When the Phoenix Suns acquired Elfrid Payton about 15 minutes before the trade deadline ended, especially for only the second-round pick they were gifted alongside Troy Daniels back in September, this was a no-lose situation for either side. And I still feel that way 12 games through Payton’s initial trial run as the point guard of the future.
Payton escaped Orlando to join Phoenix — another bottomfeeding team but with much more promising talent led by Devin Booker — while management reigned-in a much-needed jolt to their poor guard play. Up until Payton’s arrival, the Suns kept rolling out lineups featuring Tyler Ulis and G-League talent like Josh Gray.
If they wanted to help develop the likes of Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss, a trade had to happen or those 30-40 point blowouts would keep occurring at a historic rate.
One month after sending off what is currently the 40th pick in this year’s draft, there are a lot of points I wanted to share with Payton’s on-floor acumen and value. Let's discuss.
Well, first off, if you look simply at the counting numbers, you would believe Payton is having a career-best stretch with the Suns. That’s kind of true because he is only one of five players averaging at least 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists since joining his new team.
The others are LeBron James, Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic, and Russell Westbrook, so you should know how deceiving that looks on the surface.
Another interesting note relates to Payton’s overall production thus far. He has two triple-doubles in 12 starts, but he also accumulated five after last year's All-Star Break with the Magic.
We have seen this before from Payton, so what does it all mean for his long-term future in Phoenix?
That means it’s time to mine for some hidden numbers, and, wow, did I find some eye-popping ones on both sides of the proverbial coin.
Payton’s Pace + More Opportunity
Before the Suns obtained Payton’s services, they were still playing fast but not fast nor efficient enough with their possessions.
From opening night up until February 9, Phoenix’s team pace sat at 101.98 once they ran through their litany of backup 1s. However, when Phoenix swung their trade for Payton it has jumped up to 105.22, a +3.24 jump per possessions.
Other point guards who are pushing it like Payton over that same span are Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball. Unlike Phoenix, New Orleans and Los Angeles have actually been winning games as of late.
Other advanced numbers that fall in Payton’s favor relate to his usage. Since 2/10, Payton’s USG% has spiked to a new career-high. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because outside of Booker, Payton has been called upon most to create or attack on offense when T.J. Warren isn’t out there.
Usage rate can tell us how a player looks with more on their plate than normal. This is a good case study when trying to evaluate Payton. The reason why can be found with his turnover percentage and assist percentage.
Currently, the AST% of Payton lies at 34% (another career-best jump by almost 2%) while his turnover percentage has maintained near his Orlando days the past two seasons. It’s a positive to see that development because that’s what Phoenix hoped to see when they decided last-minute to pull the trigger on a deal.
I imagine this roster, especially the bottom half, will look way different next season, so I wonder how Payton would fare with a lineup more beneficial to his strengths as a playmaking driver in their system.
One more positive I wanted to quickly discuss related to Payton is his free-throw percentage increase since donning a Suns uniform.
Even though it’s still an average to a below-average number for PG’s, his percentage rose from 63.2% earlier this season to 73.8%. Compare that to last year and that’s still a +4 percentage increase for Payton, so that’s definitely something to continue monitoring over this final month of matchups.
Elfrid has taken on his role and has delivered varying results up to this point. Even though he is still trying to figure out how to play off of Booker and others, he seems to be bringing their young core along a little quicker than they were prior.
And for the Suns, that’s all you are asking for when you sit No. 2 in the reverse standings. If Payton helps you improve while also helping get closer to one of Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic, I imagine general manager Ryan McDonough is all for that.
Empty Calorie Production?
After Payton made his debut against the Denver Nuggets, he has been on a historic tear as far as negative plus-minus goes. In his first 12 starts with the Suns, Payton has tallied an overall plus-minus of -148. Not only is that the worst league-wide over that near-month timeframe, but it’s 38 points worse than second-to-last.
His average plus-minus puts him on par with names such as Jahlil Okafor, Kobi Simmons, and Kris Dunn the past month. That’s not a good group to be in at all.
His 12 appearances as a Sun have registered some telling advanced numbers, too.
Payton owns a net rating of -16 (99.2 OffRtg, 115.2 DefRtg), which is the worst of any player seeing consistent rotation minutes.
Over his last three — games matched up against Russell Westbrook (twice) and Kemba Walker — Payton only averaged 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists while shooting only 36.1% from the floor.
What’s even crazier is that Phoenix was 5.6 points better with him off the floor. Not only the player on the roster with a positive off-court number but the rest were in negative double-digits. Yikes.
Overall, though, Payton is still posting pedestrian shooting splits, which was to be expected when he arrived from Orlando anyways.
Elfrid is shooting 23.5% on 3s while his effective field goal percentage has dropped off from 55.1 to 46.5. Compared to years past and Payton has dropped off from above-average point guard percentiles to 39th in that category, which is well below-average.
Teams out West are starting to figure out how to guard Payton, and that spells trouble unless he can consistently hit shots from the perimeter.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Payton is going to the rim at a higher clip than all but his rookie season at 51% compared to 53%. Earlier this year in Orlando, Payton was hitting 50% at the rim, so a positive that has followed Payton since his college days continues to be a strength.
However, he’s finishing at the rim at a near career-worst rate. The past month with Phoenix, Payton has seen his rim efficiency drop off from an elite 94th percentile crashing down to 55th. Still, it’s barely above-average but certainly not what you want to see with an exclusive finisher like Payton.
Another advanced number that isn’t favoring Payton at the moment is his points per shot attempt. CtG says that Payton has fallen off a cliff in that category since becoming a Sun alongside fewer steals and more fouls.
Payton’s PPSA (points per shot attempt) in Orlando was 113.9. Now, it’s only 101.7 with Phoenix. That qualifies as a percentile drop off from 81st to 37th. Again, a really concerning sign and one that Magic fans are all too familiar with when mentioning Payton’s inconsistencies.
Finally, I saved these on-off advanced metrics for last because it sort of puts the nail in the coffin for me as far as Payton’s long-term outlook in Phoenix is concerned, unless he magically finds a consistent shot from 18+ feet and out.
Payton has played on the floor for 392 minutes, a team-high since being traded for, but his 184 minutes off the floor tell a story of its own.
In those possessions, Payton is not on the floor, Phoenix’s DefRtg sees a +7.9 improvement from 115.2 to 107.3. Only Troy Daniels matches him at +7.9 for any other Sun the past month.
From an overall NetRtg standpoint, no other Sun has a bigger discrepancy since 2/10 than Payton himself. When he’s on the floor, Phoenix is -16 but only -4.2 when he’s not.
Again, that’s not good to see if you are expecting Payton to be a long-term answer alongside Booker in their backcourt.
I’m still in a wait-and-see mode when evaluating Payton, but after combing through this minefield of advanced stats, I’ve come away less enthused about his potential fit after this two-month test run.
As McDonough has hinted at before, this is setting up to be a buyer’s market for teams with cap room so they might be able to re-sign him for cheaper than expected. If so, I’m only comfortable doing 2-3 years at the moment unless I begin to see improvements defensively.
The main reason why Orlando gave up on Payton was due to him seemingly posting empty calorie types of numbers while not improving their win-loss total. Right now, the same thing looks like it’s beginning to happen with him in Phoenix.
Outside of Chriss, it is Payton who has the most to prove over these final 14 games if you want to include him in their young core.
So far, it has definitely been an up-and-down start for a former top-10 pick in 2014 looking to capitalize on his best opportunity yet.