Although the 2021-2022 season isn’t over, the Phoenix Suns 61-14 record with seven games to go almost guarantees that they will finish with more than the 62 wins of the 1992-1993 Barkley-led team and the 2004-05 Steve Nash-led team. They have also tied the 61 wins of the 2006-2007 Suns and will surpass it unless they lose all seven of their remaining games. This is highly unlikely, given that they have almost everyone healthy, and the Suns should be heavy favorites to win 5 of the games remaining, and the other 2 are at worst a coin flip (Memphis and Utah).
The part about “everyone is healthy” brings me to the “why” have they gotten here: depth. This is the deepest Suns team in the history of the franchise, bar none.
In 1992-1993, the Suns had a relatively deep roster: Kevin Johnson, Danny Ainge, Frank Johnson, Dan Majerle, Cedric Ceballos, Richard Dumas, Charles Barkley, Mark West, Tom Chambers, and Oliver Miller gave the team a 10-deep rotation of guys Paul Westphal wasn’t afraid to give minutes, even in crunch time. People forget after his disastrous stint as head coach, but Johnson used to be called “4th Quarter Frank” for his ability to kick it up a notch late in the game.
This seems pretty deep, until you look at how they played without Charles Barkley: the superstar MVP they rode all the way to the finals. The Suns went 1-5 in the six games they played without the Chuckster in 1992-1993. The Kevin Johnson / Tom Chambers Suns of the late 80’s and early 90’s had been consistent 50-55 game winners, but they had come to rely so heavily on Barkley that when he was gone, they imploded. The system was built around a player and not a concept. When the round mound of rebound was gone, the system went with him (and wow, was it ever obvious the season after he left).
The 2004-2005 Suns may have been the most fun team to watch in Suns history, but they were also the shallowest on this list. The players in the regular rotation were Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Shawn Marion, Jim Jackson, Bo Outlaw, Amare Stoudemire, and Steven Hunter. While 9 players seems acceptable, in reality it got tightened down to a mostly-seven man rotation in the playoffs, with the starters playing heavy minutes, and Bo Outlaw being more or less pushed out of his role as back-up PF.
It also had the same problem as the 1992-1993 Suns: the system was entirely reliant on one player: namely their MVP point guard Steve Nash. The Suns played 7 games without him that season and were a putrid 2-5 in that span. The offense collapsed, and the team was incapable of putting points on the board. The offense turned into a series of isos which other teams stifled. They looked worse than the 29-53 team from the previous year. Simply put: the Suns back-ups to Nash were incapable of running the offense the way Nash did, and the team imploded without him.
The 2006-2007 Suns had the exact same problem: Leandro Barbosa wasn’t a point guard, and Marcus Banks wasn’t a basketball player. Without Nash, they went 2-4. In the playoffs, they fell to the Spurs with Diaw and Amare suspended for one game after leaving the bench briefly. They fought gamely, but they just couldn’t compensate for the loss of two of their top players.
The 2021-2022 Suns are a different story. Chris Paul was lost for 15 games due to a broken hand after the All-Star break, and the team barely missed a beat. They won 11 of 15 games with their Hall of Fame Point God on the bench. If they had been like previous iterations of the Suns, they would have gone something like 4-11, looking at a 57-58 win season, and be locked in a race to the finish with Memphis for home court advantage. Similarly, if the 1992-93 Suns had lost Barkley for 15 games, or the 2004-05 Suns had gone without Nash for the same number, they would have also finished with perhaps 55 wins. The short of it is that this year’s Suns are on pace to win 65 games, with a level of injuries that would have left the previous best teams in franchise history with only 55 or 56 wins.
Instead, the system was strong enough to withstand losing not just CP3, but every other contributor on the team at some point or another during the season.
Booker, Payne, Shamet, Crowder, Johnson, Ayton, and McGee have missed significant stretches of the season. Dario Saric has missed the entirety of the season, Frank Kaminsky has been out since December, and Abdel Nader got injured and was cut. The only two prominent members of the team who haven’t missed time due to injury are Mikal Bridges, Ish Wainwright (undrafted player on a 2-way contract), Torrey Craig (mid-season pick up), Elfrid Payton (fourth sting point guard), and Bismack Biyombo, who is effectively the Suns fifth string center. (yes, you read that right).
The result is that the Suns rank 6th in player games lost, and the value of those players (measured in lost Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)) is 3rd in the league. While the Suns have been accused of being “lucky” with injuries, the actual data tells an entirely different story. The Suns “Big 3” of CP3, Booker, and Ayton have only played together in 33 of 60 games. At one point during the season, with Ayton, McGee, Saric, and Kaminsky out, the Suns rummaged around the bargain bin of mid-season unrestricted free agents, pulled out Bismack Biyombo, and made him look like an All-Star.
This, if nothing else, demonstrates the strength of Monty Williams’ .5 system, his coaching, and how deep the team really is: during the stretch with Biyombo starting the team went undefeated. The Suns can call on any one of 12 players (Paul, Payne, Holiday, Booker, Shamet, Bridges, Johnson, Crowder, Craig, Ayton, McGee, and Biyombo) and not worry that they’ll destroy their own team on the court. They have another two who can give you good regular season minutes off the bench in Kaminsky and Wainwright. They literally have only one player whose play can sink the whole team in the form of Elfrid Payton. However, the damage he can do now, after the acquisition of Aaron Holiday, as the 4th string point guard who probably will be left off the playoff roster, is minimal.
That’s why the 2021-2022 Suns are best team in franchise history: not because they have superstars, but because they can survive, and continue to play at a high level, even when they’re missing their best players.