Yes, the Phoenix Suns are experimenting with Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes in the starting lineup. Is Ayton at the 4 viable or even survivable?
In the 3-point heavy, pace-and-space NBA, traditional positions of old are fading into legend. Switchability is king, seven-footers who can do more than just post up are labeled as mythical beasts like unicorns, and the league’s current knight in shining armor thrives on ball-handling, playmaking and step-backs in isolation. It’d all feel medieval if it wasn’t such a modern approach to the game.
Unfortunately, the Phoenix Suns appear to be trending back to the dark ages after starting Deandre Ayton alongside Aron Baynes against the New York Knicks Friday night. Though head coach Monty Williams cited the size and physicality of the Knicks’ front line as the reasoning behind the decision, “Ayton at the 4” has almost felt inevitable since the summer.
“We’ve been having discussions about it,” Williams said. “James [Jones] and I had a long talk yesterday. I had been thinking about it, but James kind of pushed me in the corner on the phone and started talking about DA and his ability to not just dive, but pick-and-pop, and do some things that a lot of 4s can do.”
Against a bulky, brawny frontcourt that included Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson and Julius Randle, the unconventional gamble paid off. In just his fifth game of the season, Ayton tallied 15 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and one block, while Baynes added 20 points, 12 boards and one block before fouling out.
In their 19 minutes of game time together, the Suns were a plus-9 overall, and the pivotal turning point of the game was a center-to-center connection when Baynes blocked Bobby Portis from the 3-point line and Ayton recovered the ball, tossing it down court with a Wes Unseld outlet pass that resulted in a 3-point play for Baynes.
Fighting giants with more giants paid off this time, but the first question, when such an unorthodox solution to Phoenix’s problem of slow starts arises, is whether this is the new norm. Williams wouldn’t budge either way.
“It’s not going to give you your story, but I’m going to enjoy this one and we’ll see,” he said. “But I think it’s something that we can grow, I do. It’s putting your best players out there and your best athletes on the floor, your best screeners on the floor.”
The next implied question is whether this lineup can actually work if Phoenix sticks with it.
Over the summer, general manager James Jones hinted that the Suns would consider playing Ayton at the 4 alongside Baynes, but thanks to a 25-game suspension and an ankle sprain in his first game back from that suspension, there hasn’t been much time for experimentation. Ayton played that role in college, and has been itching to return to it.
“‘About time!’ Ayton said of his reaction to learning he and Baynes would start together on Friday. “I’ve been asking them since there was a little rumor, a little tweet saying I was about the play the 4, so I’ve been wanting to play the 4, been wanting to guard out on the perimeter.
“Now it’s just … let me shoot a 3, one day….” he joked, trailing off.
Friday night, it was hard to argue the twin towers lineup worked, even after another sluggish start that saw New York score 37 first-quarter points. With Ayton diving to the rim to attract attention and Baynes launching from 3 (he only shot 2-for-8, but the threat of his shot spaced the floor), lanes opened up for Devin Booker to dissect the defense off the dribble and for Kelly Oubre Jr. to continue his recent torrid assault from 3-point range.
“It’s just really having DA back, he really opens up the floor for us, to get open shots, get an open driving lane, pass, create,” Oubre said. “It’s just getting the right shots and making the extra pass, that’s the key for us.”
Booker finished with 38 points on 14-of-27 shooting, taking only five 3-pointers as he surgically operated from the middle against single coverage. Oubre, meanwhile, was supremely efficient with his 29 points, going 11-for-16 from the floor and a blistering 5-for-7 from 3-point range, many of which were the result of good ball movement leading to kickouts for open looks.
Notice in this clip, with RJ Barrett hovering near Ayton in the painted area for just a second too long, Ricky Rubio (nine points, 10 assists) zips the ball to Oubre in the corner for the open 3. That gravity is invaluable, especially with Booker ignoring the 3-point line lately, Oubre being a mediocre long-range shooter, Dario Saric now glued to the bench and Cam Johnson’s minutes not seeing the necessary uptick to pick up the slack.
“He’s such a big presence down there, you saw when he runs and seals, that’s what we want and that’s the best look for our team,” Baynes said of Ayton. “He draws so much focus it collapses the defense. So I’m just trying to tell him to keep going down, roll, seal, I’ll work off him. That’s my job is to go out there and be in the right spacing and give him the opportunity to go to work in the post.”
Ayton’s effect on the Suns’ two primary scorers has been pretty clear this season, even in a limited sample size. In the four games he and Booker have played together, the star shooting guard is averaging 31.3 points, 7.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game on 51.2 percent shooting from the floor and 41.7 percent shooting from 3-point range. In five games with Oubre, the 24-year-old wing has posted 24.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game on 57.3 percent shooting, including 57.6 percent from deep.
“I think when DA’s running the floor, that puts so much pressure on the rim,” Williams said. “It gives us a chance to space a little bit, and if we get Devin and Kelly running, then Ricky can operate or we get free as a rim run.”
