For all the talk about the starting lineup of the Phoenix Suns and their backup center Dario Saric returning from injury, one name hardly mentioned this week is backup point guard Cameron Payne.
And yet, the Suns chances at contention this season are much more dependent on the quality of play from Payne than ever before.
Sure, we can talk about getting more play-initiation out of non-point-guards like Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric and Deandre Ayton, but that only goes so far in the bigger scheme.
“At the end of the day, we are who we are,” Chris Paul said in simple terms this week, after trying to go along with the idea that more players will be handling the ball at the beginning of possessions.
Even Monty Williams, who is going to try mightily to get Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson into more opportunities to bring the ball up and initiate offense, couldn’t help but temper expectations with “ball handling is about more than dribbling.”
We can (hopefully not but probably will) lament the loss of Frank Kaminsky’s high post passing to corners and cutters.
We can grind over why GM James Jones didn’t go out this summer and get another high level playmaker for the third guard role.
We can hope and pray Chris Paul used his long summer to build up enough energy in his body to last all the way through the regular season AND playoffs this year. And, while we’re at it, we can hope the Suns put CP in isolation between playoff games so he doesn’t get COVID for the (reportedly) third year in a row at the worst possible time.
But the bottom line is that the Suns need the very best of Cam Payne if they want to be contenders in 2023.
They have been more dangerous in the regular season and playoffs when Payne played like the best backup point guard on the floor, and they’ve suffered — especially in the playoffs — when Payne is ineffective.
For his part, Payne boils it down to one word.
“Just being consistent,” Payne says of the difference between good Payne and bad Payne. “Now one of my goals is just to be consistent the whole year. That’s how I can stay on the floor.”
Last season, the Suns were 18-3 (86%) when Payne made at least 44% of his shots. In those 21 games, he averaged 23.8 minutes, 14.6 points (56% shooting, 51% on threes), 5.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 turnovers. That’s the Cam Payne who can let Chris Paul get the rest he needs without the Suns struggling to find a rhythm.
And when he made less than 44% of his shots, the Suns were worse. Their record was fine because of everyone else on the roster — 28-9 (75%) — but Payne was a lot less of factor. He still averaged 20 minutes per game because the Suns didn’t have any other alternative, and put up just 8.6 points (31% shooting, 27% on threes), 4.7 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in those 37 games.
Notice the totals: he shot 44% or higher in only 36% of his appearances last year. Contrast that to the year before, where Payne made 44% of his shots in 58% of his games. The Suns were 25-10 (71% win rate) when Payne made 44+% vs. 17-8 (68%) when he shot worse.
When Cam Payne plays well, the Suns are a better team. Last year was not a good year for Cam.
After signing a $19 million, 3-year contract, he got the second-most playing time of his career (22 minutes per game), while posting career highs in points (10.8) and assists (4.9), but also committing career-high turnovers (1.8) and personal fouls (2.1). His shooting numbers were a Suns-low (41%, 33%), yet he took a career-high number of shots per game (10.1).
In terms of advanced stats (PER, TS%, etc.) his numbers basically regressed closer to his pre-Suns days... you know, the days that ran him out of the league for a year. No wonder 36-year old Chris Paul played way too many minutes (32.9 per game, his most in 8 years) and was gassed by the second round of the playoffs.
Paul played 30 or more minutes in 49 of his 65 games this past year. That’s just way too many minutes for a 36-year old, but the Suns needed it partially because of Payne’s up-and-down play and partially because the Suns needed his wizardry to mask over the loss of several important players in December and January, including Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder. Sure, give credit to Bismack Biyombo for being ready to go from the day he signed, but give bigger credit to CP for making him look better than ever.
Overall, though, the Suns were slightly less successful with CP playing 30+ minutes versus nights he didn’t have to carry such a load.
- Suns record with CP playing 30+ minutes: 37-10 (78%)
- Suns record with CP playing under 30: 16-2 (89%)
This tells me that good-Cam = more-rested-CP3 = more wins.
While the Suns led the league in point differential last year — meaning, over 82 games, they had the biggest cushion in points scored vs. points allowed at +7.5 per game — my whole recollection of the season went like this: Suns take first-quarter lead, Suns lose lead by late third quarter, Paul and Book take over and Suns blow opponent out the rest of the way to create a cushy win margin. Rinse. Repeat.
