But if you ask the team’s new coach, Igor Kokoskov, about this Phoenix squad, he has no interest in leaning on the typical excuses that would come with a roster not only featuring a 21-year-old lead guard and a 20-year-old center but has seven players that are 22 or younger.
“The description coming from the media is that we have a young, talented team, but we want to change that perception to being good or bad,” said Kokoskov, a longtime NBA assistant and trail blazer as the first person born and raised outside of the United States to be hired to coach an NBA team. “There is no in-between. “We don’t want to be called a young team. At some point, we want to be called a good team.”
This is the task Kokoskov has been given: Take one of the NBA’s youngest teams, a franchise that was for so long one of the league’s model franchises but has become a dysfunctional mess this decade, and lead it back into contention for the first time in years.
Doing so won’t be easy. Not only are there lots of layers of losing that have to be pulled back to change the way the Suns operate, but young teams are, for many reasons, typically bad teams. And Phoenix, as currently constituted, is a bad team.
Take how Kokoskov reacted to his team’s transition defense after Monday’s 123-103 loss to the Golden State Warriors, a game in which the Suns were outscored 34-6 in fast break points by the two-time defending NBA champions.
“Our transition defense was atrocious,” Kokoskov said. “It wasn’t any secret. We were talking about it before the game, that transition defense is the Warriors’ type of strength.
“This was the type of game where five players had to rush back, but they still outscored us by 30 points. . . . If you have that many mental breakdowns in transition defense then this is the price you are going to pay.”
Young teams are prone to having mental breakdowns, be it in transition defense or elsewhere. And there likely will be many more of them before this season is through.
Still, Kokoskov’s arrival — even amid the turmoil surrounding the front office — allows for Phoenix to finally be able to build a system, at both ends, to cater to the talent on its roster. And one of the first decisions Kokoskov has made in that regard could prove to be the most influential in how the Suns grow from here.
There has been plenty of discussion of Phoenix’s lack of a veteran point guard on the roster (including the team’s surprising decision last week to release Shaq Harrison, whom many around the league expected to either start or play heavy minutes for them there). But early on this summer, Kokoskov began speaking to Booker about a new responsibility for the young star guard: primary ballhandler.
The idea is to put Booker, a gifted scorer in all phases of the game, in a situation similar to the one James Harden is in with the Houston Rockets, where he can use his immense gifts to make plays for himself and others whenever he’s on the floor. It also will allow for Booker and Ayton to run as many pick-and-rolls as they’d like, which will help both now and in the future.
But more than anything, for a young player who has freshly signed a max contract extension, it is a signal from his new coach that for Phoenix to start turning things around, it’s going to need Booker to be the one to lead it.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to Devin about his role and his responsibilities,” Kokoskov said. “He’s our big rock. He’s our franchise player. He’s one of the most talented scorers in the league. But we need his ability to pass, to see the floor, and to play-make for other people. . . .
“He’s one of the most talented guards in the league, and he’s accepting the challenge.”
Phoenix needs him to. But it also needs growth from Ayton, who has predictably put up numbers immediately, recording double-doubles in two of the Suns’ first three games.
But Ayton’s defense has long been suspect, a troubling theme for Phoenix, including during his lone season at Arizona. (That despite the immense physical tools that would seemingly make him a monstrous presence at that end of the court.) Getting better at that end is just one part of a bigger responsibility — taking a leadership role within the team — that he and Kokoskov have been discussing since he was drafted.
“Honestly, I hear that every day from him,” Ayton said. “Just be the leader. Put these guys on my shoulders and just always being responsible at both ends of the floor and just taking care of business.”
For the Suns to truly start taking care of business is going to take a lot of work, particularly in the unforgiving Western Conference, where young talent like the Suns' will get nightly lessons from one strong opponent after another.
It will be a season-long trial by fire for Kokoskov’s team, one that he hopes will allow the Suns to go from being a young (and bad) team to something more.
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