For the third regular season in a row, the Phoenix Suns (5-1 so far) sit at or near the very top of the NBA. Their five regular season wins — including Ws over last year’s playoff opponents Mavericks and Pelicans, plus Ws over healthy Golden State and LA Clippers — are tied with the Bucks for most wins among likely contenders this season. Their offensive rating (1st), defensive rating (4th) and net rating (1st) are back at the top of the league too.
You might assume they’re the same old team you’ve seen the last two years, and you’d be mostly right. Four-fifths of the starting lineup — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges — is unchanged for the third straight year.
As a team, they still dominate in the mid-range, pass their way to great shots (2nd in assists), take fewer threes than most (24th) and don’t get many free throws (19th). It’s a thing of beauty to watch the Suns’ passing lead to open shot after open shot, even if too few of them are of the three-point variety.
So far, so good this year. After their drubbing of defending champ Golden State last week, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said the Suns were “really buttoned up”, meaning execution is at a high level.
Their formula has been wildly successful in the regular season (league’s most wins since Chris Paul’s first game in a Suns uni) and has even helped the Suns to the second-most playoff wins in the league the last two years.
But each playoffs, they’ve come up against a defensive scheme they can’t crack. Both times, after taking a 2-0 series lead and looking like a sweep is coming, the Suns have been beaten by defensive adjustments that left them powerless. Dallas used ball-handler blitzes (aggressive double-teams) to force weak passes to weak playmakers, while the Bucks siphoned off the passing lanes to force Book and Paul to take every shot.
Both schemes were successful because, as beautiful as the Suns offense is, they’ve only really got two guys who can create a shot from nothing when the offense bogs down, and one of those has come up short more often than not. Chris Paul (6’0” on a tall day) just gets swallowed up by a really good long defender, and from there the Suns offense is in ‘oh crap somebody do something’ mode.
Coming out of last year’s playoffs, the Suns brain trust knew they had to manufacture more high-level playmakers — through free agency, trades or development of their own players.
Alas, they did nothing in the off-season on that front and we are now looking at the same team with the same ultimate weakness. Only to make matters worse, their second-best shot creator, the 37-year old Chris Paul, appears to be in rapid decline.
Hence, the skeptical expectations for this team when the 2023 Playoffs come around. They’ll win some games, for sure. Maybe even a couple of playoff rounds. But when the opponents get better, the times will get tougher.
A skeptic’s view
Doesn’t matter how good All-Star/All-NBA guard Devin Booker has looked so far this season. He looks even better than the guy who has scored the 6th-most points in NBA history before turning 26, scored the most points of any player ever in his first playoffs (2021), and is one of three players (along with LeBron and MJ) who did all that scoring while averaging at least 4.5 assists per game as well.
But he can’t carry the Suns alone.
Only a handful of players in history (Michael Jordan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to name a couple) have successfully navigated the NBA playoffs as the far and away No. 1 offensive weapon surrounded by baby birds needing to be fed their dinner. With apologies to Scottie and Khris, they just can’t/couldn’t consistently break down a defense to create a score out of nothing on their own. And the Suns don’t even have a No. 2 still playing on Scottie or Khris’ level.
Heck, even LeBron James needed top-level No. 2 scorers to win his championships (Wade, Irving, Davis) and even he came up short in years they weren’t at their best. Look at Dallas too. Luka Doncic is a perennial MVP candidate and unstoppable offensive force, but Dallas didn’t even win a playoff series until he got outsized creation from other playmakers around him.
Booker is awesome, but he needs help. If the Suns enter the playoffs next spring with Booker supported only by a declining Chris Paul and a handful of baby birds, he just can’t be expected to carry the Suns all the way home.
In the season the Suns made the Finals, Chris Paul was at his offensive best in the second round and Conference Finals to help the Suns close out those series. He looks incapable of reprising that performance through four whole playoff rounds at age 38.
An optimist’s view
Geez, Dave, who peed in your cereal this morning?
Of course the Suns can win the championship as currently constructed, as long as the young players around him continue to improve.
