Kevin Durant at 2021 Practice in the Park
Kevin Durant at 2021 Practice in the Park

Talking Kevin Durant’s Return to Brooklyn and All Things Suns with Stephen Garner of ‘Bright Side of the Sun’

Wednesday night will be a special one at the Barclays Center.

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The Brooklyn Nets will host the Phoenix Suns, marking the return of old friend Kevin Durant. Although the Nets could not bring the NBA championship home with Durant, that does not change how he played at a historic level throughout his time in Brooklyn. Despite the breakup, there is still plenty of love between Durant and the Nets.

With Durant and co. set to visit, it’s a great time to get familiar with the Suns. To get ready, we reached out to Stephen Garner, who covers the Suns for Bright Side of the Sun and Go Phoenix. Here’s our conversation:

Brian Fleurantin: It does feel like the Suns have started to figure a lot of things out. In the games I’ve been able to catch, the offense has looked good and they’re never out of games even when they’re down big. What do you think has been the biggest cause of their recent turnaround and do you think it is sustainable?

Stephen Garner: The recent turnaround can be attributed to a few entities persisting, the most pertinent being sustained health. Much has been said and projected about this team this season, but plenty hasn’t been accurate given the expected players had not played much earlier this year. Additionally, with leadership coming in MANY different ways, Durant assumed it by way of time on task. His concerted efforts on the defensive end against the likes of Los Angeles (vs. [LeBron] James), Portland (vs. [Duop] Reath), Sacramento (vs. [Domantas] Sabonis), New Orleans (vs. [Brandon] Ingram), and even Dallas (vs. [Derrick] Lively II) really encapsulate the tenor change for them. Vogel has leaned more into both the scheme, matchup, and lineup versatility that Kevin Durant provides as the Suns have sustained a healthy stretch, which, aside from his prolific all-time great scoring, also makes him unique as a starting four. The team has taken his lead and matched energy and then some, in timely moments for games. Of course, mixing in a couple of 40 pieces in addition to the scoring pyrotechnics has helped as well. Indeed I do believe it is sustainable, as this team is still in the infancy stages of building its identity and foundation.

BF: I loved your recent feature on Kevin Durant and thought back to his all-purpose excellence during his run in Brooklyn. As we draw closer to the first anniversary of the big trade, what have you made of KD’s time in The Valley so far and where do you see his game evolving next?

SG: Kevin Durant’s time in Phoenix has been impressive. I think most are aware of just how prolific of a scorer he is. I do not think the masses are as aware of just how he unlocks things for a team past just scoring for himself—which is where I have landed with providing film sessions and written content detailing so.

An example, here.

The abundance of spacing, primary and secondary playmaking, and advantage generation he creates are endless. Plenty of actions where he touches the ball, offense stops. That’s not because he’s a ball hog, but because of the attention it garners, which serves as an advantage for his teammates to play in—which allows the result that a team would want running any given set/action.

The depths of defensive activity he provides are all invaluable layers that this Suns team was missing from the frontcourt before him. He provides a piece that defenses have to account for and leaves them compromised. 

As far as where I see his game evolving next, I feel that this Suns team is optimized when he is active defensively. Leaning even more into the versatility he provides, and dictating to opponents with their defense. Over the last eight games, there is an abundance of examples of just that.

BF: We saw it some in Brooklyn, but I saw the “KD at the five” lineup recently and it looked really good. Do you think it’s something Frank Vogel can turn to more as the season progresses and if the Suns make it to the playoffs?

SG: 100%—It is the lineup that leans even more into Durant’s defensive versatility, with the Suns dictating more defensively, and also optimizes their offense with five-out spacing. The driving lanes created, as well as the ways they manipulate space and play with more tempo, are all a great change-up for them to deploy in pockets of games. The aforementioned Durant at the five lineups comes in a few different renditions, the most notable being: Booker/Beal/Allen/Gordon/Durant. Said lineup is +17.4 in NET, in 28 minutes (59 non-garbage time possessions) spent together. They have an Ortg of 140.35 and a Drtg of 123.21. Still in its infancy stages, but it certainly is a lineup they can dictate with. It will almost always get a reaction out of an opponent. Of note, said lineup has an effective field goal percentage of 65.3% and turns the ball over just 6.8% of the time, so they’re dictating defensively, while also taking care of the ball and generating highly efficient shot quality.

BF: During the Christmas Day game against the Mavs, this thought popped into my head: “It feels like their years of not investing in the G-League and making the development of the younger players (i.e. Jalen Smith) a non-priority has come back to bite them. Feels like when you have a top-heavy roster like this, those smaller moves take on more importance.”

