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Simmons on Suns: “I think they’re the team to watch.”

While Suns fans struggle team identity, Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo think the team is among NBA elite.

Phoenix Suns v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The past couple of days on Suns social media has been a desolate landscape that mirrors the eastern front of the French countryside circa 1943. Landmines are everywhere. Following a disappointing road trip in which the Suns went 1-2, including losses to the Pistons and Wizards, the debates have raged as to what’s wrong the Suns.

Many are targeting Deandre Ayton’s lackluster performance in the 21-point loss to Washington. Others question the first team unit and their ability to mesh. Why in the name of Booker’s buffalo wings aren’t we 11-0?!

Breathe. Take a step back.

You put your left foot in...put your left foot out...

For those who regularly listen to The Bill Simmons Podcast, the signature podcast of The Ringer podcast network, you know that he isn’t always a fan of the way the Suns conduct their business. Simmons has dropped Robert Sarver’s name plenty when referencing worst run teams in the league, questions moves like the Chris Paul trade, and once was so pissed following a Team USA loss in the FIBA World Cup, he lashed out at Devin Booker. (Note: I back Simmons for the Booker observation. Playing international ball has done nothing but wonders for the development of young careers.)

Whether you love him or hate him, when Bill Simmons talks basketball, it is worth a listen.

His Book of Basketball 2.0 podcasts are a collection of historical observations that will stand the test of time, much akin to his printed Book of Basketball. His podcast receives millions of monthly downloads, and personally I don’t think I’ve missed one in 4 years. His opinion on the game is respected by some and despised by others, but it is absorbed by the masses.

Aggregators be aggregatin’ and that’s what I’m here to do today. Given the fact that the Suns game vs. Atlanta was cancelled tonight, as has the Warriors game on Friday, it’s a good opportunity to step back from it all for a minute. Look big picture.

Perhaps we’re too close to the forest. We can’t see the trees. We’re focusing on the imperfections of individual leaves rather than appreciating that our forest is growing.

On the January 12, 2021 episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, “LeBron’s MVP Run, LaMelo’s Leap, Steph’s F.U. Tour, and the NBA’s COVID Issues”, he and his guest Ryen Russillo discussed the state of affairs in the NBA. Among topics of discussion were teams that could challenge the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, seeing as they are considered the crème de la crème.

It was a good conversation about multiple teams in the conference and reminds us how the national peeps see our the Suns. We need that refresher. Did you see Ayton lay the ball in?!

...put your left foot in and shake it all about...

Although both agreed that the Los Angeles Clippers were still the “safest choice” to garner the moniker of second best in the west, both agreed that the Phoenix Suns were worthy of consideration. It is the first time since the conception of The Ringer that the Suns were seen in such a light. That sparked a 6-minute conversation of national pundit observations of your Phoenix Suns.

It was a convo I recommend lending your ears to, but worry not! I have some highlights for those who prefer to lend your eyes:

Chris Paul

Said Simmons:

“I feel more comfortable with the Suns, if I had to pick between those two teams [referencing the Clippers]. I love admitting when I’m wrong cause I’m wrong a lot. I was definitely wrong on the Chris Paul trade. I thought it was a panic trade, I didn’t think they needed to give up a first round pick...what he’s done in transforming that team, it’s not just about ‘oh, now they’ve got a real point guard running the show’; he’s completely changed how they play. They play [eff-bombing] slow.

You see their last in pace out of anyone in the league? He wants them to be a half court team. And they’re a really good half court team. They get good shots.”

Although the Suns have a quality point guard for the first time since Steve Nash wore a jersey in Phoenix, the game they play is much different. The ‘Seven-Seconds-or-Less’ Suns would do everything in their power to run you off the court. That squad banked on their conditioning, offensive attack, and ability to outlast you on the offensive end to win games. The opposition would be panting and gasping with their hands on their knees at the end of games.

Not these Suns.

As Simmons referenced, the team is last in the league in pace (96.5). The Suns are a team that is methodical in its execution. This is the Chris Paul impact. They rely on ball movement, screening, and cutting to create defensive mismatches and open shooting windows. And they like to run the offense from the half court.

The team is 9th in the league with 25.9 assists-per-game and 11th in 3PA. Transition three’s are a thing of the 2000’s; 86.3% of all made threes come off an assist vs. translation spot ups. Collapse the D, find the open shooter. It’s been working.

Simmons added:

“[Chris Paul] loves this. he’s setting people up, he’s having a great time. And they’re winning.”

Mikal Bridges & Cam Johnson

Dave King said it last week and it rings true, “The Suns go as Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson go”. When those two players have impactful games, the team walks away with a win in their back pocket and a smile on their face. And some mop water.

The Phoenix faithful know the impact of Mikal Bridges. His 34-point performance against the Indiana Pacers fortified a year-and-a-half long love affair Suns’ fans have had with the versatile forward. We regularly do our best to ensure his name is trending on Twitter.

