Thirty-five games is a pretty rock solid sample size. By the time you reach that point, some conclusions about a team should be obvious.
Not the case with our Phoenix Suns.
What started as a whisper a few weeks ago is growing louder by the day in the national community. Are the Phoenix Suns...contenders? Is this not simply a feel good story about a franchise ending a 10-year playoff drought, but rather the beginning of something much greater?
Obviously, nobody knows for sure. But there are “objective”, or at least statistical, benchmarks that we can use to analyze the question. For instance, take this chart from FiveThirtyEight which updates playoff and championship odds daily based on player RAPTOR ratings. According to their model, the Suns have the 8th-best odds at winning a championship (5%). That shouldn’t instill great confidence, but it at least suggests that the Suns demand inclusion in the conversation.
More importantly...there’s something very interesting about that 5% figure. For long-time readers of Zach Lowe, it should elicit the “5 percent rule”. In the words of then-Rockets, now-Sixers GM Daryl Morey:
That brings me to the focus of today. Through some (admittedly arguable) metrics, the Phoenix Suns meet the 5-percent threshold. That’s terrific news for Suns fans. But it also demands a very important attitude shift for the rest of the season:
No more excuses.
Until now, I’ve seen many Suns fans (including myself) approach this season with the attitude of a Golden Retriever. After years of despair, we’re just happy to be included in the mid-season “serious” basketball discussions, rather than running Tankathon simulations to see how many daily spins it would take to have a shot at Cade Cunningham.
But expectations shift fast. And you can’t win a championship without being realistic about the needs of your roster.
For example, let’s revisit that 5% figure from FiveThiryEight. Last I checked, the Suns ranked 3rd in the NBA in net rating. They’re the only team to be top 10 in both offense and defense, alongside Utah. So how are they only 8th in championship odds? Is it some grand conspiracy working against Suns fans, trying to keep us small (and medium-sized) markets down?
No. What it really is, is the importance of continuity.
Don’t get me wrong, the Suns have had their fair share of bumps and bruises this season. Devin Booker has missed several games. Dario Saric missed about a month.
But overall, the Suns have been blessed with fairly good health. Just check out the below chart I made of every NBA team’s unique number of starting lineups plotted against its net rating.
It’s not pure coincidence that Utah, Milwaukee, and Phoenix, the three teams that have rolled out the fewest starting lineups, have been rewarded with the greatest success.
This does not discount the early season success of any of those teams. But it does mean that the season is about to get even more challenging.
The Clippers have missed a couple dozen games of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Lakers have been missing Anthony Davis for weeks. The Nets have barely played a single game with all three of their superstars.
Point is, those guys didn’t disappear. They’re coming back in the 2nd half and beyond, potentially with a vengeance.
The Suns can’t control the health of other teams. What they can do is focus on their own roster and really scrutinize it for improvements. For those of us who watch every Suns game, it’s not hard to think of how this team could be even better. They could use another self-creator off the bench, for example, or another physical big to provide some insurance for Deandre Ayton. Those are just the minor tweaks. You can get much more creative, with a little bit of imagination.
But what I recommend most is to avoid falling into the trap of complacency. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” might be solid advice for the next social media app that tries to engage in some clunky re-design (seriously, don’t do it). But when you’re engaged in an all-out arms race in this competitive a sphere, that old adage just sounds like a loser’s mindset.
This advice isn’t meant to be taken to extremes, necessarily. Remember, continuity is important! I am not advocating for the Suns to make a trade “just to make a trade”.
What I am asking for, is a certain humility about the strengths and weaknesses of this current crop of players. The Suns have a chance to go all the way. Now it’s time to maximize it, even against the juggernauts of the league.
James Jones has always been tight-lipped about his dealings, but I believe that his mindset is similar. Therefore for the rest of the season, I don’t think anything is off limits.
The buyout market? The Suns didn’t make a major play for Blake Griffin, at least as far as we’re aware, but this is the easiest and least risky way to dip your toes into making improvements.
A smaller, two-depth-pieces-for-one type of trade? Sure, I can’t imagine the front office being that heavily invested in their current backup guards.
But that’s the easy stuff. If the right piece presents itself, I don’t doubt for a moment that all of the Suns’ prospects—Jalen Smith, Cameron Johnson, even Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton—could be on the table.
When Chris Paul came to Phoenix, a clock was started on an unusually short championship window. Jones told us from the very beginning that his goal was to win a title this year, but many of us didn’t take that notion seriously until recently.
Here we are in March, and that goal is still in play. Let’s not lose sight of that. From now on, anything is possible.