Ayton’s underrated passing ability will help in pick-and-roll action as well, since the attention he receives in the short roll will also lead to wide-open 3-point shooters (he finished with five assists Friday). However, if it sounds like Ayton’s gravity makes more sense with him in a traditional, rim-running role at the 5, that’s because, well, it does.
“Coach is smart, he did it in a way where I’m a 4 on paper, but on the court I’m still a 5 in a way,” Ayton said with a laugh. “I guard the 4s and still do the 5 on offense — you know … not shooting.”
And therein lies the rub. For a guy who wants to play the 4, Ayton’s lack of a trustworthy 3-point shot will always hold him back on that front unless he’s playing next to a big who can space the floor on one end and defend centers on the other.
Ayton has taken five attempts from distance in his career so far, and he’s missed all five. Whether the shot is still a work-in-progress or it’s the coaching staff that doesn’t want him pulling the trigger just yet (as his frequent jokes about yearning to launch 3s suggest), it’s just not a shot that’s in his arsenal. His mediocre returns from anywhere outside the paint indicate it won’t be a reliable tool in his arsenal for some time.
The unfortunate truth, when asking the follow-up question of “Will this work against anyone other than the Knicks?” is that Ayton has never been the player some tried to bill him as coming out of college. He’s a finesse player trapped inside a seven-foot-one, 250-pound build. He’s a mage lurking within a dragon’s body. It’s not in his nature to bully people inside or take it personally when someone tries to steal his treasure at the rim. Though he’s a capable post-up player and attracts a lot of attention on the block, post-ups are dead; he’d rather be shooting mid-range jumpers and launching from 3. His touch is a blessing near the rim, but a potential curse to his mindset on the nights he’s not fully devoted to being a monster down low, which playing the 4 could very well enable.
“I think the league is changing to where dudes are big and strong and versatile as well, so we want to be the same thing and we want to join them,” Ayton said.
He’s technically right, but these interchangeable bigs and unicorn types that Ayton’s alluding to can also reliably shoot 3s, and they’re usually playing next to an athletic, switchable big man who can space the floor and provide weakside rim protection (which is where passing on Brandon Clarke makes this whole “Ayton at the 4” experiment even more damning).
Baynes is a terrific positional defender, but he’ll struggle as most bigs do when switched onto guards, and he’s often at a disadvantage against centers with his size and athleticism. That puts pressure on Ayton to be able to switch onto smaller, quicker perimeter players as well as protect the rim as a weakside shot-blocker.
“You know that the paint will be protected, but then in one-on-one, especially with 4s that can put the ball on the floor, it’s gonna be tougher for them and we’ve gotta help,” Ricky Rubio said.
To be fair, the big guy has been awfully impressive defensively in limited action this year, and he showed signs of that ability again Friday night, when he came from over to spank one of Julius Randle’s shots out of bounds in a rare display of emotion.
However, this is hardly a recipe for success against teams who don’t play a more traditional, non-shooting frontcourt, teams with more talented guards or teams who aren’t the New York Knicks. In 25 minutes together this season, lineups with Ayton and Baynes have been a plus-4 overall, which means that in the six minutes prior to Friday’s game, the duo was a minus-5. These samples are too small to really glean anything from, but that’s kind of the point: One game against the lowly Knicks made this tandem look far more effective than it really is.
“It’s a work-in progress, but when you look at the teams around the league that defensively get after it and rebound, some of them have two bigs, and they have a big like DA that can guard and block shots and distract shots,” Williams said. “He and Aron only had two [blocks] tonight, but I think he distracted more than that.”
Ayton has the footspeed to stick with quicker players on the perimeter, as he showed in full games guarding LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo last year, but Williams also acknowledged that even though he’s capable of holding his own on an island against guards, the Suns don’t want to give him a “steady diet” on that front. Having Baynes and Ayton together on the floor presents a challenge in that respect, giving opponents two bigs to target with switches in the pick-and-roll.
Perhaps having two of the team’s best screeners to enable dribble hand-offs and free up Booker to work his mid-range magic really did open things up on offense. Perhaps Baynes (36.2 percent on 4.0 attempts per game) really does have the range to viably spread the floor for Ayton’s rim runs on offense, despite his slower release. And perhaps Ayton can grow into heightened defensive responsibilities of sticking with quicker 4s while providing weakside shot-blocking. It just requires a lot of growth on everyone’s part, and that’s saying nothing of Ayton shooting 3s.
“A bit of a change, but we wanted to start from the defensive end,” Baynes said. “Having his length and athleticism out there, you saw he changed a lot of shots, he made some big blocks down the end of the game as well so it’s fun. We can always get better, it was the first time we’ve played that way so hopefully we can get a lot better in it.”
Reading between the lines, even if Saric’s minutes plummeting to 16.3 per game over the last seven contests meant nothing, and even if the Ayton-Baynes lineup was just a matchup-based tweak, we’re going to see this confounding lineup again. More than likely though, this is a medieval experiment that won’t bode well if the Suns choose to stick with it against better opponents.