His stock is continually rising and many of us have already made our purchases. I don’t know if it’s ‘Mikal Island’ or ‘Bridges Beach’, but we all have some real estate there. We haven’t had the “who gets the max, Ayton or Bridges” conversation yet...but you know it’s coming.

It appears that nationally Bridges is beginning to make waves as well. The casual fan may be puzzled as to why some long-armed bandit from Villanova is disrupting their best player’s game, but those who pay attention know who he is. Simmons noted:

“The stats don’t really show how good it’s seems like Bridges is in these games. I watch his games and I’m like ‘is Bridges averaging 25 a game?’ and and he’s averaging like 12. I think he’s been really good.”

I feel like we all have felt this way this season. Mikal affects the game more than just the box score; he has those hidden stats that are hard to come by. Per B-Ball Index, he spends 7.4% of his time guarding All-Star players (96%tile in the league) and 12.3% of his time guarding All-NBA players (96%tile). His passing lane defense is in the 92%tile. His steals-per-75-possessions is 2.5, good for the 91%tile.

And that’s just his defense.

Russillo added:

“Mikal Bridges is the second leading scorer on this team. Bridges is a completely different guy now.”

It might be early in the season, but his scoring is up 7 points a game, his 3PT% is up from 36.1% last year to 45.3% this year, and his eFG% is at 63.3%. He earned the minutes and now he is taking advantage of them in an impactful way.

He’s guarding the toughest guy every night and still finding the energy to be an effective offensive force. How? Because of the Suns’ pace of play. They slow things down just enough on offense to allow their team to avoid becoming gassed. You can be a defensive enforcer consistently if you’re not tired.

Then there is that Cam Johnson guy. You know, the draft pick that CBSSports gave a D grade, Bleacher Report gave an D+, and Sporting News gave an F.

It felt good to hear Russillo say the following, one of the first national guys I recall uttering these words:

“Cam Johnson, who we all laughed about that draft night transaction deal, he can shoot and he’s real guy in the rotation.”

The second-year player is averaging 12.4 points off of the bench and hitting 38.4% of his threes. I think we all know room for improvement exists with his shooting given the flashes he’s provided us in the past.

Regardless of his efficiency, Johnson continues to grow. He just played his 68th professional game and he is already displaying an affinity to score, the ability to defend, and some savage hair.

Deandre Ayton

Here is where the divisiveness begins. When it comes to the Ayton argument, everybody is wrong and everybody is right. It’s like trying to figure out who the protagonist and antagonist in on Netflix’s Cobra Kai. Is it Migayi-do? Or Eagle Fang? It certainly can’t be Kreese’s version of Cobra Kai, can it?! I’m so confused.

What we can do is report what we see, understand that the kid is young (120 games played), and know that his growth is occurring on a winning team. Some take this information and propose trading for Marvin Bagley and Richaun Holmes, others (like myself) are in the ‘wait and see’ camp.

There is clear room for improvement. Although his defense has vastly improved and continues to do so, his involvement on offense is far from polished. Russillo noted his observations on the podcast”

“I still feel like there’s an Ayton part here, cause his numbers are bad for what we thought they would be with him. He’s rebounding, but he’s only 12 points a game.”

“He needs to do a better job of catching. Paul and him need to figure out, like, “hey, if you’re gonna post and I’m gonna give you these post touches, I need to trust that you’re gonna catch this and that you’re gonna get the right seal.’”

“I’m not proclaiming to look at every single touch that Ayton’s had all season, but I’d like to see that a little cleaner. Because if it is and Paul trusts you a little more, it adds another element.” do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around...

I’ve stated it multiple time throughout Ayton’s young career: the entry passes need to be better. That being said, he has been fumbling the ball this year. Is it nervousness playing with a Hall-of-Fame point guard? Is it uncertainty as he is already thinking of his next move? Or is it plain and simple: he lacks the athleticism to catch a ball thrown to him?

My instinct tells me it is a combination of the first two; he wants to establish himself but the game hasn’t slowed down in his eyes yet. He’s getting ahead of himself. When the ball comes into the post, most notably on a bounce pass, he’s thinking about what he should do next and isn’t focusing on the ball.

In short, he’s Chicago Bears WR legend Javon Wims.

Smith vs. Haliburton

It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, high fives and ass kisses for the Suns. James Jones’ offseason decision to choose Jalen Smith over Tyrese Haliburton is a blemish to both Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo. I’m sure plenty of us can relate.

After Simmons inquired as to what the bummer about the Suns is, he responded:

“They took Jalen Smith and not Haliburton. He’d be [eff-bombing] perfect. He can play with everybody. He’d perfect for them.”

