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The Suns haven’t just been good, they’ve been lucky

The percent of payroll faced Phoenix has faced season my surprise you.

Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks

When the Phoenix Suns played the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon, one thing was clear: the Suns would not be playing a complete Nets lineup. Although the game ended with the Nets winning by 9 points behind t he efforts of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, they were still without James Harden. You know, the guy who makes the 4th most in the league at $41.2M?

Brooklyn possesses the second highest team payroll in the NBA (behind the Golden State Warriors). The Nets put forth total of $108.4M worth of payroll on the court on Sunday. A high number, yes, but only 65.3% of the payroll they have on the books.

It seems to be a reoccurring theme this year. Whenever the Suns play a team, the opposition isn’t at full strength. Injuries, load management, COVID; the reasons for opposing teams to sit their players are valid, but the fact remains that those players are out.

Phoenix has played the Lakers twice this season. They have played Anthony Davis a total of zero times. When they first played the Nets they without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The second time they were without James Harden. Two games versus the Boston Celtics, zero Jaylen Brown minutes.

I’m not complaining, mind you. A win is a win. You have to beat the roster across the court from you and every one of those players are professionals. Look at the Suns vs. Spurs game last Saturday night. If you let up an inch, if you feel like you have one in the bag, you will be reminded quite quickly that winning in the NBA is hard.

That being said, it feels as if the Suns consistently are not catching opposing teams on their best nights. This got me thinking (which isn’t always a good thing). How often does this happen? How “lucky” have the Suns been avoiding the big time players?

Posing these questions means I am going to waste an exorbitant amount of time on something until I have the data to better understand what I see.

My baseline for seeking these answers? ‘Percent-of-total payroll-played’. The way I see it, every team has a payroll and (generally) their highest compensated players are their most impactful. If they aren’t playing we can see how that compares to the Suns and what they put on the court.

Now, I know there are plenty of flaws in that thought process, and I’ll address those below. Given the sample size of the season, however, if I gathered all of the data relative to payroll and who played, trends would emerge. And emerge they did.

So after spending eight hours of looking at box scores and team payroll numbers, I received the answer to my questions:

What percentage of the oppositions total payroll sees the court versus the Phoenix Suns? How does that compare to the total payroll that the Suns put forth nightly on the court? Have they been lucky?

Time to nerd out for a while. Join me, will you?

An Imperfect Answer

I understand there are numerous caveats and variables that are in play when you go down this rabbit hole. I know that the answer I receive will not tell the entire story. Heck, it may not tell any story at all. Like a box of Cheez-Its though, once you start, you can’t stop.

Let’s go through some of the issues with seeking the answer to this imperfect question through the lens of team payroll.

Payroll versus Production

Dollar signs next to player’s name are not a substitution for production. The goal of this exercise was to find out what percent of the team’s total payroll participated in the game. Why? Because I wanted to see if the Suns have dodged the best punches from the opposition. Because it feels like that has happened time and again.

When you began looking at how each NBA team is built, it is apparent that dollars earned does not always equate to production.

Yes, in the case of the Phoenix Suns, their best players receive the most money and receive the production for it. Chris Paul ($41.4M/33% of Suns payroll) and Devin Booker ($29.4M/24%) are responsible for 34% of the team’s total points and 47% of the team’s assists. If Booker sits out (as he has 4 times this year) or Paul sits (one time), the opposition feels as if they are not getting the best version of the Suns.

This does not always occur.

Case and point: Gorgui Dieng was the highest paid member of the Memphis Grizzlies prior to his buyout at $16.6M. Ja Morant, perhaps their most impactful player, is on his rookie deal and makes $9.2M. The Grizzlies have a payroll of $125.9M, so if Dieng does not play, that is 13.2% of their payroll that did not play.

Garbage Minutes

NBA games can be ultra-competitive and due to this, you may not used the bottom end of your roster. Granted, for the majority of teams, the bottom of their rosters house the lowest compensated players, so the effect might not much on the overall number.

