Primarily serving as a chance to expand the game’s global reach, the NBA Preseason often includes exhibitions against teams from outside of the league. And while it’s a fun sentiment, the bench players and up-and-comers from most NBA teams blow the doors off their overseas competitors almost every time. That wasn’t the case for the Phoenix Suns, who were stunned by the Adelaide 36ers of Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) by a score of 134-124.
This marked the first time that an overseas competitor beat an NBA team in the preseason since the Brooklyn Nets lost to a French team in 2015. That Nets team, led by Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, finished with a 21-61 record in the regular season and won only 38 games the year prior.
But these Phoenix Suns were the best team in the league during the regular season, only to get demolished in the Western Conference Semifinals before an offseason in which its former No. 1 pick tried to leave and the team’s Managing Partner decided to sell his shares after being exposed as a malpractitioner. All is not well in the Valley of the Sun right now, but none of these factors truly played into the Suns’ defeat on Sunday night. This exposed a far more difficult reality about the team and in turn, its title aspirations.
In an upset by the 36ers, the Suns prove they lack the depth to win an NBA title.
Although they didn’t get much time together on the court due to staggered rotations and injuries through the season, the starting lineup for this year’s Phoenix Suns team was superb during the 2021-22 season. The five-man group of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Deandre Ayton had a net rating of 29.5 with the equivalent of the best offensive and defensive ratings in the entire NBA (take this with a grain of salt due to the small sample size).
However, Phoenix is sorely lacking in depth and versatility off the bench. When the starters come off the floor or foul trouble strikes, the Suns don’t have any replacement-level players to enter the lineup now that Jae Crowder is forcing his way off the team. This was fully exposed by a hungry 36ers club that showed up and embarrassed the Suns against a hometown crowd.
The best player coming off the bench for Phoenix this season is Dario Saric, who was an impactful bench piece for the Suns before missing the entire 2021-22 season due to an ACL tear. It’s unclear what he’ll look like and how much he’ll contribute in the coming season. Next up is a toss-up between Torrey Craig, an underrated defensive forward, and Cam Payne, a scoring guard who fills in as a turnstile on defense.
None of these players strike fear into the hearts of Phoenix’s opponents — most of which have deep rotations with players who can genuinely influence the game in place of the starters. The Suns are sorely lacking any impactful depth off the bench. And when these players came face-to-face with a middling ballclub from an Australian league, they crumbled.
All of the Suns’ starters were a +11 during their playing time, but when the bench came in, the 36ers feasted by attacking a weak perimeter defense and leveraging that into cleaner looks at the basket. The five Suns players who played at least 15 minutes off the bench posted the following +/- differentials in their playing time: -18, -19, -21, -21, -21. Yikes.
If they want any chance at keeping their starters fresh for the Playoffs and contending with the best in the West, the Phoenix Suns desperately need to bolster their bench.
Otherwise, they will be a far stretch from their ultimate goal of bringing a banner to the Valley.