Two things are working in the Suns’ favor when it comes to statistical projection models putting them near the middle of the NBA pack this season.
The most surprising factor for many will be that they opted to keep key pieces from last year’s team in place. Bringing seven players back from a 19-win squad probably seems like backward method of improving the win total in Phoenix this season, but as ESPN noted in their Real Plus-Minus projection breakdown, that’s just what the models say will happen.
Real-Plus Minus projections have the Suns doubling their win total from last year, with the core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Tyler Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. a major positive force.
As ESPN analyst Kevin Pelton wrote:
“Squint hard and Phoenix had the makings of a competitive team last season, outscoring opponents by 0.5 points per 100 possessions in the 180 minutes Ayton, Booker, Bridges, and Oubre Jr. played together, according to NBA Advanced Stats.”
When we add Johnson to that group, the net rating was plus-11.2 per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That site cuts out garbage time, which inflates numbers for the Suns, who were blown out frequently last season, but is clearly indicative of how impactful that five-man unit was for Phoenix last year. Keeping it together was a priority, and the data shows it was a smart one.
Pelton predicts continuity will be even more important in an upcoming NBA season in which so many new faces will play central roles on their teams.
“It’s no surprise the top three teams in the projections all had a relatively high degree of continuity this offseason and return three of last season’s top five players in (Real Plus-Minus),” he wrote.
The second reason advanced stats models expect a leap from the Suns is that they added even more veteran depth than the guys they kept in place. In particular, the consistent efficiency on the part of Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio will be immense to put the Suns back above water this season.
FiveThirtyEight’s projections have the Suns winning 36 games this year, nearly the same leap expected by ESPN. Looking through their methodology, what jumps out is the focus on playing time projections they’ve used. That is particularly notable for the Suns in the way it highlights something simple: Phoenix is going to have a TON more NBA-level talent on the court at all times this year.
Think about it this way: Last year’s power forward depth chart included an injured T.J. Warren, a DOA Ryan Anderson, an out-of-position Kelly Oubre Jr., and Josh Jackson, statistically one of the worst players in the NBA. This season, we don’t even know if veteran Frank Kaminsky can find minutes because of the presence of Saric and the depth around him.
At point guard, the gruesome riptide of G Leaguers who flowed through Phoenix alongside Devin Booker are replaced with Rubio and Johnson, two of the most steady non-star options in the league.
Both RPM and FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections (which are the basis for their team projections) expect major improvement from the Suns’ young players as well. If a couple of guys don’t live up to expectations or get injured, the projections capsize like a Jenga tower constructed with liquor involved.
Don’t get too excited yet, but if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, they’re right there in front of you.