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Phoenix Suns: Contenders or Pretenders?

Behind the Synergy numbers, these Suns are the class of the league

Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

We know who these Phoenix Suns are. They are definitely Contenders and the most likely team in the NBA to get all the way to the championship, but that does not mean they will actually win it.

According to Synergy Sports, the Suns are the best team in the league this season. But when you compare to prior seasons, they are not quite as dominant as some teams in recent years (namely, the height of the Golden State Warriors).

You probably think ‘nerd’ and Synergy are entwined and you’re right, but if you are a Suns fans you are happy with their analysis anyway.

Synergy analyzed seven different categories:

  1. Overall net efficiency (including all regular season possessions, no filters)
  2. The last 20 games of the regular season
  3. Half-court possessions only
  4. Possessions initiated from 1-on-1 actions only (Pick and Roll, Post-Up, Isolation)
  5. Games versus. top-10 opponents
  6. Excluding garbage time (i.e. Including possession with point margin less than 10)
  7. Most-used lineup from each team

They did not share where the Suns ranked in all seven, but share that the Suns were Contenders in all seven (meaning top 75th percentile).

Looking across all the criteria, the only 2021-22 teams to fall into the Contenders Zone by all 7 standards were the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics, perhaps signaling our eventual finals matchup. However, neither team’s road will be easy, as the Jazz, Heat and Sixers all qualified in six out of the seven criteria.

As bad as the Suns bench played in the final six games, and going without Chris Paul for another chunk, I was surprised they still ranked among the top 5 or 6 NBA teams over the last 20.

Let’s look at some fancy charts.

Net Efficiency

This one’s easy. We’ve known the Suns are #1 in net efficiency. I’m more interested in what this graph is showing us.

Conference Finalists are highlighted, which is why 2021-22 is still faded out. You can see that the Suns and Celtics are fully separated from the pack this year, but the Suns are the second-worst net margin leader in the last eight years.

But you can also see that in most years, including the last three, the eventual NBA champion was NOT the leader in net efficiency during the regular season. In fact, four of the last eight champions were Contenders but far back in the pack.

Net Efficiency, excluding garbage time

Ahhh, here we go. As you know, the Suns have been just awful this season when they have a big lead and put out the end-of-bench lineups. Those stints, especially in the last six games where they lost 4 of 6 to close out the season, have hurt the overall net rating.

Here’s a chart that excludes garbage time and there’s a LOT more separation between the Suns and the rest of the pack.

The Suns’ +10.1 margin when the score is close is good for sixth among all conference finals teams since 2014, only trailing four different Warriors teams and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks.

Yet it’s still notable that the best non-garbage-time teams don’t always win the chip, and that the Suns are not as dominant as the best teams in prior years pre-COVID. I’m not crapping on the Suns. I’m just saying that the pack is closer than we want to think.

1-on-1 and Half-court Efficiency

The game slows down in the postseason and run/chaos-happy teams struggle a bit once the opponent can scout you and adjust across a series. Often, series are decided by a team’s ability to execute in the half-court and, when even that breaks down, execute in one-on-one situations.

Fortunately for us, the Suns lead the pack in these categories as well.

The Suns have improved this year in one-on-one actions, as you can see in the chart and were far ahead of the other conference finalists a year ago too. But one-on-one doesn’t decide your fate, or the Nets and Jazz wouldn’t have been knocked off in the second round.

In the half-court, the Suns shine too. And they are better than last year. But yet again, we are reminded by the Jazz and even the Warriors that half-court and one-on-one efficiency doesn’t guarantee a title.

What do we make of all this?

It’s just more affirmation that the Suns are the favorites to win the title for good reason, and yet are guaranteed nothing. Once you get it down to the top 25% of the league, NBA title winners are made in the playoffs not in the regular season. Injuries, fluke shots (Kawhi’s top-banger in 2019 comes to mind), nightmare matchups and a bit of luck all play a part in how far you can go in the playoffs.

Luckily for us, Suns GM James Jones knows what a championship team looks like and he’s shored up what killed them in the Finals (too much offensive reliance on Book/Paul and too few bigs). Jones closed out his playing career with seven straight Finals appearances (three championships), and now needed only three years to get the worst team in the league to back-to-back contending seasons.

Only two more sleeps till Round One starts!

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