The Phoenix Suns head into the 2020-21 season with higher expectations than any season in a decade. Each day it seems more analysts who rank the Western Conference come away with the Suns standing right with the other contenders, instead of the usual step or three below.
Many are even optimistically predicting a second round or conference finals run for the Suns now that Chris Paul is leading the way.
The Suns last made the playoffs in 2010, but even then they surprised the league with a Conference Finals push. Now they appear on paper to be a team no one wants to face in the playoffs, and no NBA teams clearly outclass them.
But then this is the Suns we’re talking about. The team that wasn’t even respectable the first four years of Devin Booker’s career. Enter novice General Manager James Jones. Let’s compare the roster that Jones inherited for Opening Night 2018 compared to today’s roster.
Jones inherited a roster with no All-Stars, six NBA-quality players and four rookies. In one offseason he increased that to nine NBA-quality players while watching Devin Booker ascend to All-Star status. In his second offseason, his roster now has a pair of All-Stars among a rotation of 11 total NBA-quality players. Booker and Paul might just be the best back court tandem in the league, while Deandre Ayton could flash All-Star skills and Mikal Bridges could make an All-Defense team. The Suns are finally back on the Bright Side.
What could go wrong this season?
Plenty, I’d say. Health is always a factor for any team. Just look at the Golden State Warriors who fell hard back to earth due to All-Star injuries.
Some of the Suns potential issues are potentially self-inflicted because of the weaknesses inherent in the roster. I break down five reasons the Suns season could fall short of their prodigious potential (top-4 seed in West) that have nothing to do with health.
No. 1: Rebounding
A year ago, the Suns were 22nd in the league in rebounding which contributed to their defense being ranked only 17th despite quality defenders at nearly every position. For a sad Suns fan, numbers like 22nd and 17th are a breath of fresh air, but frankly a team pushing for a deep playoff run needs to improve those numbers if at all possible.
However, the Suns let go some of their better rebounders this offseason in guys like Cheick Diallo, Aron Baynes and Kelly Oubre Jr. while replacing them with comparatively lighter rebounders in Jae Crowder and Damian Jones along with rookie Jalen Smith. Interesting note: Frank Kaminsky was one of the team’s better rebounders last year, and he’s back on a minimum deal.
The Suns are going to need increased rebound rates from Deandre Ayton (already one of the best in the league), Dario Saric and Jae Crowder, to name a few.
No. 2: Free throw rate
Even more concerning is the loss of anyone not named Devin Booker or Chris Paul to get to the line for free throws. Free throws give you a double booster shot — the other team gets in foul trouble while your team gets easy points.
Elie Okobo, Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. were 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the Suns in getting to the line, helping the Suns to be the 11th-best team at drawing freebies. But they are all gone now, replaced with guys who simply don’t put physical pressure on the basket. If no one improves their free throw rate from a year ago, they could be at the bottom of the league in this category. Interesting note: Frank Kaminsky was one of the team’s mid-pack free-throw-drawers last year, and he’s back on a minimum deal.
The Suns are going to need increased free throw production from Devin Booker (already one of the best in the league) and Deandre Ayton, among others.
No. 3: Playmaking behind Paul and Booker
I’m actually not quite as concerned about this one. The Suns top two playmakers are among the best in the league, and they return nearly all their top assist people from a year ago when they led the league in assists per game. Remember this: the Suns had no one behind Booker and Rubio last year, yet still led the league in all the assist categories because of the point-five or auto offense (doing something within .5 seconds of touching the ball — pass, shoot or drive).
Cameron Payne is actually only a hair behind the guy he replaces in Elie Okobo, and they just brought back Frank Kaminsky who was actually one of the team’s better passers a year ago. Still, it’s a worry not having a proven playmaker coming off the bench.
The Suns are going to want Dario Saric and Cameron Payne to improve their assist rates this season if they are to retain the top spot in assist categories.
No. 4: Immaturity
I don’t mean guys being too goofy, or saying dumb stuff to the media. Remember Amare, aka Suns Tzu, aka Bully Ball. Who cares how a player interviews, or if he smiles or frowns too often.
I mean immaturity at the game of basketball. A true veteran has a short memory, able to focus entirely on the play in front of them instead of the one behind them. The Suns are young, really young, and only have a few players who have been big contributors on playoff teams (Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, E’Twaun Moore mostly, but only the first two have been there regularly).
This team will lose a few games simply because not enough players took it seriously that night. Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Jae Crowder will be ultra consistent night to night in big minutes, but the other guys will have ups and downs in certain areas of their games. Deandre Ayton, in particular, will put up consistent stat lines but his effort from quarter to quarter — and hence his influence on the outcome — can wane with his conditioning levels.
The Suns are going to need Paul and Crowder to constantly talk in their ears about staying focused on the next play, the next game.
No. 5: Backup shooting guard roulette
A year ago, the Suns had too many backup point guards who weren’t good enough at enough things to earn solid minutes. Elie Okobo could run the offense, but couldn’t shoot or defend enough. Ty Jerome, same. Jevon Carter couldn’t run the offense. Neither could Tyler Johnson.
This season they went in a different direction, picking up shooting depth behind Booker. Almost too much depth, barring injuries, to get enough playing time for all of Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore. All are 40% three point shooters who are best playing off-ball and waiting for the catch-and-shoot. But depth charts don’t go four deep at one position.
Sure, COVID and/or injuries will hit, and the Suns will have the shooting guard depth to absorb it. Not a bad problem to have, from the Suns perspective.
Another juicy thought: might the Suns be planning more Point Book this season with all these shooting guards ready to launch?
What say you, Suns fans?
Suns biggest worry this season, besides health?
This poll is closed
Getting to the free throw line
Playmaking behind Paul/Book
Shooting guard roulette