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Almost halfway through a difficult season Suns are still trying to find themselves

Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers
Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers

LOS ANGELES —The Phoenix Suns' shotmaking can be breathtaking.

Kevin Durant is arguably the most pure scorer the game has ever seen and can still leave you in awe a couple of times a game. Devin Booker is athletic, has range, and is one of the handful of best tough shot-makers in the league. Bradley Beal can score at every level, over and around everyone. Put all three of them on the court together and they can put on a display of unbelievable shot creation and overwhelm an opponent.

It's everything else about the Suns that makes you question just how good this team is and how far it can go.

With their big three players together for the fifth and sixth time the past few days — going against the Grizzlies and the Clippers —the Suns went 0-2 with an offense that had the cohesion of a pickup game at LA Fitness.

To a man, the Suns talk about needing more time.

"We show flashes, but we just need consistency of playing high-level basketball," is how Eric Gordon put it.

"Just keep grinding, man, that's all I'm about," Durant said about Phoenix building that cohesion. "Come back to work the next day, keep figuring it out.”

Every time coach Frank Vogel was asked about it, he returned to the theme that it was just six games with their stars and that they needed more time.

Is there enough time as we approach the season's midpoint? The Suns are 19-18, ninth in the West, and while on paper they look like a contender on the court they frighten nobody.

It's because the problems run deeper than just time together for their stars, it speaks to how new owner Mat Ishbia pushed for this team to be built. Specifically, there are four other areas of concern for Phoenix.

Phoenix’s defense is not good enough

Both the numbers and the eye test back this up. For the season, the Suns have a 115.6 defensive rating, 16th in the league, right in the middle of the pack. That's good enough if a team has an elite offense, but the Suns' 11th-ranked offense is good, not elite.

The Clippers' spacing and ball movement exposed the big flaw with the Suns' defense — they are slow and relatively unathletic. Bigs like Jusuf Nurkic can be slow to cover ground, and good ball movement and spacing expose this and lead to open shots. That lack of speed and athleticism also shows in the Suns' transition defense at points, although statistically, they have been a top-10 transition defense for the season.

Lack of depth

Getting both Eric Gordon and Kevin Durant back helps, but even with that the Suns feel six deep. Beyond that they get into rotation players other teams can exploit. Don't take my word for it, here is what Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said about his team's defensive strategy Monday night.

"When they had five shooters on the floor, we switched, and then fired," Lue said. "Then when they came in with [Josh Okogie], we just went to a normal coverage and blitzed KD and Book.”

Vogel is still desperately looking for players who can shoot and defend around his big three — he's got guys who can do one or the other, but not both. Vogel is throwing lineups against the wall to see what will stick — he went small for a stretch against the Clippers, but Lue just left Zubac in and the big man became a real problem for Phoenix. There are no easy answers because the Suns went all in on trades for both Durant and Beal and left themselves little depth or assets to chase it. This is who they are.

Lack of cohesion or a floor general

What stood out against the Clippers was how well Los Angeles' roster now fits together and how the Suns do not by comparison. (They would say, "Not yet, give us time," but the NBA world is skeptical.)

With the Clippers, James Harden's passing and willingness to be a facilitator have unlocked Los Angeles' offense. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have embraced playing off the ball more, Ivica Zubac has become a threat as a roll man, and Russell Westbrook has accepted and thrived in a bench role. Harden's playmaking as the facilitator has elevated Los Angeles, where the Suns don't have that traditional ball handler and floor general in the offense.

"It's a multiple ball handler attack, but Devin Booker has emerged as sort of the guy that is playing that role," Vogel said. "So I feel like we do have that on our team and we are playing with that player and Devin Booker, knowing that we can have KD bring it we can have Bradley Beal, bring it, Grayson [Allen], some of our older guys, we have backup point guards that we use, but I think Book has really done a great job taking control of that.”

Except he only does it part time, Booker brings the ball up for much of the game and the playmaking is egalitarian, not centralized.

That coordination needs to evolve or this team will not begin to live up to its potential.

Phoenix has been terrible in the clutch

It's hard to believe this about a team with tough-shot makers Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, but it's true: The Suns are 9-12 this season in games within five points in the final five minutes. They score less than a point per possession (96.7 offensive rating) and have a -14.6 net rating.

It's not just clutch games: The Suns have a league-worst fourth quarter offense — and by a mile. The Suns have a 103 offensive rating in the fourth quarter, the second-worst team is Portland at 108. The Suns have a league-worst -16.1 net rating in the fourth.

"I think that's what's been happening, we just have this bad two minute stretch of basketball and that will turn the game sometimes for us," Durant said of the Suns' fourth quarter woes. "We'll be playing well and then you know to a couple turnovers here and there, missed shots and just the problems just compound themselves and just make for bigger lead."
Maybe the Suns just need more time together on the court, more clutch moments for this to iron out.

But midway through the season, the Suns feel a long way from being the threat they are on paper.