Keys to a championship would be Mikal and/or DA truly leveling up, the defense actually stifling their playoff opponents, and Cameron Payne becoming the 2021 Payne again.
If all those things happen in May and June 2023, the Suns could be holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy during a raucous downtown Phoenix parade.
Mikal/DA leveling up
The Suns know they need better from their top level players. To that end, both Mikal and DA’s touches per game are well up over last year.
DA is 3rd on the team in touches per game (53 per full game, not far behind Book) after ranking 5th a year ago. While he’s still getting assisted on nearly all of his shots (85%), he’s now become a bigger part of the offense and shown some brilliance in finishing shots against wilding defenses in late-game stages. This is a major step in DA’s offensive evolution, even if he’s not creating much out of nothing yet. On the plus side, he does have shot-creation his bag (was only 71% assisted in years 1 and 3) and a growing comfort level to be creative in the Suns scheme.
Mikal is 4th in touches (43.2) after ranking 6th a year ago. He’s working — at least for now — almost exclusively inside the three point line getting buckets in the paint and mid-range. Like DA, he’s still getting assisted on most of his shots (70%, down from 76% the last three years), but he’s being more creative on the catch to create shots that weren’t there to start with. He’s making a career high 63.7% of his shots with a True Shooting over 71%.
Still, when your second and third-leading scorers — well, most of your scorers overall — are getting assisted on 70% of their shots all season, you can’t be surprised when they don’t know what to do with the ball in the playoffs if the pass isn’t directly setting them up score.
The Suns will need to progressively ramp up the unassisted chances for Mikal and DA throughout the season, especially when Book and Paul are on the floor. That’s why you see Paul getting more “catch-and-shoots” than he’s seen in years.
What got the Suns to the Finals in 2021 but hurt them in 2022 was their defense in the playoffs. The Suns played the 4th-best defense during their four rounds of the 2021 playoffs but a gross 14th-best (out of 16 teams) in 2022.
What hurt the Suns in 2022? In the first round it was getting bludgeoned on the boards for second-chance points, and in the second round it was the diminutive Chris Paul and other weak defenders getting switched onto Luka Doncic over the over again.
In the early stages of the 2022-23 season, the Suns coaching staff has already shown their willingness to adapt. They beat Dallas on opening night by — gasp! — sitting Chris Paul the last 6:41 to make it easier to keep a good, bigger defender on Luka the whole time. Also, Mikal Bridges stayed locked on Luka more often, rather than auto-switching every time Dallas wanted it. And then against the board-happy Pelicans, they actually showed their new rebounding muscle even after losing Ayton to an ankle sprain. The Suns are — I know, it’s early — 5th in the league in rebound rate. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are grabbing career highs so far, while the bench is out-rebounding their opponents every night.
The Return of Payne
Another great development is seeing Cameron Payne return to his 2020-21 form. He’s making almost 40% of his threes and showing flashes of being that difference-maker off the bench in playmaking role. Last year, Payne was painful, and ultimately lost his job late in the second round against Dallas. In contrast, the year before he played a big role in playoff wins over the Lakers and Clippers, including a 29/9 night in the Conference Finals when Chris Paul was out with COVID.
If Payne can play a role similar to the one Spencer Dinwiddie played for the 2022 Mavericks, as a surprise shot-creator off the bench when Book and/or CP rest, then the Suns have a much better chance of surviving the playoffs.
Indeed the “good” Payne was a big part of the Suns 2020-21 second unit that helped hand big leads back to the starters in the 4th quarter not only in the regular season but also the playoffs. And the “bad” Payne was part of a second unit that lost a lot of leads, forcing the starters to win clutch minutes over and over because the game was always within 5 points as the last 5 minutes began.
Let’s hope “good” Payne is back all season.
Everything CAN break right for the Suns, even if they don’t make any blockbuster trades. But all those things have to happen for the breaks to materialize.
As the Suns once again finish with one of the top playoff seeds, watch carefully just how they do it. It’s got to be with Ayton, Bridges and Payne all leveled up, while the defense remains their calling card when it matters most.