Phoenix Suns fans saw this last year: excellent point guard play, hot start, top-10 offense and defense, lots of “they’re legit” national takes. So why is this year different?
Should we believe in these Suns (6-2, best record in West), or should we sit back and wait and see more of the season unfold before puffing our chests out?
To be fair, there are a LOT of similarities between the two iterations of Monty-ball.
Last year’s Suns team had excellent point guard play from new acquisition Ricky Rubio, finally letting Devin Booker be his best self as a shooting guard playmaker who didn’t have to do ALL the playmaking anymore. They had solid-to-great contributions on both ends from the center position, lots of help from tertiary players like Dario Saric and Mikal Bridges.
So what happened to last year’s Suns? How did they go from a 7-4 start to an 8-game losing streak just a month later?
Injuries hit the Suns hard, on top of Ayton’s 25-game suspension. Just when the Suns hit 7-4 with a 128-112 drubbing of the Hawks, down went the veterans Aron Baynes (hip) and Ricky Rubio (back). Suddenly it’s Frank Kaminsky and Elie Okobo in their place.
From there on, Rubio and Baynes were hobbling in and out of the lineup, all while Ayton was still serving his suspension, as the Suns lost 16 of their next 20. Even Booker played through injury (wrist) in the middle of that eight-game losing streak. Remember the big man starters were Frank and Dario, with Cheick Diallo playing a bunch, for most of that time? At one point in the season, the Suns had to activate Jared Harper and Tariq Owens just to make sure they had enough bodies on the active roster.
Obviously, this bad luck could happen again. Chris Paul is 35 now. He could start hobbling and missing time at any point. It’s almost inevitable. Yet this time it’s Cameron Payne with 10 assists in 16 minutes on Wednesday night backing the starter, not Elie Okobo. The Suns will be in better shape if there’s some in-and-out with CP3.
What if Booker misses time? Sure, it’s a huge dropoff behind him, but this time at the least the Suns have shooters off the bench who can play solid defense in Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore and Jevon Carter. In a pinch, and as long as Paul and Ayton are around to manage the scoring, the Suns could hang. For a bit.
Another danger is a rash of time missed by Deandre Ayton and/or Dario Saric. Behind them, you’re stuck with Frank and Damian Jones (this year’s Cheick). Maybe rookie Jalen Smith can provide some good minutes in a big man role once he gets his legs back under him. But even here, the Suns now use wings at power forward. Last year, Monty didn’t start heavily playing Oubre/Bridges/Cam at power forward until the Bubble. Now, Crowder/Bridges/Cam are regulars there so it’s not so scary if Ayton or Dario miss time.
Obviously, if Ayton, Paul or Booker miss considerable time the Suns ceiling lowers. But I don’t see the Suns losing 16 of 20 this time. The top three players in the whole of the NBA in net rating right now are Suns backups.
Top 10 players by Net Rating, as of tonight. Minimum 4 games played, 15 minutes per game: pic.twitter.com/ipQbWI7Q0r— Xin Varlock (@XinNBA) January 7, 2021
Last year, Devin Booker and Aron Baynes started the year making 50 percent of their threes on a high volume. At their 5-2 apex, they had the league’s third-highest effective field goal percentage (which gives extra credit to threes) and second-best true shooting percentage (extra credit to threes, plus the inclusion of free throws).
But that was ultimately fool’s gold. Aron Baynes just isn’t a 50 percent three point shooter, and neither is Devin Booker. And the Suns didn’t have the shooting depth for anyone to take the reins when their shots stopped falling from deep. Cameron Johnson was a low-volume rookie. Mikal Bridges was a low-volume, indecisive second-year player. Ricky was... Ricky. Kelly Oubre Jr. isn’t a great shooter either. Frank Kaminsky couldn’t hit anything. By Christmas, the Suns had dropped from one of the best shooting teams to being one of the worst.
This 2020-21 Suns team, however, isn’t relying on their shooting for the 5-2 start. Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are all scoring/shooting worse than their career averages so far. The team is only eighth in eFG% and fifth in TS%. Yes, Cameron Payne, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are scorching from three so far, and they WILL regress to the mean a bit, but the other shooters will eventually balance that out. All of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Johnson, Saric, Galloway and E’Twaun Moore are average or better three-point shooters. And even Jae Crowder is just below that average and Cam Payne should approach that level. Heck, Frank and/or Jalen Smith might even hit 35 percent.
The Suns have good shooting depth this year.
Last year, the Suns were seventh on defense at their 5-2 apex. Aron Baynes was anchoring the interior D, and Ricky was anchoring the point D. Booker was trying for the first time in his career. Mikal Bridges was blossoming, though early in the season his minutes were down because he was lost on offense.
But again, when injuries hit, the combo of Frank and Elie was not good on defense. Saric can hold his own, but is not a good fit with Frank next to him on the same floor. Oubre always tried hard, but doesn’t cover peoples’ mistakes even when he wasn’t losing focus on his man. The Suns were not bad on D on the whole, finishing 17th on the year, but weren’t great either.
This year, there is serious defensive depth on this team. Chris Paul — sure he’s a bit slower these days — is a nine-time All-Defense player. Mikal Bridges might make his first All-Defense team this year. Paul’s backup Cam Payne >> Elie Okobo on D by a mile. Booker is so far a man possessed, and they’ve got Carter, Galloway and Moore — all effective defenders — to come off the bench as needed. And then on the back line there’s Deandre Ayton, quickly becoming one of the best defenders in the league among big men.
Helps to add one of the best clutch players in the league in Chris Paul to pair up with Devin Booker, who has nailed half-dozen game winners in his career despite the Suns abysmal win rate. Add in veteran moxie around the lineup and you’ve got a team that’s already closing out close games more often than not, versus last year when they kept coming up short.
Overall the Oklahoma City Thunder were 30-15 in the clutch last year (5th in the league in win percent) while the Suns were 16-21 (19th in the league) per nba.com/stats. The Thunder had the most wins in the clutch.
Every season has highs and lows. These Suns will face tough times at some point this year, either due to injury, COVID issues or simply not playing well for a stretch.
But the depth of this team and the way the pieces fit together is a joy to watch and should have some serious fun as they fight for a top playoff seed.
A year ago, the pesky Suns were considered a ‘maybe if everything goes well’ playoff team.
This year, the talented Suns led by 10-time All-Star Chris Paul are being considered a much stronger team (who should be “piling up wins” as Chris Paul puts it) and fighting for home court in the playoffs just in time for (crossing fingers) fans to return to the stands.