lanes, creating offense in the fast break and generally disrupting an opposing offense. If the team's offense is going to have its issues, the Suns could at least play with more urgency defensively.

Ultimately, that's a task for first-year coach Igor Kokoskov, whose feet are firmly planted in the fire given the team's awful start to the season. Yes, the front office finding an actual point guard for him to work with would help (though Melton has shown potential and has earned a larger role, even when Booker returns).

And at some point, the Suns should become sellers, with Trevor Ariza a pretty obvious name likely to be on the move.

But maybe Ariza shouldn't be the only player on the block. Warren has been solid this year and will be in demand for teams looking for scoring on the wing. Josh Jackson has yet to click in Phoenix, though it may be early to give up on him. Still, at this point, only Booker and Ayton should be untouchable, with Mikal Bridges looking like a keeper as well.

No one else should be safe. The Suns have to figure out how to build a team around Booker and Ayton, but they also need to build a roster capable of surviving when Booker isn't on the floor. Otherwise, they'll simply find themselves mired in lottery hell for yet another decade.

            

Spurs Aren't Good Enough to Be Playoff Team

No, the Spurs don't get credit for beating the Suns. Playing Phoenix has become about as guaranteed a win as it gets in the NBA.

And while Popovich's incredible achievement is worth celebrating, it also shouldn't be ignored that one-third of the way into the season, the Spurs simply don't look good enough to make the playoffs in the West.

The main culprit is the team's defense. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in Toronto and Dejounte Murray recovering from a torn ACL that will cost him the entirety of the 2018-19 season, the Spurs haven't shown the defensive acumen to bother opposing offenses.

The Spurs defensive rating sat at 112.9 coming into the game, a disappointing 29th in the NBA. They were averaging 26th in blocks per game (4.3)—though Rudy Gay did have a monster block against the Suns—and were last in the NBA in steals per contest (5.9).

Additionally, teams were scoring 49.5 points in the paint per game against the Spurs, 18th in the league, and shooting 36.7 percent from three against them (24th).

Yes, San Antonio will score. DeRozan remains an elite wing scorer. Aldridge gets buckets. The team's supporting cast fills in the requisite roles on offense. Even if the Spurs aren't the prototypical modern offense, given how DeRozan and Aldridge operate, they still have an offensive rating of 110.2 (10th in the NBA).

And, yes, they held Phoenix to just 86 points on Tuesday. But as noted above, Phoenix completely lacks an identity without Booker in the lineup.

And the West is stacked. The Spurs are currently just 1.5 games out of the playoff picture, bunched in a group hovering around the playoff picture with the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets.

Those nine teams are separated by just three games in the standings. Take away the Suns, and the entire West is currently differentiated by just six games. There's a case to be made that 14 of the 15 teams in the West are legitimately capable of grabbing a playoff berth.

As currently constructed, the Spurs don't appear likely to be one of the eight teams to survive that juggernaut. If the Spurs were playing in the Eastern Conference, this would be a different conversation. And, yes, it's hard to doubt Popovich or the team's 21-year playoff streak.

But unless the defense improves, the Spurs will be a team on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.

            

What's Next?

The Suns host the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET, while the Spurs will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

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