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Midseason grades: How would you score the first half of the 2019-20 Suns season?

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How do the Suns stack up after half a season?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After half a season, the Phoenix Suns are 17-24. That’s a 34-win pace, which would be 15 wins better than a year ago.

But we’re not happy, are we?

Some, including players on the team, are frustrated that the record isn’t better. To wit, the team’s point differential is 14th in a 30-team league that sends 16 to the playoffs each year. Their minus-0.5 points per game differential translates to a 20-21, record which would put them smack dab in the playoff picture. Only seven West teams have a better point differential after 41 games.

But 17-24 is 17-24, and there’s nothing the Suns can do about it. No one’s going to look back and say awww let’s give ‘em a couple extra wins for their troubles.

Now let’s take a step back to look at the big picture.

For the youngest overall team in the NBA, is 17-24 a good first half?

The Suns have not won more than 24 of 82 games in five years, so isn’t a 34-win pace pretty good by comparison?

Before the season began, many of the statistical, betting and gut-feel win predictors pegged the Suns to win somewhere between 28-35 games this year. The official Vegas odds had the win total under 30. Damn I wish I’d made a bet.

The Suns current 34-win pace would be 15 better than last season’s 19-win season. For context, in the 2018-19 season, 16 of the 30 NBA teams increased their year-over-year win total by at least one game, but only four teams improved by 11-plus wins: the Kings (+12) and Grizzlies (+11) in the West, and Magic (+17) and the Brooklyn Nets (+14) in the East.

This year, only three other teams besides the Suns are on pace for even double-digit win improvements: the Heat (+15) in the East, and the Lakers (+29) and Mavericks (+17) in the West.

That’s it. That’s the list. Every summer is a big game of musical chairs, but every season is a lot like the last. Good teams stay good. Bad teams stay bad. Only a few break that mold.

However, Suns fans thirsting for success don’t care about historically good improvements. We remember the outliers as if those are the standards. We remember fondly that the 2004-05 Suns improved by 33 wins (29 to 62) and the 2013-14 Suns improved by 23 wins (25 to 48), and we want THAT kind of improvement.

The current pace of plus-15 wins just doesn’t seem impressive enough. And we might not be very impressed, but a 34-48 record should be enough to tell us about the future of this Suns team.

I wrote last July that the summer acquisitions needed to help fans and franchise know whether Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton could be the core of a playoff team. New players like Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Dario Saric should help these kids grow quickly, but even I concluded that +11 to +13-improvement would not quite be impressive enough for me.

In July, a group of me, Jim Coughenour and SDKyle agreed that a 35-40 win season would be a reasonable success story. We concluded that approaching a .500 record — which seemed quite doable with the roster the Suns constructed — would be good enough to believe a Booker/Ayton duo could be a playoff team in their primes.

In August when the schedule came out, I predicted the Suns would have a 15-18 record at the end of the calendar year, and that this kind of record would help Devin Booker get recognized for an All-Star bid. I wasn’t that far off. The Suns actual record through December 31 was 13-20, which included a gob-load of lost time from Deandre Ayton (missed 29 of the first 33 games), Rubio (7) and Baynes (9). Even Booker’s three missed games were ill-timed, sparking that 8-game dumpster fire.

After splitting the January games so far, the Suns are 17-24 with their best record at the midpoint in half a decade.

What’s gone well for the Suns?

A lot has gone well, actually.

The good

For the first time in years, the Suns have a functional offense. They have been among the top 10 all season in true shooting percentage (which accounts for threes and frees as well as twos) and only recently dipping down to the 13-15 range in points per possession thanks to a baffling inability to make open shots. They are among the league’s best in assist percent (first) and assist-to-turnover ratio (first), wide-open three-point shot attempts (second) and getting to the free-throw line (eighth).

They also have a respectable defense on most nights, ranking among the middle-third the whole season (19th overall right now). Aron Baynes is a professional defender. Deandre Ayton and, especially, Mikal Bridges have made strides to become good in that area for a long time. Ricky Rubio is good at the point of attack. Dario Saric gets in the right places on time. With Bridges, Oubre and Rubio, and even Booker this year, in the passing lanes, the Suns generate a great deal of turnovers to initiate transition points.

Devin Booker is an All-Star. One way or another, I am pretty certain that Booker will be playing on All-Star Sunday with the big boys either as a named reserve, or as one of the inevitable injury/rest replacements. Booker is better than ever this year, scoring 30 or more in eight of his last 11 games and averaging career-best shooting efficiency on 26.2 points per game and 6.3 assists.

Young center Deandre Ayton has improved in (mostly) quiet ways, setting better screens, protecting the rim better, and helping better on weak side defense than in his rookie year. If he can become a solid reliable defender, the Suns have even more makings of their big man of the future. Check out Sam’s piece on Ayton this week.

