Don’t look now but the Phoenix Suns are playing like one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
They have already blasted the Kings, Clippers and Warriors by a combined 48 points, and have a +46-point differential in five games, equal to +9.2 average scoring margin good for 4th-best in the league.
On Wednesday night, they rocketed out to a 43-14 lead on the struggling Warriors — the second-largest one-quarter margin by a visiting team in the shot-clock era — in the first quarter which included a 30-1 run, and then could afford to lose focus for most of the rest of the game before locking it down at the end. Like good teams do. Like most opponents have done to the Suns in recent years.
The Suns are just 3-2 on the season despite that gaudy average margin because of a pair of one-point losses to the Nuggets and Jazz, contenders to win the whole Western Conference. All five opponents this season were preseason picks to contend for the playoffs, if not the Finals.
How does a (however early in the season) +9.2 scoring margin happen for a team that lost 63 of 82 games last year and 61 of 82 the year before with an average scoring margin of MINUS-9.3 points per game?
Except for one long-term, the Suns roster consists entirely of players in either their first season in Phoenix or sophomore players in just their second NBA season.
That one veteran holdover from days gone by?
Future All-Star Devin Booker, who has incorrectly been labeled a bad-team-good-numbers player by many across the valley let alone the world, is the clear leader for this early-season juggernaut.
The big, blowout Warriors win occurred on Booker’s 23rd birthday. That’s right. It’s his fifth season, but he’s only just now 23 years old.
“That was my one wish for my birthday: to secure a win,” Booker said afterward. In the game, Booker made 6 of 10 threes while pouring in 31 points to go along with 5 assists in the blowout win.
Booker is and has been one of the best scorers in the league because he can score at any level — from behind the three point line, in the mid-range or at the rim and even frequently at the free throw line.
But he doesn’t just score. Booker finds open teammates as well. His assists per game, from the shooting guard position, have increased every single year from 2.6 as a rookie to 6.8 last year, and are still at 6.0 per game this year while playing next to one of the league’s best playmakers in Ricky Rubio (8.8 per game) and for one of the league’s top assist teams.
Offensively, Booker has not had to change anything this year to “contribute” to a winning team, as some predicted would have to happen. He is the game guy that he’s been in prior years — always willing to take the big shots, and equally willing to set up his teammates to make theirs. Booker, a shooting guard, was 14th in the whole league last year in “potential assists” (passes that set up shot attempts) and 19th in actual assists (6.8).
This year he's added much better defensive effort, leading the league’s 8th best defense (8th in points allowed per 100 possessions, 7th in defensive eFG% allowed) in minutes played (35.5 per game). And he’s playing off-ball a bit more, being assisted on 77% of this three point shots so far — a 20% jump from a year ago. He’s more open looks than he’s ever seen in his career.
“They’ve helped my game out a lot, with the screens that they’re doing,” Booker said of big man additions Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric. “They’re a lot bigger than their position, sealing guys inside, getting those second chance points.”
Baynes, Kaminsky and Saric aren’t necessarily bigger than their position, but they’re much bigger and more mature than anyone Booker has had setting screens for him until now. Dragan Bender. Marquese Chriss. Alex Len. Etc. Etc.
“I can’t stress the screens enough, getting me open,” Booker continued. “And stretching the floor at the same time. Usually you don’t see bruisers shooting threes.”
Those bruisers are averaging 12 three-point shots per game, helping set the tone for a Suns team that is 8th in three-point attempts and 9th in percentage this season.
Booker is also enjoying a much better guard rotation around him. Ricky Rubio at his side is averaging nearly a triple double this year with 11 points, 8.8 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game along with 1.8 steals. Behind them, Tyler Johnson and Jevon Carter are making 43% of their threes and have a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
In all, the Suns are second in the league in assists and percentage of shots made off an assist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a contested, pull-up three in the half-court, which was an unfortunate staple in the Suns offense last year. These guys already have 3 games (out of 5) of 31+ assists after having only 9 of those games TOTAL the last two seasons combined (164 games).
But their defense has made the biggest leap in performance this year, ranking 8th so far after finishing 30th and 29th the last two seasons. Lacking a big time rim protector, their defense works mostly from the outside in. They lead the league in steals, fifth in loose balls recovered, 12th in deflections, 5th fewest three-point attempts allowed and 7th in defensive field goal percent allowed.
But the Suns do protect the rim better than you might think, despite the lack of a major defensive presence down low. The tandem of Baynes, Saric and Kaminsky have held opponents to the league’s 6th-lowest shooting in the restricted area and 5th lowest in the rest of the painted area.
“We’re locked in and we’re holding each other accountable,” Booker said. “I think that’s the most important part. Communication on all ends, both sides of the floor, has been unbelievable. And that’s the credit to our success. It’s super contagious.”
I know it’s only five games, and there are 77 more of these things to go.
But consider this. The Suns have done all this against Western Conference teams predicted to make the playoffs this year (though the Kings and Warriors are vanquishing those thoughts lately). Their average margin of victory is 16 points. Their average margin of defeat is 1 point.
Among the rotation players, only Kelly Oubre Jr., Frank Kaminsky, Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter could argue that they are having career years. And two of them come off the bench, with Baynes starting in Ayton’s suspended place.
Among the starters, Booker has been efficient but he’s still finding his rhythm. Rubio is playing well, but is nursing a swollen knee and still only making 36% of his shots. Dario Saric has two good games but three bad ones.
Off the bench, rookie Cameron Johnson is still finding his way. Mikal Bridges is lost among all the new players. And Tyler Johnson hasn’t gotten hot yet either.
Not to mention starting center Deandre Ayton (suspension) played only one game and rookie Ty Jerome (ankle) hasn’t suited up yet.
The Suns are playing well, but they can get even better.
Consider this a warning, NBA.