The Whiteboard: What Kelly Oubre’s absence means for the Suns

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Sitting 6.0 games outside of a playoff spot when the NBA season was suspended, 2.0 games behind the threshold they’d need to reach to force a play-in game as the ninth-place team, and dead-last among the Western Conference teams invited to the league’s bubble experiment in Orlando, the Phoenix Suns were never particularly noticeable on most people’s radars.

Without Kelly Oubre Jr., the tall task facing this young group just got even taller.

According to Stadium’s Shams Charania, Oubre will miss the resumption of the season to continue rehabbing from the meniscus surgery he underwent in early March. He will travel with the team to Walt Disney Resort to partake in the bubble with his teammates, so the issue here isn’t concern over the coronavirus or the NBA’s protocol for operations in Orlando.

For Phoenix, this wipes out their most effective starting lineup that head coach Monty Williams discovered late in the season. With Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Oubre and Deandre Ayton sharing the floor, the Suns outscored opponents by a staggering 92 points in 226 minutes, which amounts to 20.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a small sample size, sure, but it was still one of Phoenix’s most-used lineups thanks to this season’s unending rash of injuries (and Ayton’s 25-game suspension).

In terms of replacements, the Suns could go in one of two directions: inserting nominal power forward Dario Saric into the starting lineup, or retaining that same wing flexibility by going with rookie Cameron Johnson. That move would keep Bridges as a small-ball 4 where he’s shined this season, give Johnson a more guided trial by fire in meaningful games where he can space the floor, and save Saric’s veteran experience and playmaking for a bench unit that could use both.

The Rubio-Booker-Johnson-Bridges-Ayton lineup has posted a 20.2 Net Rating together this season — identical to Phoenix’s new go-to starting lineup. Though it came in a microscopic 34-minute sample size, it might be a preferable option to that same lineup with Saric filling in for Johnson, which has a Net Rating of just 2.5 in 105 minutes together.

Either way, the Suns are sure to miss Oubre’s infectious brand of “Valley Boyz” energy, especially in such odd circumstances where games will (understandably) be played without fans. His 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a night will be hard to replace, especially with his ability to drive to the basket, make above-the-rim plays and knock down 35.2 percent of his 3s.

As for Tsunami Papi himself, it’s obviously disappointing his path to a full recovery is extending beyond the initial timeline, but it also makes sense given how the world shut down less than two weeks after his surgery. Rehabbing without the assistance of medical professionals and team staff most likely made his rehab more challenging. After four and a half months away from basketball, it’d be understandable if he didn’t want to risk re-injury by jumping right back into full-speed games with playoff implications — especially approaching a contract year.

The Suns still had him on the books for $14.3 million this year, but it’s unlikely a competitor and team player like Oubre would be sitting out simply to preserve his health as his teammates try to keep hope of a play-in scenario alive. This feels like more of an indicator of how difficult it is to try and rehab without professional assistance (not to mention the complete lack of communication between owner Robert Sarver and his players).

In other words, given the current civil unrest in our country; the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; the difficulty in coming back from a meniscus tear without daily routines assigned by team doctors in person; and the strain of taking four months off from basketball before dialing it back up to 100, nobody should be criticizing Oubre for not playing in Orlando.

Yes, it stinks for the Suns, who already were a long shot to make real noise in these eight remaining games. But as irrelevant as they may have seemed to the outside world in terms of their low playoff odds, it would’ve been fun to see this young, fully healthy group respond to meaningful game situations for their first time … and for the first time for this miserable franchise since 2014.

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