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2021 NBA Finals - Game Four

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Deep Dive: Suns best players rising, falling on Top 100 list...and cracking the Top 10 for the first time

Booker, Bridges rise up the ranks as Paul, Ayton fall down

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Once a year, ESPN puts out their Top 100 list of NBA players. Players are ranked by more than 200 of their basketball staff in a series of ‘who will be better in 2022-23’ questions.

The Phoenix Suns did well, placing four of their players among the top 51 ranked, which would put all four among the top 10% of NBA players.

I know many of you don’t pay for the $$ access, so here’s a breakdown for you.

First, let’s do this by team:

  • No players in the Top-100 (1 team): Spurs
  • One player in the Top 100 (4 teams): Pistons (Cade Cunningham), Hornets (LaMelo Ball), Rockets (Jalen Green), Magic (Paolo Banchero - R)
  • Two players (4): Clippers (Leonard, George), Thunder (Giddey, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander), Wizards (Porzingis, Beal), Jazz (Conley, Clarkson)
  • Three players (4): Mavericks (Doncic, Wood, Dinwiddie), Pacers (Hield, Turner, Haliburton), Bucks (Middleton, Holiday, Antetokounmpo), Lakers (Westbrook, Davis, James)
  • Four players (12): Suns (Ayton, Bridges, Paul, Booker), Knicks (Robinson, Randle, Brunson, Barrett), Nets (Curry, Simmons, Irving, Durant), Kings (K. Murray - R, Barnes, Fox, Sabonis), Wolves (Russell, Edwards, Gobert, Towns), Blazers (Simmons, Nurkic, Grant, Lillard), Pelicans (Jonas, McCollum, Zion, Ingram), Nuggets (Gordon, MPJ, J. Murray, Jokic), Bulls (Ball, Vucevic, DeRozan, LaVine), Raptors (Anunoby, Barnes, VanVleet, Siakam), Heat (Herro, Lowry, Bam, Butler), Sixers (Harris, Maxey, Harden, Embiid)
  • Five players (3): Hawks (Bogdan, Capela, Collins, Dej. Murray, Young), Grizzlies (Clark, Brooks, Bane, JJJ, Morant), Warriors (Poole, Green, Klay, Wiggins, Steph)
  • Six players (1): Cavaliers (Love, Levert, Allen, Garland, Mobley, Mitchell)
  • Seven players (1): Celtics (G. Williams, Brogdon, Horford, R. Williams, Smart, Brown, Tatum)

How do we make sense of all this? Not much, really. Except that some teams are deeper in ‘really good’ talent than others. It’s a 450+-player, 30-team league, meaning a completely balanced league would have 3 players in the Top 100 each year.

So here are some takeaways:

  1. Anything more than three Top-100 players gives you a competitive advantage over (almost all of) the others. In the ESPN ranking, 17 teams have 4+ Top-100 players. 16 teams make the playoffs each year. The only ‘4+ top-100’ teams I think will fail to make the playoffs are the Kings, who are the Kings of ineptitude and one of their Top-100 is a rookie who’s never taken an NBA court, and the Blazers, who have some good talent but will have a really hard time cracking the top 8 of the West. One more on-the-cusp team in the 4+ group who could miss the playoffs? The Bulls, who just don’t know when Lonzo Ball will be back.
  2. Any team with three or fewer Top-100 players has a tall hill to climb. Teams with fewer than 4 players listed in ESPN’s top-100 but still expect to make the playoffs include the contending Bucks, contending Clippers and Luka’s Mavericks. All three of those teams a have Top-5 overall talent (Kawhi was Top 5 when last healthy), but will be relying heavily on health to make it work. The Bucks lost in the second round last year when one of their top three got hurt, the Clippers missed the whole playoffs without Kawhi and Mavericks are just didn’t have enough staying power in the Conference Finals when the bit players regressed back to the mean and all the pressure fell on Luka’s shoulders alone.
  3. If you’re a math nerd, you’ll like this: Of the teams with at least 4 Top-100 players, the Suns have the fourth-highest average rank of those top four players (32.5) and the second-highest ranked ‘fourth best’ player (51st) in the whole league. The Suns don’t have the luxury of a Top-5 player on their roster, but they are deeper than most anybody in really good players. Don’t forget the Suns have the second-most playoff wins (21) all NBA teams the last two years.