That’s very different from the season before, where I much more often recall the bench unit kicking ass in the third quarter, then turning it over to the starters to hold the lead for the win.
Look, the Suns were good last year no matter what. They even went 11-6 without Paul entirely, including a handful of those games without Cameron Payne and Jae Crowder either.
But these numbers show that the Suns were at their best when CP could play just a touch less minutes because Cameron Payne played well enough to earn the difference. Two seasons ago, when Payne was better, Paul only played 30+ minutes in 65% of the Suns regular season games. This past year, he had to play 30+ minutes in 75% of their games. Coming off the second consecutive short offseason due to the pandemic, and it’s no wonder Paul ran out of gas.
In the playoffs, bench players generally play worse because rotations are tighter, defenses are tougher and your matchup is a better player than you’re used to facing in the regular season.
The 2021 playoffs were a coming-out party for Cam Payne. He filled in admirably for Chris Paul when Paul missed time in the first round and Conference Finals. In 22 appearances, he averaged 19 minutes per game on 42%/36% splits, with a 3:1 assist:turnover ratio. Famously, his 29 point, 9 assist, 0 turnover line in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals as the starter in place in Chris Paul (COVID) helped the Suns take a 2-0 lead in the series on their way to their first Finals in 28 years.
The 2022 playoffs were a complete dud for Payne. He was out of sorts the whole time, missed just about every shot he took, and played only 13 minutes per game on 29%/16% splits. He played bad enough that he got only 4 minutes of playing time in each of Games 5 and 6 of the Dallas series, and only got up to 12 minutes in Game 7 because of the blowout. The Suns were out of the playoffs by the end of the second round.
Other factors were involved of course, but the takeaway here is that Chris Paul was rarely fully healthy and playing his best ball in both of those playoffs, and the Suns were better when Cam Payne made the most of his playing time in Paul’s absence.
This year, the problem gets even bigger: Cam Payne’s 22 minutes per game need to increase this season.
Paul flat-out needs to play fewer minutes, and the Suns have no real options behind Payne. I know, you’re thinking it can’t get worse than Elfrid Payton, but oh yes it can. The backup point guard option behind Payne (or in place of Payne) this year is... no one. The Suns don’t have a third-string point guard on the active roster. Frank Jackson (1 assist per game over 4 years in the NBA) is on a training camp deal, while Duane Washington Jr. (1.8 assists per game for Indiana as a rookie last year) is on a two-way contract. Neither is a real point guard. They’re just not tall enough to be full-time shooting guards.
So the Suns need the best of Cam Payne. And Cam Payne needs the best of Cam Payne too, considering his contract is basically expiring at the end of this year.
One big factor for Payne, potentially, is how his pick-and-pop game meshes so well with Dario Saric. Saric sets strong picks against the ball handler’s defender, then pops to the top of the key, forcing Payne’s smaller defender out with him and leaving Dario’s bigger defender on an island to try to stop Payne’s drive. Payne was markedly better in scoring the year Dario was healthy.
“It helped my game a little bit,” Payne says with a big smile, of playing with Dario. “Going against ‘fives’ a little bit more. Dario gives a different dynamic. It’s gonna be fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
For what it’s worth, Payne brings the right attitude and fire every day. That’s what got him back into the NBA and what will help him stay here as well.
“Ain’t much more fuel I need,” Payne said, of the sting of that playoff run helping him work out harder for this year. “Just being in the NBA is enough fuel for me.”
While Payne will make $6 million this year, the Suns hold a team option on the 2023-24 season with only $2 million guaranteed to Payne if he is released next June. That $2 million effectively means nothing to the Suns, since that’s about the league minimum for a veteran 15th man.
Again, the Suns will tout the playmaking abilities of non point guards in their offensive scheme, but the whole scheme depends on a lead playmaker to run the show. And the only real options at lead playmaker are Chris Paul and Cameron Payne.
For his sake and the Suns sake, the Suns need Cam to bring the Payne this year.
“This is home,” Payne says openly about Phoenix. He’s been supporting all the local teams, and stayed in town almost the whole summer. “I’m just eager to play.”
He was stressed when the Kevin Durant rumors were floating around this summer, worried that he’d be sent to Brooklyn for salary matching purposes.
“Thank the lord in heaven it didn’t happen,” Payne said with relief. “I just feel like I finally found a place I call home, and I don’t want to leave.”
Let’s all hope we see the best of Payne this year in the Valley.