For a moment there, the Phoenix Suns were at rock bottom.
You could see it in the increasingly quiet crowds at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and in the increasingly agitated BSOTS comment sections.
Fans took turns pointing fingers at the sprinkling of NBA-caliber talents assembled on this roster.
Devin Booker was handing games away with his turnovers. Deandre Ayton still wasn’t getting to the free-throw line. Dario Saric and Aron Baynes were slumping through contract years.
But after a pair of impressive wins over Portland and Milwaukee this weekend, here’s where the Suns actually stand post All-Star break: 4-5, with a -0.3 net rating. That ranks a perfectly average 15th in the NBA over that span.
Devin Booker’s return to form over the past few games certainly has a lot to do with that. So does Aron Baynes’ 61 points in the two wins.
But there’s only been one consistent contributor in all nine games since the break, and that’s the guy with the most career mileage: Ricky Rubio. For a while now, he has arguably been the team’s true MVP.
Rubio’s 8th career triple-double against Milwaukee was just the cherry on top of what’s been a terrific stretch for him.
Since the break, he’s averaging:
- 16.3 points
- 10.6 assists
- 5.8 rebounds
- 2.7 steals
- All on 47/38/89 shooting
About 15 years ago, there was a Sun who won an MVP trophy for posting similar numbers.
That’s just the surface level. Other Suns are putting up similarly impressive box score stats. So what makes Rubio so special?
It’s his indisputable impact on winning.
Last Friday against Portland, something funny happened. All five members of the starting lineup posted impressive numbers. Yet when it came to +/-, there was a massive gap between Ricky Rubio (+32), and Devin Booker (-3).
Any statistician worth their salt would tell you that relying on single game +/- numbers is a foolish exercise. But over the course of a full season, +/- numbers can compound into useful patterns that provide a whole lot of insight.
That insight, as it relates to the Suns, is this: Phoenix’s duo of Rubio-Booker is virtually unstoppable. It’s when even one of those two is off the floor that the team has run into problems.
The chart below shows luck-adjusted on-off data courtesy of the The Basketball Index. It shows that when Booker and Rubio have shared the floor this season (in close to 3000 possessions), the Suns are sporting an incredible net rating of +7.5 points per 100 possessions.
Unfortunately, every other combination is negative. For obvious reasons, the lineups with neither Rubio nor Booker struggle.
Lineups with just Rubio and no Booker sport an impressively formidable defensive rating of 102.9! But because they can’t create any offense, they are still slightly negative.
And most concerning, lineups with just Booker and no Rubio are the worst of all, hemorrhaging close to 117 points per 100 possessions on defense.
To be fair to Devin Booker, this says as much about the Suns’ backup guards as it does about Rubio. None of them can effectively complement Booker in the backcourt.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Rubio’s on/off impact is particularly potent. For the season overall, the Suns are +6.4 points per 100 possessions better when Booker is on the court compared to when he sits. For Mikal Bridges, that figure is a +6.2. For Deandre Ayton, a +4.0.
For Ricky Rubio, that number stands at +10.7. That leads all players on the Suns by a significant margin, and helps make a compelling case that Rubio, not Devin Booker, is the most “impactful” player on the roster. Put more simply, Rubio elevates the ceiling of those around him in a way that nobody else can.
For similar reasons, this is why Rubio continues to dominate advanced impact stats. PIPM, which attempts to capture the impact of every player in the league, considers Rubio to be the 13th most impactful player in the NBA. He sits directly behind the likes of Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, and Jayson Tatum.
Booker, meanwhile, ranks 77th. His offense is great, but he simply hasn’t demonstrated a two-way superstar impact to this point.
None of this means that Rubio is a more talented player than Devin Booker. You can’t sculpt an offensive scheme around Rubio’s iffy finishing and awkward left-handed runners.
But what it does mean is that the Suns have stumbled on a winning formula that few seem to recognize. Statistically, the Rubio-Booker pairing is working far better than any of us could have hoped. And in the midst of a season seemingly decimated by injuries and suspensions, Suns fans have lost sight of the fact that this team has gone from 20th in assists to 1st in a single season. That, more than anything else, should be viewed as the power of Ricky Rubio to transform a system.
Then it becomes James Jones’ job to take that system to the next level.
What this season has told us is that staggering Rubio and Booker is largely ineffective. It’s their combined combination of playmaking, defense, AND self-creation all at once that wins games. Without even one of those things, the ceiling of the team collapses.
Therefore, the goal of this summer is coming into focus. To maximize the potential of Rubio-Booker together, the Suns need to acquire two competent backup guards. Preferably, two guys that can (when paired together) provide the exact same things that Rubio and Booker do. Because once you find a strategy that works, why would you try to change things up?
I already have a shortlist of available free agent options that could check those boxes. I’m sure you can think of some names as well. That’s a column for another month.
For now, sit back and enjoy the presence of a 9-year veteran who seemingly only gets better.
Who is your MVP of the Suns’ season?
This poll is closed