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Suns offense failed over the past week, but brighter times are ahead

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The Suns have dealt with some real adversity but will come out stronger for it.

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

At the height of this early season, the Phoenix Suns offense was running like a juggernaut with a fairly good defense helping them to the league’s 4th best net rating.

But since Ricky Rubio’s back spasmed and Aron Baynes’ hip flexored, it’s the Suns offense that cratered more than the defense, which has stayed in the middle of the pack.

When the Suns were 7-4 and the nation began to take notice, their offense ranked 4th in the league in terms of points per 100 possessions (pace-adjusted) with No. 1 rankings in four major categories: assist percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, effective field goal percent percentage and true shooting percentage. They’d beaten some of the league’s best teams (Clippers, Sixers), went toe-to-toe with others (losing by 10 total points to Nuggets, Jazz and Lakers), and blown out bad teams like any good team would do. Those opponents had some of the league’s better defenses too, including 4 of the top 6 in the league after 11 games.

All this without last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick and historically effective big man rookie Deandre Ayton except for one, due to league suspension.

Rubio and Baynes were the Suns central figures of the 11-game run, ranking as their second and third best players behind Devin Booker because of their impact on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

But since the injuries, the Suns have gone just 1-4 because they’ve forgotten how to put the ball in the bucket. Over the last five games, the first two of which were back-to-back gut punches with the unexpected loss of the mainstays, the Suns offense has dropped all the way to 23rd in the league, scoring a full six fewer points per 100 possessions*.

*100 possessions is roughly a full game, though some teams have fewer and some have more per game. This metric balances the rankings on offensive and defensive effectiveness across all teams regardless of the pace at which they play.

In these five games, the Suns still have the league’s 5th best assist percentage, but have dropped all the way to 13th in assist ratio, 27th in effective field goal percentage and 24th in true shooting percentage. And that has been against mostly bad defenses, ranked 9th, 29th, 22nd, 17th and 2nd in the league.

What gives?

The obvious answer is Rubio. Could Rubio’s passing have made THAT much of a difference? Or is this partially just due to father time evening things out? After 11 games the Suns were the league’s best shooting team. I doubt that could have lasted all season. So a five-game dip brought on by missing some mainstays will happen.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into the numbers.

Making threes

  • First 11 games: 3rd at 38.8%
  • Last 5 games: 25th at 32.9%

Before the injuries, a whopping 29.8% of their shots were WIDE OPEN (closest defender 6+ feet away). The Suns made 43.3% of those shots, with an effective field goal percentage of 59.5% (which gives extra credit for threes). Nearly all of those wide open shots were threes.

Since the injuries. the Suns have taken... checks notes... we can’t really tell yet because nba.com/stats is only updated for two of the five past five games. But in the first two of those five, the Suns percentage of wide open shots dropped to 24.8%, and they only made 23.8% of them. That’s not all on Rubio. That’s guys just missing wide open shots.

Assists per game

  • First 11 games: 1st at 28.8
  • Last 5 games: 17th at 24.2

It’s a big drop off from Ricky Rubio to his backups, reminiscent of when Steve Nash would go down — or even get a rest mid-game — back in the SSOL days. No one can play like Rubio on this team, so they get discombobulated when it’s Tyler Johnson or Jevon Carter.

Recently, Elie Okobo has been a bit of a revelation off the bench. He’s got 26 assists to only 3 turnovers this year, and in the past three games he’s made 6 of 10 threes. Small sample sizes, for sure, and his defense is still ragged, but he’s been better than Tyler and Jevon lately.

Still, I can’t wait for Ty Jerome to come back healthy. He looked very good in preseason running the offense before badly rolling his ankle right before the season started.

Ball control

  • First 11 games: 7.5 steals per game (18th) vs. 15.5 turnovers (14th)
  • Last 5 games: 8.2 steals per game (9th) vs. 12.8 turnovers (4th)

Now here’s an unexpectedly positive one. In Rubio’s absence, the Suns have managed to improve their ball control as a team despite missing the man with one of the best ratios on the team (1.4 to 2.1). So Monty has put ball control at a premium and the guys have responded.

Shooting

  • First 11 games: 55.3% effective field goals (1st), 59.3% true shooting (1st)
  • Last 5 games: 49.1% eFG (27th), 54.1% TS (24th)

They’re just not making shots. I’ll chalk that up to guys playing ‘up’ to a new, more-difficult role in the absence of Baynes and Rubio. As I shared above, they are still getting open shots but missing them.

*Effective field goal percentage (eFG): gives extra credit to three-point shots. True shooting percentage (TS): gives extra credit to three-point shots AND includes free throws as well

Rubio himself is not a shotmaker, but Baynes was unreal compared to his career averages. Baynes had a 66.3% eFG so far this year compared to 48.9% eFG in Boston last two years, mostly thanks to making 44% of his 4.3 threes per game versus 29% on 0.6 per game in Boston. Baynes TS has jumped to 67.9% from 56.7%.

Booker, back in the double-teamed role of yesteryear without Rubio and Baynes, has hit a rough patch as well. He went from 61.2% eFG and 66.3% TS the first 11 (both career highs) to 52.3% and 59.3% respectively. His playmaking has jumped as well as his turnovers, but he’s just not making shots except for their one win against the Wolves on Saturday. I’d like the early-season Book back please.

Overall, the team has just tanked in terms of efficiency without Rubio running the show. But they did improve as the week went on. In the third game of the five, they posted 54.5% eFG and 60.5% TS against the Pelicans. Saturday’s win was a slog fest, but in the Sunday game, the fifth of five games, the Suns posted 57.3% eFG and 59.6% TS against the league’s 2nd best defense in the mile-high altitude in Denver.

Once Rubio gets back, they will be fine.

Summary

There are lots of reasons for optimism, Suns fans.

Your team is 8-8 after playing what ESPN calls the league’s most difficult schedule. And their RPI formula (which takes into account their own winning percentage, their opponents’ and their opponents’ opponents) puts the Suns as the 10th best in the league.

The next 10 games look much easier to win. The Suns should be able to notch wins in at least half of these games since there are only 2 winning records among them as of this writing.

And then after 10 games, the Suns should have Deandre Ayton back at full strength (not enhanced strength but full strength) to help with those rebounding numbers and scoring efficiency.

There’s a lot of reason for optimism. Don’t be glum, chum.