For almost two months, the Suns found a way to stay in the playoff race despite missing Ayton for nearly all of it and veterans Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes for large chunks. They were 11-12 on December 9 after beating the Minnesota Timberwolves by 16 points at home.
And it was an unexpected playoff run, to say the least. Most analysts predicted the Suns win somewhere around 30 games this season against 50 or so losses. They panned the Rubio signing, underestimated the Baynes effect, and generally undersold the roster.
But then the wheels came off about two weeks ago, suffering seven straight losses which includes three by a grand total of 5 points. They slogged through an uninspired loss to the surging Grizzlies, improbably lost to the Spurs after leading by 2 with 8 seconds left, gut-wrenchingly lost to the Blazers after leading by 2 with 32 seconds left, got blown out by the Clippers in a scheduling loss the next night while regaining then losing Deandre Ayton again, heartlessly lost to the Thunder, got outshot by the Rockets and then frustratingly lost to the Nuggets on a jumper with 2.5 seconds left.
Of the seven losses, three were in convincing fashion while another three were by a combined 5 points.
Their 11-19 record looks bad — they are just as close to dead last in the conference as they are to a playoff spot — but there are positives to point out.
Despite losing almost twice as many games now as they have won, the Suns are still 8th in net rating in the West with a mere -0.6 point differential per 100 possessions. They are 4-2 in games won or lost by 15-plus points.
Their seven-game losing streak has been fraught with bad luck, brain farts and incredibly bad shooting.
Per NBA.com tracking stats, during this losing streak they are draining only 27% of their open threes (closest defender 4-6 feet away) which ranks only 27th in the league and 33.9% of their WIDE open threes (closest defender 6+ feet away) which ranks only 26th in that span. This from the team that has taken the league’s 5th most wide open threes during that time frame!
Despite that, the Suns still rank 9th overall on offense and, even with a recent severe dip in defensive effort, are ranked a respectable 18th on defense on the year.
And they have done this without once having a complete roster.
It’s possible the Suns will be full strength on Friday against the Golden State Warriors for the first time all season. And if not Friday, hopefully soon after. If Deandre Ayton can return from an ankle injury before anyone else gets hurt, Suns coach Monty Williams might just be able to deploy his “core four” concept for the first time all season.
So far this season, and compounded by the recent swoon, the Suns have not done well with missing any of their top four players.
All the pieces could theoretically click into place if Deandre Ayton can return to the fold while the rest of the core four get healthy. But the Suns need those core players to play better all around, too.
Of the three who have played most of the season, Ricky Rubio has remained steady all season as the floor general on both offense and defense though he has really bad shooting slumps. But Devin Booker has sagged in production since he first hurt his wrist/forearm and Aron Baynes has struggled in general since straining a hip flexor. During these seven games, neither has been a difference maker like they were in the opening weeks.
But as I said, things are looking up.
The Suns have an easier schedule coming up, and will need their full strength roster to get through it without any more painful losses.
If the Suns want to win games this year and fight for a playoff spot, their current record has to be the low water mark on games under .500. I think the 8th seed in the West this year could be as low as a 40-win team, so that’s what the Suns should shoot for. The Suns would have to go 29-21 the rest of the way to finish with 40 wins. Somehow getting back to .500 by the end of January will go a long way toward that end, but that would require going 13-5 in this easy stretch.
How many of these 18 games do you think the Suns should win, if they can return to early-season form, or at least get a healthy roster?
Predict the wins over these 18 games
This poll is closed
13 or more wins out of 18
less than 5 wins