In the defense of the Jalen Smith pick, you still really don’t know what you have. He has played in just 2 games this season. He has missed the last 9 with a combination of health and safety protocols and an ankle sprain. When healthy, he is a depth piece that can shoot and rebound.

Yes, Haliburton has looked solid in Sacramento. The rookie is averaging 28.6 minutes and scoring 12.1 points. He is adding 5.3 assist. Quality? For sure. Do we as Suns fans wish we had him? I’m sure most do.

But don’t discredit that man whose minutes he’d be taking. Cameron Payne has been more than a Bubble feel-good story; he has been a quality contributor. The Suns second team unit (#SunsSuperSecondSquad) has been the backbone of the team thus far this year.

  • Suns Starters: -0.4 (15th in the league)
  • Suns Bench: +/-: +4.1 (best in the league)

Payne leads that unit. He only gets 17.8 minutes per game, but his per-36 numbers are 15.5 points and 8.8 assists. Oh, and he’s 42.9% from deep. So yes, Haliburton would be nice, but we’re getting the production we need from a guy he is getting paid $1.98M (Haliburton is owed $17.8M over the next 4).

Know that Bill Simmons loved Tyrese Haliburton coming into this years draft. He would’ve given his new dog Murph to have him on his beloved Celtics. He added:

“I actually think if they had taken him, I would said comfortably they would be my pick for the Western Finals.”

Oh well. We didn’t.

A Missing Piece?

The trade deadline is March 25. Really? Yes, really. We are just over two months away from the clock being up on the accessibility to additions. Truthfully, as I have been watching this team and learning about this roster, executing a trade has barely crossed my mind.

Okay, watching Aaron Gordon drop 24 and 11 on Cleveland, albeit the Cavs, made we think of the days when I wrote about trading for Gordon on my old blog.

Bill Simmons feels a trade is the one thing Phoenix is missing:

“They feel like a playoff team to me and one of the things I think has to be mentioned is there’s a trade to be made with the roster they have to add one more piece. I think they can take the Saric contract, two other things, and maybe get somebody in the $15-$20M range who could be a real asset.”

Deploy the ESPN Trade Finder fanatics!

One thing you have to give James Jones credit for is the way he constructed this roster, financially speaking. Chris Paul and Devin Booker make it top heavy, but the middle/bottom is filled with contracts that are tradeable and desirable to others teams. Saric is a $9M salary owed for two more years outside of 2020-21. You can couple that with another salary and pick, and maybe he’s right?

I’ll let the Bright Side faithful dissect those possibilities in the chat below, and I look forward to see how eager you are to upgrade Saric’s services. I’m in the “keep ‘em” camp.

Final Evaluation

Ayton sucks. We can’t get to the rim. Booker is not Booker. Our first team unit is out of sorts. Monty’s rotations don’t make sense. Why is Damian Jones in?! Saric can’t jump. Another turnover?

We’ve heard it all in the past couple of days following their loss to Washington. I’ll give you this Suns fans: you care. You know your team. Your know the strengths and weaknesses. You analyze the game and have your opinions.

What I think we lack as a fanbase (and I’m sure this is true of every fanbase) is the ability to avoid the extremes. It’s 11 games into the season. This team has 7 new players on it. If this was year two of the Chris Paul Era with minimal offseason turmoil, I’d expect and avalanche of negativity...if they were sub .500.

Simmons says what we need to hear. What I ask is you hear him:

“They’re 7-4. Paul hasn’t shot that well...but they’re not getting a great Booker season yet either. He hasn’t been bad but he hasn’t had, like, the hot streak. One of the things I like about them is they’re 7-4 but their best two guys I don’t feel like have even completely clicked yet.”

“What they do have: they know who their best players are. The rotation makes sense. They have shooting. They have 3-and-D guys. and they play a style that I think works.”

Again, love Simmons or hate him, he knows basketball. He wrote a book nearly 700 pages about the sport. When he shares fun anecdotal parent corners, I laugh. When he predicts NFL outcomes on Million Dollar picks, I lose money. When he talks basketball, I listen.

Heck, even Ryen Russillo is on board! The guy who lit a fuse underneath the Suns fanbase bomb last November by stating, “worst-kept secret in the league” is that Devin Booker wanted out of Phoenix. He’s in on us.

Simmons says what many of us are forgetting. ‘Forest for the trees’, right? This team hasn’t begun to display their best version. They haven’t gelled, meshed, or fused. They’re learning to play together and still garnering results.

Did they lose a couple of bad games to the Pistons and Wizards? Yeah. The Clippers lost by 51 to Dallas. The 76ers lost by 24 to the Cavaliers. The Nets lost to the Thunder by 13. It happens.

Simmons says what all are thinking, even if you’re jaded by the fact Ayton didn’t dunk or Booker missed a free throw:

“I love the Suns. I think they’re the team to watch”

...and that’s what it’s all about!

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