The Phoenix Suns (12-3, with an active 11-game winning streak) might have the same starting lineup as last year’s team that went all the way to the NBA Finals, but the nature of their game is changing in subtle ways this year as they are playing at the league’s second-fastest pace lately.
Pace has zero direct correlation to winning basketball games, of course, but the stat is notable in its unexpectedness. The following are the leaders in pace — number of possessions per game — over each team’s last 11 games:
- Houston Rockets — 0-11 record — 102.27 poss/gm
- Phoenix Suns — 11-0 record — 102.09
- Los Angeles Lakers — 5-6 record — 102.07
A possession ends with a shot or a turnover by either team. Usually, a younger team wants to play at pace to generate easy buckets but they also generate more turnovers, which gives the other team more chances to score too. Back when the Suns were the NBA’s worst team from 2015-19 they were also one of the league leaders in pace.
That changed last year when Chris Paul came to town. Paul is notorious for walking the ball up the court, barely passing mid-court by the maximum 8-second mark, and then methodically calling plays to set up the team for easy scores.
The Suns were 24th in pace last year at 98 possessions per game while being one of the most effective half-court scoring teams (7th in scoring efficiency, overall). According to inpredictable.com, they were mid-pack among NBA teams in time of possession after a made basket or defensive rebound collected, yet were second in the whole league at scoring in those chances (1.19 points per poss). They struggled in areas the bad but athletic teams usually excel. After getting a turnover, they were actually one of the slowest teams (27th in pace) and worst at capitalizing (20th).
All that added up to a very good offense (7th in the NBA in efficiency) that operated at a slow pace. The pace mirrored ‘playoff basketball’ so it’s no wonder the Suns remained successful in the postseason, though they ranked in the bottom half of playoff teams in all scoring categories in the 2021 playoffs (it’s the defense that really carried the Suns to the Finals).
This year is different. Maybe that’s because the Suns staff saw how they struggled on offense when Paul and Booker were schemed against by playoff defenses. We have seen more of Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and newcomer Landry Shamet playmaking in the half-court. And we’ve also seen a special connection on fast breaks between Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges this year that’s helped add a quick shot or two each game.
Whatever the reason, the Suns are playing faster. Everywhere. They’re shooting faster in the half-court and in transition, even while the offensive efficiency has dropped a bit. It’s the defense that is carrying the Suns, ranking 2nd-best in the league during the winning streak.
Over the 11-game winning streak, as mentioned above, they are 2nd overall in pace while only ranking 12th in scoring efficiency. That includes ranking 6th in pace after a made shot by the other team (4th in scoring on those chances), 6th in pace after a defensive rebound (21st in scoring) and 10th in pace after getting a turnover (26th in scoring).
Scoring after turnovers is still a struggle, but overall the team is moving at a pace that Chris Paul teams just don’t do. Over his career, Paul has been known to slow down every team he’s joined. His success is derived from dictating the offense and methodically getting a great shot — 24th in pace, 7th in scoring efficiency last year — so this year is interesting to see during their 11-game winning streak: 2nd in pace, 12th in scoring efficiency.
Let’s see how the rest of the season unfolds. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on.