After the 2023 trade deadline, Josh Okogie started every regular-season game for the Phoenix Suns. He was their best point-of-attack defender, their fastest player in transition and he wasn’t going to take touches away from Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.
In Phoenix’s first playoff game, though, Torrey Craig was the fifth starter, as he had the size to match up with the Los Angeles Clippers‘ Kawhi Leonard. Okogie played just seven minutes in the opener, earned more playing time as the series went on and returned to the starting lineup in the second round against the Denver Nuggets, so he could match up with Jamal Murray. Okogie started Games 1 through 5, but his minutes were erratic because he only attempted a total of five 3s and missed all of them, with Denver ignoring him on the perimeter. In Game 6, with the season on the line, Landry Shamet got the start and Okogie got a DNP-CD.
Next season’s Suns will be different. Coach Frank Vogel has replaced Monty Williams, Bradley Beal has replaced Paul and, while Okogie will return, the other role players are almost all new. What hasn’t changed, though, is the uncertainty about the fifth spot in the starting lineup.
In an interview with the Arizona Republic’s Duane Rankin, Vogel said that he expects “a lot of guys” to get a chance in that role, adding that he plans to experiment with it throughout the regular season so the team understands its options as well as possible in the playoffs:
“I think the one that is going to fit the best, really. We’ll have a lot of guys that have an opportunity to be that fifth guy. The versatility of maybe being able to guard multiple positions or maybe it’s an elite shooter. Maybe it’s just another playmaker. I think we have a lot of guys with a lot of different skill sets and we’ll put a lot of different combinations throughout the year, but I think all of those skill sets would fit the four guys you mentioned. We’ll see how it plays out.”
“When you’re a brand new team like this, the opening day starting lineup doesn’t have to be that lineup all 82 games. There’s an element of trial and error. Giving certain guys opportunities with certain groups and not because one is succeeding or failing, but just because throughout an 82-game season, you want to explore what possibilities you have on your roster so you’re best equipped come playoff time. I do think there will be several guys that get those opportunities.”
In the offseason, Phoenix effectively swapped Shamet, Craig, Terrence Ross, Jock Landale, Bismack Biyombo, Cameron Payne, T.J. Warren and Darius Bazley for Eric Gordon, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu, Jordan Goodwin, Bol Bol and Toumani Camara. Even though Vogel loves “smashmouth basketball” and built a championship-winning defense around size, it’s safe to assume that he’s not going to start two centers. Let’s also assume that, when The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Beal would start at point guard, it meant that Beal, Booker and Durant would all initiate offense, without a traditional PG in the starting five. That means that these are Vogel’s options:
- Okogie: Easily the best at defending small, quick guards. Will attack in transition, bring energy, hit the glass, fill in the blanks for a lineup featuring three high-usage stars. Doesn’t have gravity behind the 3-point line, though, and, although he’ll fight when matched up against big wings, isn’t as sturdy as you’d like in those matchups.
- Gordon: The Clippers acquired him last season to essentially play this role, and he shot 47.8% for them on wide-open 3s. He’s the best creator of the bunch, and, while he only stands 6-foot-3, he has the length and strength to guard up. Assuming he stays healthy and there isn’t significant drop-off, he’s the best all-around player on this list and will likely at least close a lot of games. Gordon turns 35 in December, though, and, he shouldn’t be asked to chase speedy point guards anymore. With all the playmaking on the first unit, he might make more sense as a sixth man.
- Watanabe: On paper, the best 3-and-D option. If he shoots like he did with the Brooklyn Nets last season (45.7% on catch-and-shoot 3s, 51.8% on wide-open 3s), it will be difficult to keep him off the court. Watanabe is a connector on offense, and he has the length and lateral quickness to be disruptive defensively. The only issues: You’d rather have him on big wings than small guards, and he’s never played a role even close to this big in the NBA.
- Bates-Diop: The same idea as Watanabe, except he’s longer (7-3) wingspan and stronger, so the switching lineups could be even better defensively. He can be a source of offense, too, simply by making smart cuts and by punishing teams that will inevitably hide weak or small defenders on him. The question is whether or not last season’s shooting (40.5% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, 47.5% on wide-open 3s) will hold up — it was the first time in his career that he had been even league-average as a shooter.
- Bol: Likely the most fun option in 2K. He’ll block jumpers, produce highlights in transition and cause chaos with his length. It is unlikely that he’ll get this role in real life, though, given his poor spot-up shooting and the fact that it’s still unclear how he fits into a halfcourt offense.
- Ish Wainwright: Super strong, super switchable wing. If he’s going to play over guys like Watanabe and Bates-Diop, though, the shot has to fall. Wainwright has made 33% of his catch-and-shoot 3s in two seasons with the Suns.
- Damion Lee: Imagine if you could fuse him with Wainwright! Lee fit well in Phoenix last season because he made 47% of his catch-and-shoot 3s, and his gravity will continue to be useful offensively. If Vogel’s coaching staff is looking to establish a defensive identity, though, it’ll probably go a different direction.
With a roster like this, Vogel doesn’t need to commit to a starting five weeks before training camp. He doesn’t necessarily need to commit to one at all during the regular season. Some coaches prefer consistency, but he clearly wants to evaluate different looks and he might find that a matchup-dependent starting lineup works for this group. That way, if he has to change things up in the playoffs, it won’t be a shock.
Sometimes, the answer presents itself as soon as the games get started. Leading up to the 2019-20 season, Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he’d keep his starting lineup fluid, but Fred VanVleet scored 34 points in an opening-night victory and kept his starting spot for the next four years.
What the Suns end up doing, though, might depend more on their stars than their role players. If Beal and/or Booker show in training camp and the preseason that they’re up to the task at the point of attack, then Okogie’s brand of defense will seem less essential than if they get cooked by Jaden Ivey and Ausar Thompson in their first preseason game.