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Understanding the Elfrid Payton disdain

The Suns’ third-string point guard has been a topic of negative conversations. But why?

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

When you analyze the performance of the Phoenix Suns through 32 games thus far this season, there aren’t many topics that frustrate the fanbase or areas of improvement for the team. Sure, a Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors has stirred up the naysayers and ignited the negativity. Outside of the disappointing holiday showing, however, the team is on track to make another deep playoff run.

If you are a follower of Suns’ Twitter (and God help you if you are), you’ll find that – for the most part – it’s the happiest Phoenix followers have been…ever. Gone are the days of debating about Deandre Ayton’s aggressiveness at the cylinder or Devin Booker’s attitude. You’re not seeing back-and-forth crushing Josh Jackson or wondering where T.J. Warren is (those were the fun days…NOT. And yes, that is a Wayne’s World reference).

With the team performing at such a high level consistently, coupled with productive minutes up and down the roster, it’s hard to find any subject that sparks negative conversations.

Until Elfrid Payton steps on the floor.

When he takes the hardwood, the switchboards light up. The eyes are upon him and his every move is subject of debate. Our expectations are clearly extremely high for Payton, for when he underperforms, the Tweets come flying.

And then there is this gem...

Why is there so much frustration with the Payton minutes? What is instigating such disdain for the guard from Louisiana University? Why can’t we ever be truly happy with anything ever?

Let’s look at some clips, analyze some stats, and delve into the human psyche to understand why.

Adjusting to His New Role

Elfrid Payton, who is currently slotted as the third-string point guard for the Phoenix Suns, hasn’t seen an abundance of minutes in 2021-22. He has been a fail safe for the Suns, seeing consistent time only when players are injured and doing his best to bridge the gap until they are once again available to play.

Compared to the players whose minutes he is replacing, yes, he is a drastic drop off.

He has played a total of 196 minutes in 16 games this season for the Suns, which averages out to 12.3 minutes each time we see him. He has received the majority of his playing time when Cameron Payne was out for five games earlier in the season and with Devin Booker out for seven games recently. 12 of his 16 appearances have occurred in the fail safe role.

What I see from Payton when he is inserted into games is someone who lacks the reps and confidence in his new role. It doesn’t help when you instantly turn the ball over either, like he did against the Charlotte Hornets recently.

You are sure to set off the Twittersphere when you do things like this. Like a burp at the beginning of a blind date, it’s a bad first impression.

What has hurt the Payton perception is the manner in which he operates. At times he seems disheveled and out of sync. He makes plays that are questionable and leave us scratching our heads in wonderment. He doesn’t seem to have the court awareness necessary to run a team as he passes the ball to the opposition, almost to their own surprise.

It is a reoccurring theme for EP. He is a natural driver to the rim, seeing as his career three-point percentage is 28.8%. He relies on penetrating and popping, drawing the defense towards him in an effort to free up his teammates.

A challenge we’ve seen is his execution simply doing what he is known to do. Driving to the basket.

It is clear that he is adjusting to his teammates’ spacing. He is attacking the rim but being cut off, not understanding where his fellow Suns are on the court, and ultimately throwing the ball away.

Perhaps his fellow bench mates need to adjust to him as well. They are used to Cameron Payne, a player who aggressively drives to the rim in an effort to finish rather than look for cutters or slashers. Payton may be expecting to see players attempting to make themselves available, but the Payne-conditioned second unit is used to watching him do all the work.

It is understandable when you look holistically at his career. In the 466 games Payton has appeared in during his 8 years, 394 have come as a starter (85%). He is a player who is used to consistent reps. The role that he is filling for the Suns is foreign to him and he is still in the process of adjusting to it.

Unfulfilled Statistical Expectations

When you view Payton’s performances above, you see that his lack of execution and subsequent lack of confidence is an area of opportunity for EP. The turnovers that occur typically are punctuated by the opposition scoring, which further accentuates the frustration felt by the Phoenix faithful.

It trickles down into the statistics as well.

Elfrid Payton is averaging 1.3 turnovers per game. Horrible? Not when you initially read the stat and compare it to Cameron Payne’s 2.0 turnovers or Devin Booker’s 2.7. When you put it against his minutes played, however, and see it through the lens of the per-36 metric, it stings a bit harder.

EP averages 3.9 turnovers per-36, which is highest on the Suns (outside of Chandler Hutchison’s 7.7…but that dude has only played 14 minutes this season and has 3 turnovers, so we won’t count that stat). The proof is in the statistical pudding, if you will, as that is his highest turnovers per-36 in his career.

Last season Payton averaged 1.6 turnovers in 23.6 minutes played with the New York Knicks, all as a starter mind you. That equates to 2.5 turnovers per-36, which was a career low for EP.

So not only is Payton turning the ball over in a detrimental fashion, he is doing so at a rate that is in direct juxtaposition from what he has done his entire career. The expectation we had of Elfrid Payton when he was acquired this past offseason – a player who provides solid defense and doesn’t turn the ball over – has not come to fruition.

When expectations are not met, frustration brews. Remember the days standing in line, whether it be at the bank or the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland? Now remember those days without your phone to fill the dead time? If no one set the expectation, done so at the bank by the teller acknowledging your wait and at Disneyland with wait time signage, the wait felt like forever. And you’d get pissed.

We like our expectations being met. Elfrid Payton has not done so thus far this year.

The Human Element

There are no statistics or video breakdowns for what, in my opinion, is the root cause for all of the anti-Payton sentiment. ‘Tis the nature of humans online.

If social media has taught us anything, it is that people use their voice to complain. I’m not here to delve too far into the sociopolitical aspects of online behavior – this is a basketball blog, after all – but it is noticeable how negative social media platforms can be. Have any of you used the NextDoor app?

Twitter can be a negative cesspool of degenerate observers hiding behind their keyboards and 280 characters. If you are one of the lucky individuals who avoid the platform, I’m happy for you. I primarily am on the site for promotional purposes relative to the Suns JAM Session Podcast. It’s also a place to go to see what others think of the Suns. Spend too much time on the app, however, and you’ll be sucked into a toilet bowl of conversations and observations that, at the end of the day, do not matter.

The anti-EP narrative is familiar to Knicks fans, who struggled with having him as their starting point guard last season despite making the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. Sure, they were winning games with Payton, but they wanted more offense and Derrick Rose.

So game after game they feigned, longing for the minutes in which Payton was walking towards the bench.

It’s interesting how, less than a year later, some Knicks fans have changed their tune. Although Payton isn’t the most exciting offensive player, his defensive affinity is missed in New York as they now sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference with a 15-18 record and a 110.8 defensive rating (22nd in the league).

Last season the Knicks finished the season with a 108.2 defensive rating (3rd in the NBA).

Be thankful he’s our third-string point guard and we’re not putting together Tweets like the one above, I say.

Trust me, I get it. I too find myself defaulting to the 2017 version of John Voita and allowing the play of Elfrid Payton to bother me. Every time he has someone wide open on a pick-and-roll and he looks the other way. Every time he becomes a one-man show and negates his teammates en route to bricking a lay up against three defenders. Trust me, I see it too.

Then I remember one simple fact. He is the backup to the backup.

When your third-string point guard is the subject of such bickering, you know your team is playing well. Rewind the tape to 2018 and Elfrid was the starting point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Talk about troubling times.

Again, he is adjusting to his new role, a role he accepted. He wanted to be a part of a winner and a winner the Suns are. He’ll adjust and we’ll adjust with him.

Relative to other third-string PG’s in the league, I think we’re doing okay.

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