After four games, the Phoenix Suns are 3-1 with their usually stellar offensive (7th) and defensive (3rd) rating, all while playing one of the toughest schedules to open the season.
They’ve gone from a close win to a close loss to blowing out the Clippers and Warriors by a combined 48 points. Along the way, they look a little different than last year even though the players are almost exactly the same.
Some of the guys are really doing great, while others are still... finding their way.
Today I’ll review a few such players in my first installment of the Stock Up/Down Report.
Usage rate (USG) is the rate of possessions in which that player ended a team’s possession by attempting a field goal, getting to the free throw line or committing a turnover.
For example: by far, the Suns leader in USG the last few seasons is Devin Booker, with a rate over 32%. That doesn’t mean he gets the most touches. It just means that when Booker is involved in a possession, he’s more likely to end it (instead of passing off) than anyone on the team. This is a good thing, since Booker led the league in points per touch last season. That contributed greatly to the Suns 3rd ranked offense last season.
To provide more context, Booker had the 9th highest USG in the league last year (Joel Embiid was highest at 37.5%). Again, that doesn’t mean he touched the ball as much as most stars did. In fact, he ranked only a paltry 88th in touches per game, across the league. All-NBA First Team, yet 87 other players (almost three per team, on average) touched the basketball more often than Book last year.
Book’s 56.2 touches per game were well behind teammate Chris Paul’s 75 per game last year. With those 56.2 touches, Booker took 20.9 shots and 5.3 free throws while committing 2.4 turnovers in 34.8 minutes per game. When you add in 4.8 assists (which are not counted in the formula), you can see why Book led the league in points per touch (.481 ppt) among those with at least 25 touches per game.
Today, I’ll use some of these metrics to evaluate Stock Up/Down.
Fair warning: it’s SUPER EARLY. These up/downs might not hold.
- Minutes: UP from 34.5 to 38.8 per game (+4.5)
- Touches: UP from 56.2 to 65 per game (+9)
- USG (shots+free throws+turnovers): DOWN from 32% to 29.9%
- Points per Touch: UP from .481 to .500
The Suns are putting the ball in the hands of Booker a lot more so far this season while giving it less to Chris Paul. After a slow start while the team, including Paul, adjusted, they’ve won the last two games by an average of 24 points.
“It’s something we all talked about going into the season,“ Chris Paul said after they blew out the Warriors. “We wanted to be harder to guard. A lot of teams last year in the playoffs tried to pick me up full-court, with me being the primary ball handler. It’s something I have to get used to, because I’m usually creating for other guys, but it’s nice to get some catch-and-shoots.”
Paul is definitely playing more off-ball this season. Sure, he touches it almost every possession at least once (still at 85 per game, up 10 from last year), but he’s holding it less and his USG is lower than ever. More on that later.
Meanwhile, Book is dominating. He’s putting up career high scoring numbers — including scoring the most points in the first four games of a season (130) than any Sun in the team’s 55 year history — while doing more with the ball than he’s done since before Paul arrived.
“It’s giving him the opportunity to attack in different ways,” Paul says. “He’s handling the ball, give him a pick-and-roll. He’s catching and shooting threes. He’s catching in transition. He’s attacking. I think the way we’re playing as a team is giving him the opportunity to show his full arsenal of what he can do.”
He’s still not leading the league in USG (ranks 25th among players with 3+ games played), but only 6 of those 25 have a higher True Shooting % than Booker’s career-high 66.4%.
- Minutes: UP from 29.5 to 30.8 per game (+1)
- Touches: UP from 42.6 to 53 per game (+11)
- USG (shots+free throws+turnovers): UP from 21.4 to 26.5
- Points per Touch: DOWN from .404 to .344
Like Booker, the Suns are featuring Ayton a great deal more in the offense (so far) than they did a year ago. His minutes, touches and USG are all career highs, though his efficiency is a little down as his catches and shot attempts are a little bit more complicated.
DA’s points (18.3) and field goal attempts (14.5) are up over last year — especially good, considering his weird foul trouble with 4+ fouls in every game — but his field goal percentage is down a bit (55.2%, down from 63.4%), as is True Shooting (.581, down from 65.6%), while turnovers are up a bit (3.3, up from 1.6 per game).
