The Phoenix Suns came into the season with a lot of questions about them. Was their 8-0 run in the bubble a fluke? Could Cameron Johnson continue to show the improvement that he put on display in Orlando? Was the resurrection of Cam Payne’s career a fluke, and is a long-term answer at back-up PG? How will Chris Paul and Jae Crowder fit in with the team? What kind of team identity will the Suns form?
While it’s probably too early to definitively answer all of these, we have some pretty good evidence on a lot of them after four games.
No. 1: Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges are GOOD
Cam and Mikal were two of the Suns’ best players in the bubble at the end of a very up and down season. Cam in particular, had been singled out as a James Jones mistake for being taken far earlier than expected in the 2019 draft. Four games into the 2020 season, a case could be made that they have been the two best players on the team. Bridges leads the team in minutes per game, and his defense has been stellar (more on that in a bit). Johnson has shown a newfound willingness and to drive to the rack and run the floor, while playing solid defense on players larger than him, drawing comparisons to a young Dan Majerle. They’re also doing this in volume: Mikal and Cam are the 2nd and 3rd leading scorers on the team. Both have true shooting percentages in the high 60’s, and between them have committed one turnover after five games.
No. 2: The Suns Defense is Way Better than Expected
The Suns’ have never been known as a defensive team. The last time they were anywhere near a league leader is when Raja Bell, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, and Kurt Thomas were starters back in 2005. Today, the Suns lead the league in points allowed at only 97.8 per game. They’re also first in assists allowed (18.4) by a wide margin, and 2nd in opponent 3-point percentage (27.7%).
They finally have the personnel to do this. CP3 was has been on the NBA all-defensive team nine times. Mikal Bridges is another known quantity as a defensive stud. Crowder was recruited as a 3-and-D swing forward who plays great team defense when there’s a capable big behind him. Jevon Carter was DPOY in college. Ayton has come a long way both on the perimeter and interior, and limits second chance points with his rebounding. Cam Johnson is proving to be a long defender who (unsurprisingly as a James Jones guy) has worked hard on multiple aspects of his game. While the Suns may not be the top defensive team all year, it’s fair to expect that they can finish well into the top half of the league.
No. 3: Cameron Payne has Played Very Well at Back-Up PG
Cameron Payne was something of a reclamation project going into the bubble. He had played previously for Monty Williams as a first-round draft pick, but various bad habits had caused him to wash out of the league. When Phoenix brought him on for the bubble in Orlando, most fans responded with, “Who?” He played well there, but it was a small sample of games, and the question remained: could he fill the very important role of back up to CP3, who has an injury history and is 35 years old?
So far this season, the answer is an emphatic, <Marv Albert voice> “YES!” He’s passing the eye test easily. But the advanced stats tell a similar story. He’s third on the team in Win Shares per 48 minutes and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). He’s averaging 4.4 APG with an excellent A/TO ratio of 5.5:1. He’s shooting 52.6% from the field, 50% from three, and averaging 9.8 PPG in 19.5 minutes. He’s a long, quick, and willing defender. The result has been that the Suns’ bench mob has been a big part of their 4-1 start. It’s fair to say that there’s only one way the Suns might have done better in choosing their back up PG: Tyrese Halliburton has been one of Sacramento’s best players to start the season.
No. 4: The Suns’ Still need help at Power Forward
Jae Crowder has been inconsistent through five games, and he’s not a true power forward. As good as Cam Johnson has been, he’s not a pure power forward either and is averaging only 2.5 RPG. Between the two, they post a rebounding rate below 10 (that’s Hedo Turkoglu territory). Jalen Smith is injured and was mostly ineffective in the few minutes he saw, which were mostly at center anyway. Dario Saric is mostly slated to play back-up center. Frank Kaminsky is an 11-12th man on most teams. Damian Jones is perhaps the worst basketball player I have ever seen. As a result, Zion Williamson abused the Phoenix front court for 20 points and 68% shooting in limited minutes. It’s also part of why Phoenix is next to last in the league in free throw attempts per game.
No. 5: The Suns Don’t Need CP3 and Booker Scoring to Win
So far most of the teams playing the Suns have decided that their defensive strategy is to stop CP3 and Booker from scoring, while daring the likes of Bridges and Johnson to beat them. To which Mikal and Cam have said, “Okay.” We’ve seen opposing coaches use a lot of doubling, trapping, and collapsing defenses focused on Paul and Booker. CP3 has responded well with 9.2 assists per game and an A/TO ratio of 4.6:1. Booker, however, is having his worst season statistically since his rookie year as defenses collapse on him, and the offensive focus shifts away from him now that he has other team mates who can score efficiently.
Team ball movement in response to these defensive strategies has been good: The Suns are 7th in the league in percentage of field goals that are assisted, and 3rd in team assist to turnover ratio. They’re 4-1 to start the season against good teams, despite CP3 having the lowest scoring year of his career, and Booker’s lowest since he was a rookie. The Suns haven’t had this many offensive weapons since the 2004-2005 season.