How in the world have the Phoenix Suns gone from laughingstock to juggernaut in less than two years? Aren’t the players and coaches in as much shock as the rest of us?
Indeed, two years ago the Suns had just wrapped up another awful season with the league’s second-worst record at 21-61. That closed the book on their 9th consecutive lottery season anchored by a ‘looter in a riot’ shooting guard and a turnstile center who looked like the next coming of Greg Monroe.
Now 24 months later, as those same anchors have developed into All-Star level players surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, the Suns have completely flipped the script. Today they have the league’s second best record at 40-15 and are considered one of a small handful of teams with a legitimate shot to win the NBA Championship.
Surely, the coaches and players are basking in this goodness as much as we are, right?
“Dave, I don’t…. ,” Suns head coach Monty Williams replied, when I asked him about it. “I’m a human just like you guys. I see it, I’m thankful for it. But it’s a quick thought for me, and I get right back to the work that goes into building a program, progressing a program.”
The Suns are currently winning at a 72.7% win rate, the 4th best in the franchise’s 54 year history. And this isn’t a moribund franchise either, as they collectively have the 7th best win rate of the 30 NBA franchises all-time.
It’s impossible not to bask in it, no?
“I just don’t have time for that,” Williams said. “But I hope the players enjoy it, at least for 24 hours, and then we got to turn the page and get ready for another opponent. With all these games coming up. I’m grateful for where we are, but I just can’t spend him dwelling on it.”
Fair enough. No one’s ever won their next game on paper alone.
On paper, the Suns are legitimate. They not only have the league’s second-best record, they have the second-best net scoring margin. This graph posted on twitter the other day floored even me, a stats nerd, with how dominant the Suns have been.
The Suns have spent the least amount of time down by more than one possession (4+ pts) of any team in the whole league.— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) April 13, 2021
In the past two months, they’ve improved even more by posting the league’s BEST offense while maintaining that top-5 defense.
This is the best offense in terms of raw numbers in franchise history, for a franchise known historically for great offenses. The league is booming overall on offense though, so a better perspective is to say that the Suns have the best offense relative to the rest of the league (+4.6) since 2009-10 Suns (+7.7).
Surely, the players appreciate that?
“You can be number one in all these different stats and all that, and you can get your ass sent home so fast,” All-Star Chris Paul replied of my stats-based question.
As Chris Paul says, defense is the key to winning the ring, and the Suns have that. This year they have the league’s 5th best defense and 8th best defensive rebounding percentage. But even more impressive, the Suns have one of the league’s best teams at contesting shots and keeping the opponents shooting/scoring below their averages.
Okay, so the sage coach and point guard aren’t reveling in the Suns success.
Maybe the younger players are as giddy as we are?
“We keep looking ahead, man,” 24-year old former ‘looter’ and now two-time All-Star guard Devin Booker said of the Suns record. “Chris Paul needs 60 wins, 50 or 60 something like that. He does this every year. This ain’t nothing new for him.”
Indeed the players have said all season that Chris Paul won’t let them enjoy individual wins. He’s constantly telling them where they can improve, and that they can’t rely on making shots to win, or assume that winning today means they will also win tomorrow.
“I know we’re having a decent season,” says the 22-year old former Greg Monroe clone who is now developing into one of the most irreplaceable two-way stars in the game. “But this ain’t the dance we want to go to.”
National media have repeatedly paraphrased unnamed front office execs around the league who question the Suns’ ability to go all the way to the Finals. They cite concern that the Suns don’t have another gear because Chris Paul grinds so hard during the season that there’s nothing left in the tank come playoff time.
I say the Suns extra gear is Deandre Ayton coming into his own on offense while maintaining his unique ability to play defense in space and at the rim. Lately, Ayton has become decisive on offense, and has averaged 20 points on 73% shooting plus 10.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks over the last 7 games. The Suns have won 6 of those 7, only losing to the surging Clippers on an especially tough SEGABABA.
The Suns players, to a man, know that the real goal is the playoffs and to have a long run once they get there.
But they aren’t complete robots. The young guys, especially, know what’s what.
“I always look back,” Booker admits, acknowledging his five years of losing before getting to this spot. “I don’t ever want to take anything for granted after what I’ve been through. Any win is hard to come by, so we try to stay locked in, no matter what our record is. We are trying to stay in pursuit of continuously getting better and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
For sure, Booker appreciates this crazy good run the team is on. He’s not worried about his own stats. All he wants is to win more and more games.
Finally, we get to the youngest guy in the rotation.
Deandre Ayton may have the pedigree of being taken No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft, but he’s been through his own fire — losing 61 times as a rookie, getting suspended for half the season as a sophomore — and now has every right to enjoy the glory of watching All-Stars close out wins for most of the season and to occasionally ascend to their status as a difference maker in close wins lately.
He acknowledges that the team appreciates how far they’ve come.
“We are definitely enjoying seeing that 4 and 0 [in the win column].” Ayton says. “I definitely have never seen it. I’ve never even played this many games period or win this many games. So to be a part of this and knowing what it takes to win in this league every day. It’s a lot, man. And you really have to take your time to approach this game the right way and respect other players when it comes to competing every night. That’s what we just building over here.”
The Suns franchise hasn’t had 40 wins since 2014, and hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2010. Many of the team’s current fans have never seen their favorite team play organized basketball past mid-April.
But that’s all changed now. Buckle up folks. This ride is just starting.