If he didn’t suffer from foul trouble so much, his minutes and overall impact would even be greater. He missed big chunks of each game so far — luckily Jock Landale has been up to the task the couple of outings.
Against the Warriors, Ayton was dominant in the first half with a 12 points and 11 rebounds, despite only being 3/9 from the field. He even got Kevon Looney into early foul trouble to throw the Warriors rotation into flux. He attracted a ton of attention from the Warriors collapsing defense, opening up good shots for the rest of the team.
“He got to the free throw line a couple times, he was playing in the pocket,” Booker said of Ayton. “Once he caught it, he was making an aggressive move.”
You can safely say this is a good development for the Suns and Ayton fans, making the Suns more of a physical threat than they’ve been in the past. Ayton won’t set efficiency records this year, but more than any time in his career he’ll have to be schemed against.
And yet, Ayton’s efficiency is STILL quite good. Of the 37 players with a higher USG than Ayton’s, only 11 have a higher True Shooting % than his current 58.1%.
Given Ayton’s history, I’d guess his TS% will climb back to normal levels real soon (65% each of the last two seasons), putting him in even more elite offensive company.
- Minutes: UP from 32.9 to 33.5 per game (+.5)
- Touches: UP from 75 to 85 per game (+10)
- USG (shots+free throws+turnovers): DOWN from 19.7 to 15.6
- Points per Touch: DOWN from .197 to .115
I know. It’s super early. Just four games. But man, has Chris Paul looked even slower than usual and even a bit out of place.
Well, part of the reason comes down to taking a smaller role on offense. He’s taking a career-low shot attempts (9.5 per game) and making less than 40% of them. The Suns early-season offense is more focused on having Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson take more on-ball reps while Paul stands at three-point line for open shots.
“It’s fine,” Paul says. “I can actually shoot. The majority of my career I’ve always been the playmaker, so it’s nice to get a couple of catch-and-shoots.”
Yes, he’s a shooter. He’s a career 37% three point shooter and has averaged 14+ points per game every season of career while ranking among the league leaders in assists. A Chris Paul offense is recognizable immediately, regardless of which team he’s playing for.
But this year it’s different. As he mentioned above, the Suns are adjusting. After being hounded full-court by the Pelicans and Mavericks in last year’s playoffs, they are now using Paul much more often as an outlet/decoy in the offense while Book, Bridges or someone else brings the ball up. At that point, Paul will swing around to catch it, but more often dishes it right back off than ball-pound at the top of the key.
And for the first time in his career, he’s actually taking on a catch-and-shoot role.
He missed 10 of his first 11 three-point attempts — almost all wide open catch-and-shoots — but recovered to make 3 of 4 against the Warriors.
Paul’s stock is down for now, but I expect he’ll get more and more comfortable in his combo guard role as the season progresses, while the Suns become more versatile than ever.
- Minutes: ABOUT THE SAME from 26.2 to 26.5 per game (+.3)
- Touches: ABOUT THE SAME from 33.3 to 35 per game (+2)
- USG (shots+free throws+turnovers): ABOUT THE SAME from 17.5 to 17.3
- Points per Touch: DOWN from .368 to .284
This was supposed to be Cam’s coming out party. So far, the DJ is late and the lights are still up.
The Suns totally cleared the way this offseason for Cam to shine. They handed him Jae Crowder’s starting job — even taking Crowder totally out the mix — and (basically) gave Cam all the minutes, touches and chances he could handle.
But that just hasn’t happened yet. He still looks like the same Cam, except even more brittle. Every time he tries to absorb a big hit in the paint, he comes up lame — thumb to thigh to back to hip, and it’s only been four games! Head coach Monty Williams even mentioned recently that Cam’s probably most effective in the 25-min-per-game range, rather than playing 30+ (after which, he immediately played Cam 33 minutes against the Warriors).
And even when he’s out there with the starters, he looks like he’s still trying to find his rhythm. That would make sense if he was a new guy, but this is Cam’s fourth year with Book/DA/Mikal and third year with Paul.
Cam is averaging just 10 points per game this season on career-worst 38% shooting and his fewest three-point attempts — you know, his calling card — since his rookie year.
Yes, it’s early. And yes, it’s a new role for him. But so far, he’s not doing all that well, so his stock is slightly down.
There you go, Suns fans.
Do you agree with my assessments? Who else would you rate up/down?