At the quarter-pole of the 2022-23 season, one thing is clear as the Phoenix Suns (15-7) are once again atop the Western Conference standings with the West’s best offense, second-best defense and best net rating: the post-Chris Paul years look really bright.
Remember when people thought the Suns would only go as far as Chris Paul would carry them? For a while, they had a point.
Two years before Paul arrived, Devin Booker was racking up points, including three games of 50+ points before turning 23 years old, but the Suns couldn’t win more than 24 games a season and were so bad in his third year they earned the No. 1 pick in the 2018 Draft.
Four months before Paul arrived, the trio of Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges were completing their second season together, had Monty Williams at the helm, and still couldn’t make the playoffs. Their claim to fame was an 8-game winning streak at a secluded Florida resort against teams who probably overlooked them from the opening tip.
Enter one of the top 75 NBA players of all time: Chris Paul.
Since he joined the Suns, he’s been an All-NBA point guard, the Suns have had the league’s best regular season record, made the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years, participated in six playoff series in the last two years and have logged more playoff wins than all but one other team (Suns with 21, Bucks with 23).
So you can understand peoples’, including hard-core fans’, concerns about the post-CP days.
Except the non-Paul Suns have already shown us they will be just fine. Last season, when Paul missed a month of games the Suns went 11-4. This year, while he’s missed the last 12, the Suns have gone 8-4. Of those four losses, THREE were by a single point. Historically, final-possession losses are a toss-up, which means they’re likely to balance out.
The Suns winning without Paul has a lot to do with the schemes put in place and carefully curated by the Suns coaching staff. How else do you explain the Suns surviving with Cameron Payne at the helm? Yes, Cam has been fantastic but he’ll be the first to tell you the Suns continuity and schemes have helped bring him to life.
That Book/Ayton/Bridges trio have helped quite a bit as well. You know, those same guys who couldn’t make the playoffs before Paul arrived. They’re better now, and just barely approaching their prime years.
In fact, Booker and Bridges are posting career highs this year across the board, and Ayton just won his first Player of the Week Award with a historic run of double-doubles.
Before that weird loss to the Rockets on Friday night, Ayton was on a quietly historic run.
- Career high 7 straight double doubles
- Won his first Player of the Week award, and the first for a Phoenix Sun in 2022-23
- Averaged 21.1 points on 67% shooting, 13.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 blocks over those 7 games
- One of only 2 players (with Jokic) to post 20/66%/13/3/1 averages over 7 game span in the last THIRTY YEARS
Yes, you read that right. The only active NBA player in the NBA to post Ayton’s 7-game stat line of points, shooting, rebounds, assists and blocks is two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. The rest of the list: all in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
I know. Short sample size. Arbitrary stats.
Remove the 66% shooting criteria and the list grows to... 7 players (adding in Embiid, Giannis, Towns, Cousins, Davis).
If you drop the criteria down to just points, rebounds and blocks over a 7-game span, the list balloons. But that’s what makes Ayton’s total array of contributions so valuable. His scoring efficiency and playmaking (for him, passing out of double-teams to open shooters) on top of the raw points/rebounds/blocks box score counting stats is what makes Ayton a unique asset. Add in his defensive leadership as the last line of defense for one of the league’s best defenses and you’ve got a special player.
This new more-aggressive Ayton might just be the guy we’ve been waiting on for four years. Aren’t you glad he didn’t become this guy on another team, as a result of one of the thousand trades you’ve proposed to date?
“Just doing what I was supposed to do,” Ayton said after Wednesday’s 30/14/2 game. “Not taking plays off. Putting pressure on the rim and just finishing my rolls to the rim to try to get my hands on (offensive) boards. Just close out possessions on the defensive end.”
Booker’s been waiting years for this Ayton. “I love it, I love it,” Booker says. “Let’s keep it going. That’s what I’m talking about.”
They’re working very well together now too.
“There were certain moments in the (Bulls) game (on Wednesday) where those two had it going, especially on the right side of the basket in the first half,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of their play during the Bulls game. “We played a two-man game and it was a pretty cool to watch them, whether it was a DHO (dribble handoff) or he threw it to Book and Book came off a pick-and-roll and shot it or DA found him for a back door, like that was pretty cool to watch.”
Booker’s MVP push
Meanwhile, Booker just nailed down his second career Player of the Month award for games played in October and November 2022.
How’d he do that, considering guys like Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry have been crazy good too? Because Book’s team was 15-6 while theirs are barely playing .500 basketball.
And, because he finished off the month in the grandest of fashion:
- Last two games of the month: 95 points on 69% shooting, 10 assists, 12 rebounds, 7 steals
- Only the second player ever to score 51 or more points in 31 or fewer minutes
- Among those 5, he had the highest shooting percentage (80%), most shots made (20) and fewest free throws taken (seven).
After 22 games, Book is posting career high averages in points (29.5), shooting (49.5%), rebounds (5.2), steals (1.1), blocks (0.5) and net plus-minus (+7.5), while also dishing 5.9 assists per game. He has scored the most points to start a season in Suns history (650), and now has the most 40-point games in Suns history (22), including four more this year already.
Booker is now solidly in the MVP race and likely to remain in the top five for the rest of the season.
Despite all the injuries this year, thanks to the rise of Booker and Ayton, as well as the continued quiet brilliance of Mikal Bridges — career highs in points (16.0), rebounds (5.4), assists (3.4) and blocks (1.0) per game — the Phoenix Suns remain the class of the Western Conference.
Sure, they’ve been helped by a home-heavy schedule (14 of 22 games at home), but they also have the second-most wins over winning teams (9) in the league and the best winning percentage against winning teams (69%), while having league-low numbers of losses (2) by 3 or more points.
Still, they need help. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could add a couple more really good players? I’d love to see them add an All-Star level point guard and a sharp-shooting do-everything power wing. Imagine how good these 15-7 Suns would be with those upgrades?!
Yep, like you, I can’t wait for the ‘acquisitions’ of Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson either.