Ten weeks ago, the Phoenix Suns won five of seven games before ultimately losing 24 of their next 26 in embarrassing fashion, including 17-straight at one point that led to rumors about their first-year head coach possibly vying for his job.
Well, this young squad has definitely come a long way since then.
First off, let’s explain the difference between this current 6-4 run compared to the Suns’ 5-2 stretch previously. In December, Phoenix defeated the Mavericks, Timberwolves, Knicks, Celtics and Magic. Now, the #ValleyBoyz have upended the Heat, Lakers, Bucks, Knicks, Warriors and Pelicans after their franchise-record setting losing streak.
Based off strength of competition alone, this newest streak of notching victories has proven it’s legitimacy when you realize half of those were against LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, and Stephen Curry’s Warriors.
How have the Suns suddenly turned their season around like this where finishing .500 over the final stretch is certainly in the realm of possibility? Let’s dive into those intriguing numbers.
Devin Booker previewing the Year 5 leap?
We are in for an explosive finish to the season from the Suns’ superstar guard. That’s a guarantee, too.
Since the All-Star break, Booker is averaging 28.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists while ranking third in free throw attempts per game (9.3) behind only Giannis (9.4) and James Harden (10.3). And in the last six games, Booker has now reached the 40-point threshold twice.
This could easily be a preview of how next season is for Booker as he enters into the first year of his max contract extension in the Valley. If that’s the case, Booker is about to be a force to be reckoned with in only his age 23 season.
Scary to think he’s not even close to his physical prime yet either.
Devin Booker played like a superstar when it mattered most against the Pelicans. During the final two minutes of regulation plus overtime, Booker scored or assisted on 17 of Phoenix's final 22 points. pic.twitter.com/37HvmyDt7U— Evan Sidery (@esidery) March 17, 2019
Kelly Oubre Jr. is proving his worth long-term
Is the Trevor Ariza for Kelly Oubre Jr. trade one of the best in franchise history? No, I’m not even kidding when I’m saying that.
Adding in a player who actually cares and shipping one out who didn’t makes a world of difference, doesn't it?
Oubre Jr. is emerging over the last few weeks as the Suns’ plausible long-term option on the wing alongside Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. Not only is his defensive prowess continuing to maintain in a starting role now, but his scoring is starting to bud within Kokoskov’s system.
During Oubre Jr.’s career-best stretch, which included 32 points in the Suns’ overtime win yesterday in New Orleans, 41.6 percent of his shots are coming inside the restricted area while he’s converting on 60 percent of those opportunities. Credit to Kokoskov and Co. because they are realizing the 23-year-old wing’s strengths and using it to their advantage.
Averaging 20.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks on 46.9/34.3/75.0 shooting splits since mid-February, Oubre Jr. seems like the ideal fit for what the Suns have been missing for what seems like years. Oubre Jr. can thrive as a third option offensively while also holding his own on the other end.
From an all-around standpoint, he is T.J. Warren with better defense but slightly worse perimeter shooting.
However, each game that goes by there’s a higher possibility an overzealous team throws Oubre Jr. a bloated offer sheet in restricted free agency.
The tweet from The Athletic’s Shams Charania earlier this month seemed like a proverbial warning sign.
Oubre will be a targeted restricted free agent in July. https://t.co/ujQ0neRo6L— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 11, 2019
Whatever the price ends up being for Oubre Jr. — I’m thinking somewhere around $15-16.5 million is the most realistic right now — the Suns need to keep him. He’s not only helping them win games recently, but also helping change their culture from all angles.
Deandre Ayton battling well through adversity
Once the Suns ended their prolonged losing skid the last week of February, Ayton stepped up his game up another level. Before the worst game of his career against Rudy Gobert on Wednesday, Ayton was averaging 17.7 points, 9 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks while the Suns went 5-2 over that stretch.
What I want to focus on with Ayton, though, is how he responded after scoring only 2 points versus Utah. Going toe-to-toe with Clint Capela for the first time this season 72 hours later, he easily won the matchup and had a few sequences that previewed the future.
Deandre Ayton is not your typical 7-footer. Not many players in the league can pull this move off. pic.twitter.com/rPGlCY2hor— Evan Sidery (@esidery) March 16, 2019
Very few 7-footers can pull off those two moves, and Ayton is only 20 years old.
The hometown kid who went to high school and college in the state of Arizona posted 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 1 block while shooting 7-for-14. Ayton was off to another great start early in New Orleans, but he was ejected for the first time in his career for arguing with the referees about calls.
Ayton is also improving so much defensively, and it’s definitely noticeable on the floor. The Bahamian big man has 8 blocks in the Suns’ last eight games, which is an upgrade over how it was earlier this season where Ayton was resembling more of a turnstile on that end.
There’s no way the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history would’ve done this in 2018.
Watch Deandre Ayton on this play. Good lord. He’s absolutely everywhere. pic.twitter.com/IsRuftYqoJ— Max (@maxmcc11) March 14, 2019
These promising flashes while Ayton is fighting through the fatigue of the rookie wall should make all Suns fans ecstatic for what’s next. Once he catches his bearings in Year 2, watch out opposing bigs.
The kids are finally running
One welcome change that I’m loving is how Kokoskov has the young Suns finally playing to their strength of pace. Over the last 10 games, Phoenix ranks 3rd in pace at 104.26. Before this point, they were outside the top 10 throughout the season ranking 12th with 100.87.
It might not seem like a big jump going up 3.5 possessions per game, but it matters when you see the average margin of victory recently. In closely contested contests, every possession matters and pushing the pace is definitely paying dividends.
Led by Booker, who is really starting to realize he can either score or get fouled when going full speed from the opposite end of the floor, Phoenix is playing how they’re used to over past seasons where they ranked inside the top five.
This time around, though, it’s working consistently instead of having no plan when going full speed.
The Suns are league average, not terrible anymore
Did you know over the Suns’ last 10 games they don't have a negative net rating? That’s a serious accomplishment from previous months, let alone years.
Phoenix is right at league average on both ends (OffRtg = 109.5 - 16th, DefRtg = 109.5 - 16th, NetRtg = 0 - 19th), which has helped lead them to their first double-digit stretch above .500 this season.
There is serious growth being shown not only from certain players, but also the whole team on all levels as well. Team accountability is rising by players (Booker is really taking the leadership role by the horns) but also the coaching staff as Kokoskov has notched three technical fouls the last three weeks before previously totaling a goose egg.
From plenty of angles we can dive into this sudden surge, but one constant remains compared to the December tease: this time, the turnaround is very real.
After missing the playoffs for nine straight seasons, will the 2019-20 campaign prevent it from going to a decade? When adding in the vast improvements seen from the two, arguably three most important pieces of the core if you add Oubre Jr., plus all-around responsibility showing through, the team leap could finally be happening if the Suns’ front office presses all the right buttons this offseason.