Kelly Oubre Jr. is a legit starter and potential difference-maker for a good team. He’s improved his shooting, which makes his energy and effort game that much more entertaining for the team and the fans. Every team needs a Kelly Oubre Jr. but only a few teams in the league have one that’s starting caliber. He’s rare.

Mikal Bridges might go his whole career with worse-than-you-want offensive output but his defense more than makes up for it. That kid can guard every position on the floor, and now his second straight coach never wants him off the floor in the second half.

Booker (23 years old), Oubre (24), Ayton (21) and Bridges (23) make a good young core. Add in sharp shooter Cameron Johnson (23) and many of the pieces are there for a bright present and future.

And for now, the presence of Ricky Rubio and his career-high 9.4 assists per game (2nd in the league) makes it all hum in an offense tailored to his strengths.

The bad

Oh, there’s bad. Plenty of bad. They’re 17-24, 11th in the West, for a reason.

The most egregious is that while the offensive scheme is still generating open three point looks by the boatload (second-most in the league), no one seems to be able to make them besides a non-concussed Oubre (25th in the league on wide open threes).

Early season success was buoyed by big men Aron Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky taking four or more threes per game each and making 40% of them. But now Frank is out (knee) and both Dario and Aron lost some of their playing time but not before they lost their shot. Both are shooting under 30 percent these days on only about two per game. Booker and Rubio are shooting under 30 percent on open threes lately too.

As a team, after making 13 or more threes in 13 of the first 23 games, the Suns have only done that twice in the past 18. They are 8-7 when they make 13 or more threes. No great shakes, but that means they are 9-17 when they don’t. Another way to look at it is that the Suns are 11-4 when they make at least 36 percent of their threes, but that means they’ve only exceeded league average on threes in 15 of 41 games so far. And they’re 6-20 in all those other games.

The defense has been porous lately too. The guards and wings can’t seem to contain dribble-drives from the perimeter, which puts heavy pressure on a back-line defense really short on rim protection. Aron Baynes appears to have lost a step on his rotations. Maybe he’s hit a wall after playing for his national team all summer and getting lots of minutes so far for the Suns.

Oh, and the Suns’ defensive scheme is meant to guard the paint and dare the opponent to make the threes they are given. The Suns give up fewer three-point attempts than most (7th fewest allowed per game), but opponents are making them count. Suns opponents have made 40% or better on their threes in 19 of 41 games. The Suns are 3-16 in those games.

Any guard not named Rubio or Booker has been god-awful. Lineups without BOTH Booker and Rubio in them have been egregiously negative.

They can’t hold a lead. The Suns have had a 10+ point lead at some point in 9 of their last 15 losses. And a full handful of their losses have come on their final possession or two. You could blame that on bad luck. You could blame it on the refs. But really it’s a team that doesn’t know how to close out games together yet.

The Suns margin for error is razor-thin, and they’ve been cutting themselves on hitting that margin way too often lately.

Team Grades

  • Offensive scheme: B+
  • Offensive execution/results: C
  • Defensive scheme: C-
  • Defensive execution/results: C
  • First half overall team grade: C

I give the team a C because they are perfectly average. 15th on offense. 19th on defense. 15th on net point differential. They generate good looks all game, but don’t make enough of them. They generally beat bad teams and occasionally beat good teams.

That’s a C for me, dawg.

Of course, a C is a HUGE improvement over the last four years, so you might want to give them a higher grade and I would not hate you for it.

The next 41

The Suns schedule gets tougher in February and March, but we’ve heard that one before. The Suns always seem to have the league’s toughest schedule, don’t they?

The Suns will need to be healthier in the second half if they’re going to make a run at the playoffs. Heck, they need better health just to match the 17-24 record from the first half.

They need to get back to their career averages on making open threes. All of Rubio, Booker, Saric and Tyler Johnson have been much better on open threes in the past. They can get there again. And Cameron Johnson needs to get over that rookie wall.

And they could use some better production off the bench. A guard, any guard, who can emerge either from the bench or from another team via trade as a shooter and/or playmaker who can keep the offense going would be much appreciated.

The Suns can finish with 34-40 wins if they can get healthy, more consistent and make more open freaking shots.

The best news is that for the first time in Devin Booker’s career, the Suns will actually be trying to win games in the second half of the season. There won’t be any tanking in Phoenix.

The Suns records in the second half of Booker’s first four seasons: 10-31, 6-35, 11-30, 10-31.

“It’s been hard to win here,” Booker said recently with a laugh.

Sure the Suns are only 17-24 at the midway point, but they have a young core and good coach in place to ride this one out to the end of the season. Booker will be happy to know that there are no plans to give anyone “strategic rest” in the second half.

Poll

What grade do you give the Suns for the 17-24 start?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A
    (5 votes)
  • 36%
    B
    (211 votes)
  • 50%
    C
    (289 votes)
  • 11%
    D
    (66 votes)
  • 1%
    F
    (6 votes)
577 votes total Vote Now