Feel free to have some of your own takes, in addition to mine. Hope you enjoy this.

Let’s take a dive into how ESPN ranked each of the Phoenix Suns best players.


Devin Booker — Rises into ESPN Top 10

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns - Game Seven Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

ESPN commentary

Only 25 years old and already a three-time All-Star and coming off an All-NBA selection, Booker and his silky smooth offensive game should vie for the top shooting guard status in the league for years to come.

Why he rose five spots

Booker’s ascendant year — an NBA Finals run, followed by an Olympic gold medal and leading Phoenix to a league-best 64 wins in the regular season — ended with a precipitous fall. The Suns were unceremoniously bounced from the second round of the playoffs, with Booker combining to shoot a combined 9-for-31 in Games 6 and 7 against Dallas.

But Booker’s 26.8 points per game last season ranked No. 12 in the league, further cementing his reputation as one of the game’s most lethal scorers. However, he’ll take the next step by leveraging those scoring skills in crunch time. Last season, in the first nine minutes of quarters, Booker shot 48.5% overall and 42.1% from 3. In the last three minutes of quarters? He shot 41.8% from the field and 31.8% from deep.

One huge question for 2022-23

The Suns won a whopping 74.6% of their regular-season games over the past two seasons but are defined just as much by their flameouts as they are their success. Booker’s rise to All-Star status has been largely absent of the weight of expectations. He will have to win big in the playoffs to further his place in the game.

The question is, in today’s NBA, where the top tier of superstardom is reserved for players who dominate on both ends, what room for growth remains for Booker? Offensively, he relies on finesse, angles and footwork to do his damage. Defensively, he’s certainly known as a heady player who can operate within team schemes. Can he become more forceful with his stops and his scores to keep climbing up the list of the game’s best?

— Dave McMenamin

  • 2022 rank: 10
  • 2021 rank: 15
  • 2020 rank: 17
  • 2019 rank: 30

I really appreciate that ESPN is lauding Booker as the best shooting guard in the NBA and Top-10 status in the NBA at just 25 years old, but I couldn’t help but notice how they downgraded Booker for games 6 and 7 of the Dallas series while choosing to ignore Jayson Tatum’s awful Finals as they rated him 3 spots higher than Booker. But that’s just narrative, I guess. I don’t necessarily disagree with Tatum being ranked above Booker at this point in their careers (though he shouldn’t be above Kevin Durant, who was ranked in between them!). Tatum and Booker are pretty even in terms of overall impact to their team.

One thing to watch with Booker as his playoffs career continues. He’s great in closeout games where the Suns have the series lead, but not so great in elimination games. It’s those outsized elimination game performances where players like Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Durant, Jamal Murray, and so many others get a rep that transcends their stats.

  • Closeout Book (3-1 record): 30 points, 46% FG, 38% 3P
  • Elimination Book (0-2 record): 15 points, 30% FG, 0% 3P

*not including Pelicans this year, where he was mostly a decoy nursing injured hammy; but does include Dallas series where Suns were up 3-2 in Dallas

At some point in his career, Book will need to lead the Suns to victory in an elimination game. At that point, given everything else he’s already proven, he becomes one of the best handful of players in the entire NBA.


Chris Paul — Drops to 21st

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN commentary

One huge question for 2022-23: Did the Mavericks series signal the end of Paul’s dominant days? The “Point God” was diminished against Dallas, averaging just 8.8 points, 6.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers and 4.0 fouls in Games 4 through 7, as the Suns’ playoff run ended in the second round. At 37 and entering his 18th season, the clock is running against him.

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Count out CP3 at your own risk. Remember when ESPN BPI gave the Oklahoma City Thunder just a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs in Paul’s lone season with the franchise and he led them to a 44-38 record and Game 7 in the first round against the Houston Rockets?

— Dave McMenamin

  • 2022 rank: 21
  • 2021 rank: 13
  • 2020 rank: 15
  • 2019 rank: 32

Our best guess is that Chris Paul’s career will start to decline from here on out — the only question is how precipitous the fall.

On one hand, he was awful the last four games of the Dallas series, strangely immediately after his 37th birthday. On the other hand, he was primarily responsible for four of the Suns six playoff wins before that.

