Two games into the 2021 NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns appeared on their way to a classic sports storybook season -- think the 1969 New York Mets, the 1999 St. Louis Rams, or the 2014 San Antonio Spurs. Following a ten-year playoff drought and a rocky 8-8 start, the team ripped off a 43-13 stretch to close the season and proceeded to capitalize on a depleted Western Conference in the playoffs. The franchise was this close to having the Larry O'B' in its grasp...until it didn't. We all know how the tale of the 2020-21 Phoenix Suns ended. Now the question is: will July 8, 2021 end up being the zenith of this group's journey?
That seems to be the general consensus. Bovada has set the over/under at 51.5 wins, and gives the Suns a one-in-eight chance (+700 odds) of advancing back to the Finals. Only 1 out of the 19 experts paneled on ESPN's NBA forecast predicted them to repeat as winners of the Western Conference. Regression is surely coming. What can the Phoenix Suns count on replicating from the magical 2020-21 campaign?
Category 1: Fool's gold
In 2020-21, only 28 full-time starters in the NBA missed 5 games or fewer over the course of the season (so at least 67 games played). Remarkably, four of those were members of the Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges (72 of 72), Chris Paul (70 of 72), Deandre Ayton (69 of 72), Devin Booker (67 of 72). The team enjoyed a remarkable run of good health -- which played a major factor in the pristine record. Even with the track recork of durability for Ayton and Bridges, and Chris Paul's newfound vegan lifestyle, anticipating a similar trend in 2021-22 is foolish.
Efficiency on putbacks:
Last year, Phoenix averaged 1.27 points per play on putbacks, per Cleaning the Glass -- which led the league by a large margin (for context, the league average was 1.13). Most of this was on the back of Ayton, who shot 66.7% on second chance opportunities in 2020-21. The 2018 number-one pick is a massive presence inside. He does a phenomenal job of carving out space down low and using his soft hands to get easy tip-ins and layups.
At the same time, this figure far outpaces his career mark of 63.5% from 2018-19 through 2019-20 -- we can expect a bit of a dip. As can we with Bridges, Booker, and Jae Crowder, who each finished in the 97th percentile or higher in putback efficiency last year. Bank on a repeat performance at your own peril.
The bench defense:
Monty Williams' squad mostly used three different starting lineups last year: the main one that we saw in the playoffs (Paul/Booker/Bridges/Crowder/Ayton), and two other interludes -- one with Cameron Johnson for Crowder, and one with Frank Kaminsky (I know right?) for Crowder. There were nearly no drop-off (+6.6 Net Rating in these three lineups versus +6.0 Net Rating in all other lineups) when the reserves got mixed in. In addition to staggering Paul and Booker, much of this can be attributed to the bench defense. With Dario Saric on the floor, the Suns had a 108.2 Defensive Rating -- which would have ranked 3rd over the full season.
Dario Saric: legitimate defensive anchor? He fit right into the Phoenix ethos of ruggedness, steady communication, and staying positional solid. But he's not much of a deterrent, thanks to a subpar wingspan (6'11") for a center. Much of the success with him on the court was due to lousy opponent 3-point shooting, at 33.3%. It's all for naught, now, however. Time will tell if injecting JaVale McGee — nearly a polar opposite to "the Homie" — will continue this trend of stingy bench defense.
Category 2: Mostly legit
Dead-last in rim frequency. Bottom-five in free-throw. A middling three-point attempt rate. Suffice to say, the Phoenix Suns' shot profile wasn't exactly what you label "analytical-friendly." But Chris Paul teams have a habit of beating the math.
How did the Suns get this done in 2020-21? Through absurd shooting from the mid-range. At age 36, Chris Paul continues to churn out historic seasons in this realm -- his "money zone." Just ask Mike Malone and the Denver Nuggets.