Was my thinking there incorrect and if so, where do I think I erred in my thought process?

SG: Your train of thought on development and investment in it is spot on and has been a point of emphasis for Mat Ishbia in his ownership. It is something they believe heavily in, and are looking to address as early as next season.

December 29, 2023: Phoenix Suns guard/forward Grayson Allen shoots layup vs. the Charlotte Hornets. Image via the Phoenix Suns

BF: I read John Voita’s story a few days ago about why the Suns shouldn’t trade Grayson Allen and was blown away at how great he’s been in his role. Has he been the biggest surprise on the team this season and how can he continue maintaining his excellent play?

SG: Grayson Allen’s play is certainly a surprise. I knew he would be optimized with the context around him that the Suns would provide, but he’s taken even my expectations and absolutely run away with the opportunity. As of today ( Jan. 29) he leads the league in three-point shooting, at 49.8%. Even more, just seven players in the top 30 in three-point attempts have a volume of attempts that surpasses his 225. He’s at 46.3% above the break, and 58.5% from the corners—all career highs. Past just his shooting, his abilities on the margins offensively, generating drives and playing off paint touches, are highly functional. He’s also their most featured small screener and is excellent at ghosting, slipping, and sticking screens to compromise the opponent’s coverage of the action. For Nets fans, think of how Joe Harris and Seth Curry were optimized in their time with Brooklyn. Allen is bringing an optimized version of said dynamics, while also being the point-of-attack defender for the starting unit, unlocking plenty with that group. Allen is the only player in the NBA with multiple games with nine makes from deep this season. I do not feel the Suns should trade him, unless there is an undeniable upgrade that’ll bring some of what he brings offensively, but also brings elite-level defense at the point-of-attack and on the wing. He’s both found and carved out a needed niche around the top-end talents for the Suns.

December 29, 2023: Phoenix Suns guard dribbles against the Charlotte Hornets. Image via the Phoenix Suns

BF: We’ve made it this far without discussing the dynamic duo of Bradley Beal and Devin Booker. What’s stood out about their play this season and how do you think they can continue building chemistry and adapting to their new roles as the season goes on?

SG: The Suns have a prolific Ortg of 125.9 with those two on the floor and a NET of +10.12. They are very complementary of each other, and do an excellent job playing off each other as well. Booker enables Beal plenty of off-ball play and off-spot ups. Inversely, Beal enables Booker a release valve in initiating offense when opponents work to pressure Booker, which then allows Booker to work off-ball.

For Beal, his drives really serve as a complement to the jump shot-inclined attacks of Durant and Booker, as well as his general pace of operation. He’s optimized with those two on the floor, and can play off the spacing they provide.

Take here for example

Notice the spacing, how the Suns incorporate all three into one action, and how there is no help conceded in Orlando’s switching, enabling Beal access downhill against a mismatch. They can compile an abundance of these scenarios within their offensive process over 48 minutes. Now with a month of time sustained in the lineup for Beal, since Dec. 29, he’s second on the team in drives per game with 11.1. He’s shown ability to creep through the tiniest of crevices over his career, especially when assessing the lack of spacing his Wizards teams had, and is not optimized with the Suns as he gains a better feel for how to stamp his skills on this Suns team.

BF: Is there anything that I missed that you’d like to make mention of? Also, where can the people keep up with you and your work?

SG: I think we touched on plenty! For those watching the Suns from a distance and only on occasion, a watching tip I will share is to look for A.) When they’re starting actions in the halfcourt, B.) How quickly they transition from one action to the next offensively, and C.) Look for how they sustain defensively in pockets where they are compiling stop-score sequences. They will be a timely stop-style team at their best. Also, watch for the three-point attempt margin with them in comparison to their opponents. For as prolific as their offense is, math at times simply doesn’t work in their favor, when an opponent has 10+ attempts and 5-7+ makes. Figuring out how to consistently address that is a running battle for them. On the season, they average just 31.4 attempts per game, ranking No. 27. In 22 games where they’ve attempted north of 31 from deep, they are 14-7. That win pace of 66.7% is the equivalent of No. 7 in the NBA, and No. 6 in the Western Conference. Also, in said games where they attempt north of 31 from deep, their average of 119.5 PPG would be the equivalent of No. 6 in the NBA, 3.1 more points than their current average of 116.4 (13th)

I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate. My work can be found here at my linktree. My YouTube channel (@stephenpridgeongarner3) and Twitter (@StayTrueSdot3) are where I’m most active on the social media side, would appreciate any subscriptions or follows at either as I look to make engagement and discourse in this space of ours much more informative, and to make the viewing experience of this game we love more insightful.