  • Pre-37 Paul in 2022 Playoffs (6-3 record): 21.4 points, 9.2 assists, 57% FG, 35% 3P
  • Age-37 Paul in 2022 Playoffs (1-3 record): 8.8 points, 6.3 assists, 48% FG, 50% 3P

Prior to the playoffs, Paul earned All-NBA and All-Star nods for his excellent performance in the 2021-22 regular season, leading the Suns to a league-best 64-18 record. That was his third straight All-Star/All-NBA season after a three-year dip that had people writing him off back then.

Did Chris Paul make a deal with his fairy godperson to buy exactly three extra years of greatness? Or was is just a bad four-game set at the worst possible time?

That’s the biggest Suns question mark entering the 2022-23 season.


Mikal Bridges — Rises to 49th

2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

ESPN

Swing skill: Bridges was one of three Suns players, along with Jae Crowder and Chris Paul, to rank in the top 25 in defensive real plus-minus last season. Coach Monty Williams often credited the 6-foot-6 Bridges as the key to Phoenix’s defensive success due to his ability to crowd ball handlers while also disrupting as a help defender.

— McMenamin

  • 2022 rank: 49
  • 2021 rank: 66
  • 2020 rank: Not ranked
  • 2019 rank: Not ranked

Mikal Bridges is not a guy who can carry a team into the playoffs, or win a playoff game with his own playmaking. But he’s just about the best non-star in the league because he does everything a star teammate needs him to do. While Book scores, Paul passes and Ayton rebounds, Bridges does everything else, from defense to cutting to shot-making. Him being in the Top-50 of NBA players (top 10% in a 450-player league) is a perfect placement for him.

To keep rising, Bridges will need to add some Type-A aggressiveness to his offensive game and become a dude who can get you buckets in crunch time out of nothing. The Suns need another late-game playmaker, so the opportunity is there.


Deandre Ayton — Drops to 51st

2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

ESPN

One game to watch: Feb. 7 at Brooklyn, a game that could have been vastly different following Kevin Durant’s summer trade request. Had Durant gotten his wish, Ayton could have been a Net for this showdown of championship hopefuls. Instead, Ayton reupped with the Suns and can veto any trade that involves him for a year.

— McMenamin

  • 2022 rank: 51
  • 2021 rank: 35
  • 2020 rank: 52
  • 2019 rank: 66

Ayton dropped in ESPN’s ranking because his 2022 playoffs was not quite as impactful as his 2021 run. He wasn’t the defensive unicorn this time who could bottle up both the paint and the perimeter, and his rebounding numbers dropped a bit as well.

Ayton is now the Suns second-biggest question mark this year, behind Chris Paul. After spending the last year worried about his second NBA contract — but even moreso the team’s perception of him as a max-worthy player — Ayton now has that max money and trade-veto power in his back pocket.

While we may never know what tight-lipped GM James Jones truly thinks of Ayton’s NBA value (beyond not being his second designated-five-year-rookie-max-extension guy), we did get some credible rumoring this past year that Sarver was definitely against making Ayton a max contract offer outright. Hence the restricted free agency forcing another teams’ hand. Sarver is out of the picture now.

We also know that head coach Monty Williams has never talked publicly about making Ayton more of an offensive centerpiece than he already is — in fact, any time Ayton’s had a great offensive game, it’s more likely Monty says something like ‘that wasn’t Suns basketball’. And you don’t give a max contract to a player who is not an offensive centerpiece. Heck, even one of the game’s greatest defensive players of all time, Draymond Green, has always been lower on the Warriors max-extension list than offensive powerhouses Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Ayton’s offense is light years ahead of Green’s, though.

Ayton is worth his new contract (barely) thanks to the balance of really good offense and defense. Neither end is ‘player of the year’ caliber, but together they make a really good player worth a top-40 contract.

He can increase that value by continuing to incrementally improve his offense while also getting back to being that unique defensive player who can protect the rim, defend bulk on the low-post and effectively switch out on the perimeter.

Few players in the NBA can do all three of those things while also bringing a 60% field goal rate on 17 points per game and rebounding at a top-10 level.


What do you think, Suns fans? Did ESPN get it right?

Video/quotes: Chris Paul on Robert Sarver findings, mentality entering 19th season at Suns Media Day

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