Now that the NBA’s trade deadline has come and gone, are the Suns in better or worse shape for their playoff run?
To recap, the Suns made no moves yesterday after having quietly acquired Torrey Craig last week on the fringes of Bucks deal. They decided that the best Suns team in more than a decade, second-best in the West and 4th best in the whole NBA is probably good.
“We’re good over here,” Devin Booker said on a media Zoom the other day regarding the trade deadline.
This is the same Devin Booker who openly wanted improved talent around him for five years — not in a negative way, but in any team-encouraging and self-aware way — while never, ever wavering on his love for the city of Phoenix and his desire to build a contender around him.
Now, thanks to James Jones and his wingmen Jeff Bower and Trevor Bukstein, Booker has a Hall of Fame point god, a pair of uber-talented two-way stars and a gritty playoff veteran in his starting lineup. And his bench rotation is sometimes even better, carrying Booker’s team to several wins this season with huge runs. The Suns legitimately have 14 players who have proven they can help wins games.
“We’re a team full of hoopers,” Booker said after one of those recent wins.
But make no mistake: this is Booker’s team. And for the first time in his career, he’s on a winner — 38-14 over their last 52 games! So, it’s no small thing to hear Booker shake off the trade deadline.
The Suns are no sure thing. The West is a juggernaut as always, with all of the Jazz, Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets likely holding an advantage over the Suns on paper in a seven-game series.
They don’t have any holes in their lineup, but could they have used a better third-center option than Frank Kaminsky? Sure. Could they use a 20-point scorer off the bench? Surely.
But every NBA team has a hole somewhere, and in the reality of the real world the Suns have fewer gaping holes than just about any team in the league. They have a top-ten offense and top-ten defense, and the league’s third best net scoring rating. They also have the best record in the league against winning teams.
The Suns are not a lock for the Finals in the way the 1993 Suns were. They are not favored for at least the Conference Finals like the 2007 Suns were.
The Suns are one of about eight teams with a chance to win the championship, albeit with the lowest odds of the group.
Until the trade deadline, the same Suns team clocked in at a 5 percent chance to win the whole thing. Today, that’s down to 4 percent. Why? Mostly because of what the Nuggets did, picking up Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee in trades.
Yet the Suns are still right there, and they are a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs. There are no juggernauts out there this year. No Warriors of recent years. No Spurs to foil the Suns plans. No MJ and his Bulls. Anyone can make the Finals if they play near-perfect basketball when the time is right.
How far the Suns go in the postseason won’t be about who they did or didn’t get at the trade deadline. It won’t be about whether they picked up a new bench performer or third string center. And it won’t be about whether Deandre Ayton’s catching mitts get stickier.
The Suns will go as far as Devin Booker and Chris Paul take them.
Yes they’re 30-14 this season, but so far only 11-11 in “clutch” games where the score is within five points in the last five minutes of the game. Four of the Suns top six players in terms of minutes per game (Booker, Ayton, Bridges, Johnson) have zero playoff experience, let alone experience in meaningful end-of-season games.
It’s Booker and Paul who need to learn to carry the Suns to wins in tight games. Paul is one of the better clutch players in NBA history, but can’t do it alone. Booker has a half-dozen game winners on his resume, including one this year over the Mavericks in Dallas, but he’s not consistently good in the clutch yet.
This year, Booker is shooting just 30% in clutch situations. In fact, the whole team has been suspect on offense in the clutch, with only Chris Paul making better than 40% of their shots on volume chances (Ayton and Payne attempt less than one shot per clutch game).
The keys to the second half of the season, and to the Suns playoff chances are how the Suns fare in clutch games from here on out, and that’s on the guys who take 80 percent of the clutch shots.
Booker, Paul, Ayton, Crowder and Bridges are the key, with Paul and Booker jimmying the lock. Let’s see if they can make it click often enough to have a season for the ages.