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Phoenix Suns with Elfrid Payton: The Rest of the Story

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Since joining the Suns, Payton has had little impact. But a look further into the numbers tells a different story.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

As I wrote on Tuesday, the Suns have been no better at passing with new point guard Elfrid Payton in the lineup, despite his gaudy 8 assists per game. As a team, the number of passes, assists and “potential” assists are all the same before and with Payton if not marginally worse. And they are 0-6 on the scoreboard.

Some of you thought I was throwing Payton under the bus, holding him accountable for the terrible Suns lineup around him and the uninspired offensive scheme that has been holding him back.

But as Paul Harvey used to say (not Steve Harvey the unintentional comedian, but PAUL Harvey the old radio guy), now I’ll tell you “The REST of the story.”

Let’s recap the numbers before putting all this into the proper context for digestion.

The Story, continued

The many-headed monster of point guarding duties the first 56 games was a consistently poor rotation of 4-assist guys from Devin Booker (4.9) to Isaiah Canaan (4.0) to Mike James (3.8) to Tyler Ulis (3.9) to Eric Bledsoe (3.0).

As the defacto primary playmaker in the lineup and the biggest offensive threat, Booker saw a great deal of defensive attention all game long and began to wear down tremendously. But none of Ulis/Canaan/James could shoulder the burden of running an NBA team.

Let’s take a look at more numbers with and without Payton. Warning: it’s not pretty.

Before Payton (56 games, including 13 games without Booker, 14 without Chandler), the Suns were

  • 3rd in pace with 101.98 possessions per game
  • 28th in offensive rating with 101.8 points per 100 possessions
  • 20th with 32.2% of all shots being threes (versus two-pointers)
  • 2nd with 23.8% of all points coming on free throws
  • 25th with 55.1% of all field goals being assisted
  • 24th with a 15.3% turnover rate
  • 30th with 49.4% effective field goal percentage (including threes)
  • 28th with 53.6% true shooting percentage (including threes and free throws)

That’s pretty bad, but explainable when you consider the PG rotation the Suns were running out there.

Now Payton takes on the majority of point guarding (almost 34 minutes per game) and assisting (8.0 per game), but the Suns have the same results because they are running the same plays in the same sets. Not much has changed at all, except that this gauntlet of opponents has contributed to the Suns resulting even worse than ever.

With Payton (6 games, including first 2 games without Booker, last 4 without Chandler), the Suns are...

  • 2nd in pace with 105.97 possessions per game
  • 27th in offensive rating with 99.7 points per 100 possessions
  • 26th with 27.9% of all shots being threes (versus two-pointers)
  • 15th with 16.5% of all points coming on free throws
  • 28th with 51.9% of all field goals being assisted
  • 14th with a 13.5% turnover rate
  • 27th with 48.3% effective field goal percentage (including threes)
  • 30th with 51.4% true shooting percentage (including threes and free throws)

So, they are faster and turn the ball over less with Payton in the lineup, but are shooting worse from the field and overall look worse by any metric.

Now, for the REST of the Story

Of the six games he’s played, Payton has had ZERO games with all of Tyson Chandler, Devin Booker and T.J. Warren in the lineup with him.

He’s had to play the last four games without Tyson Chandler, after the first two without Devin Booker.

You might want to laugh at the Chandler reference, but the fact is that the Suns are a whopping 13-17 on the season with Chandler, Booker and T.J. Warren all in the same starting lineup this season — no matter who the PG or PF are — compared to 5-27 with any of them out.

Wow.

Why might the 92 year old Tyson Chandler make such a profound difference on wins and losses? Because he’s consistent, predictable and stays within his strengths, despite being 2-3 steps slower on defense than in his heyday as a perennial DPOY candidate.

Imagine throwing a lively, productive, mostly-mistake-free body out there every single night at the center position if Chandler has that much impact?

But even WITH Chandler, the Suns might have had trouble winning with Payton because they can’t shoot and haven’t played any cupcake games.

In these last six games, the Suns are generating MORE free throws than before Payton (25.8, 7th in the league vs. 24.2 prior to Payton’s arrival) but only making 66.5% of them (worst in the league by a wide margin) after making 75.9% of free throws the rest of the year. And it’s not Payton’s fault. He’s making 77% on almost 4 attempts per game. It’s the rest of the team: Bender, Len and Jackson are all making less than 60% of their free throws lately.

Finally, the Suns opponents haven’t been tanking. Quite the opposite. The Suns last six opponents are all above .500, all in the Western Conference, and all fighting for playoff position: Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors (top seed), Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans.

None of those teams can afford to lose a game to the Suns, and none have.

Bottom line

You can’t help but think the Suns are better with Elfrid Payton running the show, despite the 0-6 record and marginally worse traditional and advanced stat lines.

The Suns are more interesting to watch with Payton because they seem more likely to get the potential assist in the right place at the right time, rather than forcing passes and taking ugly shots.

Eventually, the Suns will start making more jumpers and free throws - at least to the level they were making earlier this season - and the bottom line won’t look quite so ugly.

But they won’t get Chandler back any time soon (un-diagnosed neck pain*) and the schedule doesn’t get any easier after tonight’s game against Memphis.

So just keep counting those ping pong balls!

*Editor’s note: Chandler has swelling in his neck, likely from an injury that occurred during a recent game. He and the Suns are just waiting it out until the pain and swelling subside.