Steve Nash has defined the Phoenix Suns franchise since the summer of 2004, but every passing day brings the Suns that much closer to parting with their only remaining star. Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire have all come and gone, and the last great remnant of the Suns team that embarked on Seven Second or Less’ maiden voyage will likely be out of Phoenix by the end of the season. By this time next year, Nash will be almost 39 years old and an unrestricted free agent. As committed as he’s been to the Suns over the last half-decade or so, the man would be twiddling away the twilight of his career on a fringe playoff team if he elected to remain in Phoenix beyond the completion of his current deal.
With Nash no longer in the locker room, controlling the offense, and selling tickets, the Suns will have a lot of introspection to do. If Phoenix lets Nash’s contract expire without dealing him for assets of some kind, the team will be left with what’s functionally a blank slate in terms of roster construction. Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress are all rotation-caliber players, but they lack the ability to collectively grant their team a post-Nash identity. The Suns will have options, but for the moment appear lacking in the ability to execute a rebuilding plan with any kind of expediency.
That said, the one unknown in Phoenix’s future that could potentially shift their long-term plans — if only slightly — is Aaron Brooks. The Suns already gave Brooks a qualifying offer back in June, giving them the right to either retain him for another season or match any offer sheets he gets as a restricted free agent. That should extend Brooks’ trial run in Phoenix, and give Alvin Gentry and his staff time to properly evaluate whether Brooks is able to act as some kind of Steve Nash surrogate in order to keep the current offensive system in place after the former MVP’s departure. That may not sound like much, but a capable initiator — armed within a team’s proven stylistic approach and given effective sets to work with — would at least give the Suns a very basic foundation.
Brooks is coming off of the most disappointing season of his professional career, but that’s true in part because his play had previously never garnered much expectation at all. The ’09-’10 season served as his public arrival; Brooks’ per-game averages shot up to 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game, good enough to earn him the league’s kind-of-bogus Most Improved Player award. Brooks was able to live up to his solid per-minute projections from his first few seasons in the league, and play well for a winning team that barely missed the postseason.
Yet his latest campaign was a fair bit more disastrous, as Brooks combined injury, poor play, and a worse attitude in order to put up some incredibly underwhelming numbers . Houston traded Brooks to Phoenix mid-season for Goran Dragic, and a surface-level glance at that production and narrative would deem Brooks unworthy of starting responsibilities just about anywhere.
But Brooks is a better player than he let on last season in Houston, and he showed just enough in his 25 games as a Sun for us to wonder how extended playing time in Gentry’s system might bode for Brooks’ career. Don’t let his mere 9.6 points per game fool you; Brooks played limited minutes as a Sun, but he produced at a level virtually on-par with his offensive production in ’09-’10. That doesn’t make him an offensive star, but all signs point to him being a decent shot creator and a strong outside shooter in Phoenix for as long as they’ll have him.
Picking out the inconsistencies
A player who posts unremarkable points per game averages for two consecutive seasons to start his career, manages one season of almost 20 points per game, and subsequently falls back to Earth in the following year naturally garners some skepticism. Yet in Brooks’ case, his per-minute averages suggest he was capable of solid production in each of his four NBA seasons to date. It’s his minutes per game that have dictated the variance in his production, all the while his efficiency has stayed within a much smaller range. Brooks’ latest partial season in Houston was still a step down, but his uptick in Phoenix was enough of a return to normalcy to quell the thought of Brooks’ 2010 season being an aberration.
Instead, the real inconsistency appears to be Brooks’ randomly slashed three-point percentage. After starting out his career as an average shooter from the perimeter and improving that percentage in his second and third seasons, Brooks’ shooting from beyond the arc plummeted to .284 in his 34 games for Houston last season. Perhaps Brooks won’t consistently be able to shoot around 40 percent from three-point range as he did in ’09-’10, but there’s something to be said about Brooks’ best shooting season coinciding with his most consistent playing time.
The fluke in Brooks’ profile is this latest season, if only because his awful shooting percentages sandbagged what otherwise was a comparable statistical campaign. We can expect that shooting to return to a more acceptable mark in the year(s) to come, as he’ll likely settle in at slightly above the league average in three-point percentage.
Hope as a playmaker
Even in a golden age of point guards, Nash’s vision is unparalleled. In that regard, Brooks is a poor substitute; he sees the most obvious and immediate trees in the forest, but fails to see the forest itself for the trees. Passing is a simple action for Brooks rather than a mechanism through which an offense functions, a reality that warranted him a “shoot-first,” label.
Yet Brooks’ skill as a set-up man surfaced a bit when he was asked to back up Nash. His mere 25 games in Phoenix provides a terribly small sample size, but in those contests Brooks posted easily the highest assist rate of his career (35.3% — on par with Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, and Tony Parker). His assists per minute didn’t just crank up as a product of the Suns’ fast pace; Brooks was legitimately making plays for his teammates more than ever, as he benefited from the perimeter shooting and offensive fluidity that makes the Suns such a marvel.
Rick Adelman’s offense can be a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t exactly empower the point guard. By using the high post as a focal point of the offense, Adelman took the ball out of Brooks’ hands in Houston and pigeon-holed him into a label he barely had a chance to earn. Next season could serve as a referendum on Brooks’ ability to create plays for others.
The bad news
There’s no getting around it: if Brooks is going to be a regular for Phoenix going forward, they’ll have to account for his defensive limitations; Brooks is undersized and lacks the defensive technique to properly make up for it. Starting from square one with a defensive liability isn’t ideal, but again, the Suns aren’t without a ton of assets at this point. Brooks is capable of becoming a decent contributor (if not a tradeable asset down the line) for Phoenix, and any new deal he signs would be under the more team-friendly limitations of the next collective bargaining agreement. The Suns could lock up a good offensive player for relatively cheap, and considering the limitations throughout the rest of a Nash-less roster, Phoenix can’t afford to be terribly picky.
Brooks isn’t a poor enough defender that his weakness can’t be hedged elsewhere in a potential lineup, meaning all Phoenix has to do is keep him in mind when selecting wing players to put on the floor with him and bigs to cover the space behind him. So long as the Suns are willing to begin reconstructing their team with that consideration in mind, Brooks could be a very affordable playmaking option with decent long-term returns.