The Phoenix Suns have not won more than 24 games since the 2014-15 season. That’s four full seasons with win totals of 23, 24, 21 and 19. No NBA team has fewer wins in that span. Through that muck, more top-10 Suns picks have busted out miserably (Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, Alex Len) than succeeded (Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges). Not only that, but most of the later picks have failed as well (Tyler Ennis, Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed, Archie Goodwin, Alec Peters, Alec Brown, etc.).
Only one player on the roster (Devin Booker) has been with the Suns organization for more than 13 months.
Many of the statistical, betting and gut-feel win predictors have pegged the Suns to win somewhere between 28-35 wins this season. Those win predictions still put the Suns in the bottom three of the Western Conference.
That predicted win total is a +9 to +16 wins over last season’s 19-win season. For context, 16 of the 30 NBA teams increased their year-over-year win total by at least one game, but only six teams improved by 9+ wins. Close comps to the Suns would be the Kings (+12), Grizzlies (+11) and Mavericks (+9) in the West, plus Orlando (+17) and Brooklyn Nets (+14) in the East.
Can the Suns do in 2019-20 what those teams did last year?
And if so, is that even impressive enough for the win-starved Phoenix fanbase?
I decided to ask a couple of BSotS contributors to talk through it with me. Jim Coughenour has been contributing on and off to Bright Side since the same summer I joined the community in 2010 so he’s “seen some stuff” while SDKyle has been around the comment section since 2014 and joined the COTS weekly fantable a year ago. Interesting how many of us joined in and around the only seasons of great hope in the last decade.
To set the stage, imagine us sitting around a high-top table at a local bar, or a booth at Denny’s...
Dave: Hey there, guys! Thanks for agreeing to participate in a friendly debate with me over what constitutes a “good season” for the Phoenix Suns in 2019-20.
Let’s get right down to it.
Should a 30-win season be considered a success?
Jim: Wait a second. This is the Suns we’re talking about. Success isn’t measured in wins and losses. Just ask former Suns GM Ryan McDonough preparing for his first season on the job (2013).
”This year is all about establishing a culture,” McDonough said back then. “Playing hard, playing unselfishly, sharing the ball and developing a system. I won’t measure our success this year in terms of wins and losses. Are we getting better and are our guys buying in and playing the right way? That being said, I don’t want to be in the lottery forever.”
That’s a really tough question because first it depends on how success is being defined. Some might define success simply as marked improvement in the win/loss column and 30 wins would give the Suns a pretty hefty +11.
I’m going to define success as determining whether the Booker/Ayton pairing is championship caliber.
If the Suns win 45-50 games that’s a big affirmative. If the Suns are somewhere in the 34-42 range things are probably still a little murky. But if the Suns can only manage to win 29 damn games? Something is wrong - it might be time to explore trading Booker and/or Ayton.
So maybe 30-32 wins could be a success ... in terms of talking about scraping the bottom of the success barrel (and at this point the Suns could probably change their name to the Barrel Scrapers), but I’m guessing that somewhere in the 35-38 range is more likely where they will need to be to make me more optimistic for the future. Hard to think 31-51 makes me feel like the Suns are just one move away. FWIW ... 32 wins last season would have still had the Suns last in the Western Conference .... 14th place was 33-49.
Other than just the win total, though, I think it is important to see how the Suns are performing against their rebuilding peers (Dallas, NO, Kings, Memphis). For the Suns to make the playoffs in the next few years, let alone contend for a championship, don’t they need to outperform teams in a similar situation? Shouldn’t this be just as much of a measuring stick?
SDKyle: Absolutely, Jim. For Suns fans to think things are going in the right direction, the Suns can’t continue to lag behind similarly-situated teams. To some extent that should be reflected in the win, total, but relative standing will also be important.
Everything the Suns are doing indicates they’re building AROUND Booker and Ayton, surrounding them with role players and facilitators. So the key question is whether Ayton and Booker can be a Shaq and Kobe, a Pierce and Garnett, an Erving and Malone ... whatever dynamic inside-outside duo suits you.
Ayton isn’t prime yet, but he’s entering his second season where elite bigs even younger than him have emerged as all-stars and even as arguably top 15 players in the league. Booker is now in his early physical prime and entering his fifth season. so this season playing alongside Rubio should provide a pretty accurate picture of his ceiling.
Does it really seem credible that a duo capable of being like one of those ones I mentioned should still be on a 30-52 team at this point?
Dave: How many elite bigs younger than 21 have become All Stars?
SDKyle: A few. Including 21 year-olds, which Ayton is now [he turned 21 this week], the list is: Shaquille O’Neal (20), Anthony Davis (20), Tim Duncan (21), Chris Bosh (21), Blake Griffin (21), Dwight Howard (21), Kevin Garnett (20), Buck Williams (21), Alvan Adams (21), and Antoine Walker (21).
Dave: Alvan Adams! One of my all-time man-crushes. If you include Alvan as a center, only three of those 21-or-younger All Stars were centers — Shaquille, Dwight and Alvan. I’d argue it’s easier to make the All-Star game as a forward than as a center because of the different skillsets.