Conversely, garbage minutes will equate to more payroll being used as well. If the Suns are blowing out the Portland Trail Blazers like they did on February 22, you will see Jalen Smith minutes. Smith makes $4.2M which therefore adds 3.3% to the total percent of the Suns’ payroll played.

The Batum Situation

This past offseason Nicolas Batum signed a 1-year, $2.6M contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was set to make $27M with the Charlotte Hornets, but the team waived and stretched him to avoid paying such a large salary all at once. This allowed them to pursue Gordon Hayward.

They stretched his salary over the next three seasons. That is $9.0M that counts against the cap for the Hornets that they cannot play because, well, he is wearing Clipper blue and red. To adjust for this I adjusted his contract off.

I am sure there are a couple of other players who were waived and stretched. And I am sure I have missed them.

Two-Way’s and 10 Days

You will notice in the data below that numerous players on each team do not have a salary next to them. These players, who contracts range from two-way opportunities to 10-day contracts, have salaries that do not count against the cap and total payroll for the team.

Therefore, the do not count for this exercise.

100% isn’t the Goal

If a team plays 100% of their payroll in a game, then literally everyone on the roster played. That is not the purpose or the goal for any team. The goal is to put forth the best roster possible in an effort to win, not play everyone possible.

The Data

Allow me to present the work.

Below is a Google Sheet the includes every game the Suns have played. The ‘Summary’ page is linked to each individual game in which I gathered the payroll information for both the Suns and their opponent.

Players that appeared in the game are annotated as well as players who did not. Their salaries are divided by the total team salary to understand what percent of the payroll played in a given game.

I added the score, result, and point differential to better understand how the total payroll the played effected the final score.

Here is the link for those who want to view it outside of this browser:

I used Basketball-Reference’s salary pages to construct each team’s total payroll and recreated the rosters that were available to the team at the time in which the Suns played them. Yes, I spent quite sometime navigating transactions, their dates, and ensuring accuracy.

The Analysis

And now I get to answer my question, “Have they been lucky?”. The quick answer is, “yes”.

Yes, the Suns have had an advantage this season as they have played teams who are not, for a variety of reasons, not playing their best options.

  • Average percent of payroll played vs. Suns: 70.0%
  • Average percent of payroll played by the Suns: 88.0%

The 18 percent difference is quite telling. It fortifies the narrative the Suns have not only have been good this season, they’ve been lucky as well. The team has played 90%+ of their payroll in 33 games this year. That is more than half. The opposition? 21.7%...13 games.

The average NBA team payroll, per Basketball-Reference, is $129.1M. 18% of that is $23.2M. That is, on average, the amount of extra payroll the Suns consistently put on the floor each night versus the opposition. That is like having an extra Malcolm Brogdan ($20.7M), Domantas Sabonis ($19.8M), or Zach LaVine ($19.5M) nightly.

Through 61 games this season, only 13 times has the opposition put more payroll on the court than the Phoenix Suns. The Suns are 9-4 in those games.

The greatest negative disparity for the Suns came in the January 23 loss to the Nuggets where Denver had a +25.7% payroll advantage on the Suns. You may recall Devin Booker was not present for that affair.

In the two games in which the Suns had a +60% or more payroll advantage, they won by a total of 59 points (22 over the Warriors, 37 over the Thunder).

The Suns have been blessed this year. For the most part — knock on wood — the team has remained healthy. They have had the option to play the majority of their payroll, to pull the strings that they desire, and to be flexible.

As much as we admire this team for the culture they have created, for the way they play defense, for their development, their defense, and their ‘clutchness’, we must admit that they have been lucky as well. They have avoided a large chunk of the NBA’s opposing payroll.

I’m good with lucky.

This team and this franchise is overdue for the soft caress of Lady Luck. She wasn’t there for the March 19, 1969 coin flip. She turned her head when John Paxson hoisted an uncontested three-pointer in 1993. She chose not to whisper in David Stern’s ear, guiding him to the correct decision in the 2007 playoffs following the Horry hip-check.

Perhaps this is a sign that that break are finally falling the Suns way. The team is damn good. But sometimes you need to be lucky as well. I’ll break down the “luckiest” path the the Finals in a separate piece, but maybe it is our turn.

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