As I’ve mentioned in articles and podcasts over the past few days, the Phoenix Suns (2-1 this season) offense and defense look a bit different through three games compared to what we’ve seen the last two years with almost the same personnel.
To make a long story short, the Suns know what they are very good at. They led the league in wins and ranked in the top-10 in both offense and defense in each of the last two years, but fell short in each playoffs for what boils down to Chris Paul being hurt/old and Devin Booker being left as the only other high-level shot creator in the lineup.
And then in this most recent playoffs alone, the Suns defense failed them — ranking 14th of 16 playoff teams in points allowed per possession. To make matters worse, those opponents (Pelicans and Mavericks) were far from offensive dynamos in the regular season.
So you can understand why the Suns might be experimenting a little bit, at least this early in the season. The offense is spearheaded more by Book and supporting figures than Chris Paul. And the defensive scheme has Ayton more often defending outside the paint, leaving guys like Mikal Bridges to have to bang in paint for rebounds (he’s at a career-high 7.3 per game so far).
Here are some early-season ‘what?’ reaction to stats I’ve seen...
Suns on defense: 28th of 30 in ‘contested shots’
The Suns somehow rank 4th in overall defensive efficiency this year, giving up only 104 points per 100 possessions (three games). That includes ranking among the best five teams in the league in defensive field goal % allowed in the restricted area and corner threes, with their softest spot being above-the-break threes (11th highest field goal % allowed, on mid-pack volume).
But I wonder if some of this is smoke and mirrors. Professional scorers make open shots, and the Suns rank 28th in the league in frequency of opponent shots being ‘contested’ by the Suns defense. Meaning, they’re giving up a lot of open shots, and their opponents are just missing them so far.
What’s helping the Suns is simply giving up fewer shot attempts. Some of that is thanks to their slow pace (24th), but some of that is generating turnovers (9th in points scored off generating TOs) and limiting second-chance shots (2nd fewest in the league so far). They are also top-10 in fewest fast-break points and paint-points allowed.
Still, I come back to the ‘contested shots’. There’s two ways to make an opponent shooter uncomfortable: make them attempt a shot they don’t want to take and/or distract them by getting in their space — without fouling — as they go up for the shot (i.e. contested shot).
They do limit the easiest shots (restricted area, and corner threes), but they don’t force a lot of the toughest ones either. In fact, the Suns are forcing the fewest shot attempts between the restricted area and three point line — where, across the league, FG% lands around 40%.
At some point, if the Suns don’t start contesting more shots (they were 12th last season vs. 28th this year) or forcing more mid-range shots, the defense is going to regress. And unless the offense comes around, that could spell trouble.
Ayton’s foul trouble
What’s going on here? In three games, Ayton’s foul count is 4, 5 and 5.
We’re not used to seeing DA in constant foul trouble. In fact, he’s only had a handful of such ‘4+ fouls in three consecutive games’ stretches in his whole career, with two of those occurring in his rookie season.
Every game this season, he’s gotten himself into first-half foul trouble, most notably on opening night when he could only play 7 of 24 first-half minutes because he committed three fouls in those seven minutes, before playing 23 of 24 second-half minutes because he committed only one more.
Overall, the Suns won that game and Ayton got to his normal minutes total (31), but that could have really hurt the Suns. They were down 17 at the end of the first half vs. +19 in the second half, and Ayton’s presence had a great deal to do with that.
Why is Ayton fouling more? Partly, because he’s been a lot more active in trapping and switching onto the perimeter outside the paint, leaving him open to full-speed drives into his body while he’s backpedaling. You can also see this development in his rebounding totals. Because he’s switched out of the paint, he’s not there to grab the rebound on a miss. Mikal Bridges is most often the one rotating to the rim, and is currently the Suns second-leading rebounder with a career-high 7.3 per game. Torrey Craig has been very helpful in that role as well, including those 10 rebounds in game three.
The Suns being able use Ayton defensively on the perimeter — either to trap the ball handler or take on a big wing — will likely help the Suns in the long run. But while he sorts that out, his first halves are an adventure in managing foul trouble.
Keep an eye on Ayton’s fouls and how he’s committing them. You’ll see that almost all of them involve him being in open space and/or chasing to the rim.
Foul trouble aside, he’s been very good defensively.
Mikal’s lack of threes
Two years ago — you know, that season the Suns made the run to the Finals — Mikal Bridges was a three-point killer. He took a career-high 4.4 three pointers per game and made a career-high 42.5% of them.
Bridges’ offensive load was limited. He spent a great deal of his time standing along the weak side three-point line, gliding from the corner to the arc depending on the flow of the primary offense, waiting for his catch-and-shoot chance. If his defender got lost ball-watching the strong side, he would opportunistically cut to the rim for an easy layup. Those two primary offensive shots helped him become one of the most efficient scorers in the game, with an Effective Field Goal (eFG) of 64.3%, which ranked him 4th among all NBA starters with at least 50 games played (72-game season).
But in the 2021 playoffs against more fundamentally sound and prepared defenses, Mikal’s offensive value plummeted. Even worse, he was ill-equipped to help out on-ball when the opponent found ways to choke the playmaking out of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
So the Suns began developing more depth to Mikal’s offensive game, including on-ball drives from the arc into the mid-range area for open jumpers when they close out on him. In 2021-22, that effort basically replaced one of Mikal’s threes every other game with two more two-pointers every game. Overall, his scoring went up by a point per game while his efficiency took a small dip to 60.3% eFG, ranking him 14th among starters who played at least 50 games.
This year, at least through three games, the Suns have nearly abandoned Mikal’s three-point spot ups entirely. Cameron Johnson (or Damion Lee or Torrey Craig) are now the spot-up guys in the offense while Mikal is more involved inside the arc. He’s putting up a career-high 8 two-pointers a game — difficult ones at that — against only 1.7 threes, and his efficiency is in the toilet. He’s right now at 50.0% eFG, ranking him 97th (tied with 13 players) among starters.
Mikal’s struggles tell at least part of the tale of why the Suns offense is only mid-pack in efficiency so far this year, even with Devin Booker beasting with 32 points a night on 50+% accuracy.
That’s what’s on my mind so far this season.
Check out the Suns tonight on TNT at 7:00pm taking on the fully healthy Warriors.