But Kyle’s point is valid. As the No. 1 overall pick last year and one of the cornerstones of the Suns rebuild, Ayton should probably be considered at least All-Star caliber this season.
That leads me right into my take.
One reason I think 30-32 wins with this roster would be a success is BECAUSE it will tell us what we need to know about Booker and Ayton, good or bad. The sooner we know for sure that Booker and/or Ayton can’t be your top 2 players on a championship team the better.
That doesn’t mean that a 30-52 season damns them forever. It just means the Suns need to be wary. But the Suns HAD to take this step. Going for yet another 20 win season just in the hopes of finding that 20-year old All Star in the next two drafts is almost certain to fail. And continuing another year of a terrible roster around Booker and Ayton won’t tell us enough about their potential future to know if they can be cornerstones.
Jim: I think Jones has made acquisitions that should bring clarity to the Booker/Ayton dynamic. The Suns have real basketball players on the team now. Guys in their prime who have shown they can play at the NBA level. Not All-Stars, but legitimate rotation players. A respectable supporting cast.
If the Suns only win 27 games this season it isn’t Ricky Rubio’s fault.
The Suns should be constructed to go as far as Booker/Ayton can take them. If Jones didn’t do that on purpose (focus the summer on building a roster that would allow him to evaluate Booker/Ayton) he could easily claim credit for it. I just won’t be surprised if they end up in the limbo of 30 something wins that has us asking the same questions next summer.
Of course the line still has the Suns at 28.5 wins ... am I overestimating the totality of the additions?
Dave: There’s various places putting the Suns between 28-35 wins. I’m not just talking the Vegas betting lines.
Next question, guys: What would you say are the real chances the Suns exceed 35 wins next year? What does that look like?
SDKyle: That really puts me on the spot, Dave. My heart wants to believe that Booker and Ayton are the real deal and they’ll carry this team to a .500 record and some real respectability for the first time in years.
If that happens, it’s because having a real starting point guard tremendously benefited Booker and Ayton. They’re both getting more high-efficiency looks, and the pressure they’re putting on opposing defenses is likewise opening up opportunities for Saric, Oubre, and others.
My head tells me its a toss-up. Lasting injuries to any of Rubio, Booker, or Ayton probably kill the Suns’ chances to make much noise. Or, there’s the less pleasant alternative: that Ayton and Booker AREN’T the real deal.
Jim: I actually think this is close to where they will be. 35-40 range.
I think Rubio and the other additions (plus full seasons from Oubre and Johnson) will lift this team into the top half of the league in offensive efficiency ... maybe even into the top 10. But I think the defense will still be an issue and they will be bottom third there. That will average out to the Suns being a mediocre team.
I still think Booker and Ayton are very good players, especially on the offensive end, and can win a lot of games together. I just think that defense will always be a problem with the pairing.
Rubio typical Rubio season. Booker ups TS% above 60. Ayton 20/11 with continued lack of rim protection. One of Oubre/Bridges solidifies as a career NBA starter at the three. I think the team takes and makes a lot more threes than last year (23rd in attempts, last in %).
Dave: I’m with you guys. I think the team is definitely competitive and should finish closer to .500 than not (technically that means over 21 wins).
I think Ayton will be the biggest benefactor of Rubio at PG and Saric/Frank at PF. Both can make nifty passes into the low post after drawing the D — just in different ways. I’d expect Ayton tops 20 per game simply off 3-4 more point blank looks that either convert or draw fouls.
Booker and Bridges and other shooters will benefit from Rubio/Saric as well from the better passing game swinging to shooters.
I agree with Jim on an offense nearing the top third in the league.
Defensively they will get a boost from better rebounding. Blocks might be down overall from last season (Richaun) but opponents won’t get as many second-chance points off misses. I’m thinking a defense that ranks in the 19-23 range.
Which, yeah, translates to about 35-40 wins.
Next question: what has to happen to exceed even those marks, with the current roster?
What would have to happen for 40-45 wins?
SDKyle: To get to over 40 wins you probably have to have an offense that is top third, as you mentioned, and a defense which is not terrible. If you’ve got the #10 offense and #20 defense, you’ve got a solidly average competitive team.
The only way I really see that happening is Ayton making some strides as a rim protector. He doesn’t need to become Gobert or Embiid in that regard necessarily, but he needs to make improvements. I think the perimeter defense gets a boost from the addition of Rubio and the Suns’ newfound depth.
Dave: Do you think Ayton can be good defensively without being a great rim protector? A lot of that is timing and that’s tough to learn.
SDKyle: He can still be good in other ways, particularly in his ability to defend out to the perimeter and to switch onto smaller faster players that most bigs couldn’t hope to guard. But if he can’t make SOME strides bothering scorers at the basket, it’ll always be a handicap for the Suns.
Thanks for listening to the convo, Bright Siders!
What say you? What do 30, 35 and 40-win season would look like? How do they differ? What are the variables on the roster?