Interestingly enough, Phoenix's shooting actually improved when CP3's compadre Devin Booker ran the show. This is bound to fall off this upcoming year, at least slightly. Per pbpstats.com, Devin Booker shot 4 points higher (36.8% versus 32.7%) on 3s with Paul on the bench. That said, backup Cameron Payne added a rim pressure dimension — a needed dose of unpredictability to the monotonous Phoenix mid-range attack — that Chris Paul is simply incapable of at this stage. This sort of downhill verve undoubtedly helped the bench units generate juicer looks.
Last season, Phoenix was a very good defensive team (111.5 Defensive Rating ranked 6th in the NBA) despite not really standing out in any one specific area. The main thing you can point to is 3-point defense -- allowing the seven-fewest threes in the league. I'm a believer that this is real. Monty Williams has instilled a disciplined mindset in this group, with attention to detail.
Just look at three different Suns — Johnson, Jevon Carter, and Langston Galloway — deny the ball by top-locking in just one possession. The scheme leans more towards staying home on shooters instead of crashing the paint. Further, the team fouled a 3-pointer shooter on just 18 occasions in 2020-21, which was the lowest in the association.
Areas of improvement
Several aspects from the Suns' performance last season are poised to regress heading into 2021-22 -- some in more extreme degrees than others. Add in the ages of Paul and Crowder, the swap of McGee for Saric, and Cameron Payne no longer being in a contract year, and its makes sense to view 2020-21 as the peak of this team.
Now it's up to the two youngest players on the roster (aside from Jalen Smith) to elevate their games even further. Devin Booker — a testament to where a mastery of the fundamentals can get you — is already a phenomenal offensive player. But how does he reach that rarified air of superstardom? For one, Booker's shooting stroke belies his actual proficiency from deep -- he's shot just 34.0% on nearly 1,200 three-point attempts over the last 3 seasons.
But the area I want to see more strides is in the playmaking department. After an up-and-down 2019-20 where Booker at times didn't appear to fully trust his teammates, he continued to make progress in his second year under Monty Williams' tutelage -- which culminated in a near spotless playoff debut against the Lakers.
Booker picked apart the aggressive Lakers' defense, and was eager to get off the ball early when he had to. It was a true masterpiece of a performance in a 99-90 victory.
However, this didn't persist over the entirety of the playoffs. There were too many moments (particularly in the Finals) where he resorted to hero-ball. Let's see what Booker has in store for an encore in 2021-22 following his maiden playoff voyage and Olympic gold medal.
And as for Deandre Ayton, I'm less bullish. The Suns pigeon-holed him into a minuscule role upon the arrival of Chris Paul (and thus when they became serious). In this modern NBA, nearly all non-elite big men are replaceable. That's just the reality, and I'm not convinced Ayton is that guy. While he was good as post-up threat in his 2018-19 rookie campaign (1.03 points per possession, 75th percentile), his skills have atrophied since. The thing that sticks out the contact avoidance. Among the 55 players with at least 500 post-ups since 2014, Ayton ranks 52nd in free-throw frequency on these plays (ahead of only Nikola Vucevic, Khris Middleton, and Robin Lopez).
Ayton has improved as a decision-maker, but he'll still have puzzling moments at times -- which indicates to me that his feel is a step-slow. Phoenix is going to have to max him one way or another, which is why I'm of the belief that they should have looked to move him this offseason (I know, this would never happen in practice). Perhaps I'm wrong and the team will feature him more this season as Chris Paul continues to ride deeper into the twilight of his career.
So where do the Suns stand heading into 2021-22? I'd expect them to remain a homecourt advantage team, but I don't see them as immune to sinking into the play-in. As for the playoffs, are we calling this group a regular season paper tiger (similar to the Utah Jazz) if Anthony Davis never injures his groin in Game 4? This can all change of course, if the organization makes another move to bolster the roster. A four/five swing piece like Thaddeus Young or Larry Nance Jr. comes to mind. The window is right now, and I can't wait to see how the Phoenix Suns continue to evolve and stave off regression.