The Phoenix Suns are on a heater right now having won their last seven consecutive games. Just two weeks ago the team was 4-6 and, after a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, were slotted as the 10th seed in the west. They now are 11-6 and have the third-best record in the conference.
There are multiple reasons for the Suns’ recent success. Devin Booker returned, which is probably the most important of the bunch. He has been on a tear, averaging 29 points and 8 assists since returning. His efforts earned him Western Conference Player of the week honors this past week.
Scheduling hasn’t hurt them either, as they have played numerous sun-.500 teams along the way. The Jazz, the Grizzlies, the Blazers. Not what you would classify as “juggernauts” in the west. But T.C.O.B., right?
One thing we have witnessed is an increased cohesion on both the offensive and defensive ends of the ball. Crazy, isn’t it? The implementation of an entirely new coaching staff with their complex schemes being downloaded to a roster with 13 new players takes time. Who woulda thought?
One aspect of the new coaching philosophies deployed by Frank Vogel is a focus on attacking the rim. The Suns are doing something that we are not used to as a result of this new found mentality: they are getting to the free-throw line with regularity.
The importance of doing so cannot be understated. Getting to the line and an imposition of will. You’ve put pressure on the opposing defense to the point in which they foul you. And getting to the line means that they are fouling you a lot. You force the hand of the opposing coaching staff, disrupt their rotations, and generate mid-game mismatches.
During the Chris Paul era, and under Monty Williams’s tutelage, the team settled for jump shots from the mid-range. This wasn’t the worst thing in the world, seeing as you had both Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the team. They are elite from the mid-range and the points would flow.
But it was a mentality to not attack the interior. It was a mentality to settle.
When the postseason comes around, you need to impose your will while simultaneously putting the opposing team in foul trouble and garnering free points from the line. The Suns couldn’t do it. It wasn’t part of their offensive attack, and it hasn’t been for a while.
If we look at the last five years of Suns’ basketball and where they ended up relative to the rest of the league in free-throw attempts, here’s what you find:
- 2022-23: 21.7 (27th)
- 2021-22: 19.9 (27th)
- 2020-21: 18.7 (29th)
- 2019-20: 23.8 (10th)
- 2018-19: 22.7 (20th)
In fact, the last time the Phoenix Suns finished in the top five in the NBA free-throw attempts was 2016-17 when they were second in the league with 26.3. That was an Earl Watson year for those who have selective memory.
This year‘s Phoenix Suns? They shoot the third most free-throw attempts per game at 26.5. This is a culture shift that we are watching play out before us in real-time. Frank Vogel stated in his media day presser that he wanted the Suns to play, “Scrappy as hell”. James Jones has provided him with a team that does just that.
It doesn’t hurt when you have Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on your team, although Devin Booker hasn’t had the benefit of the whistle in the past. He is averaging 8.1 free-throw attempts per game, his highest average in his career.
Durant, on the other hand, has benefitted in the past. In 2009-10 with OKC, KD averaged 10.2 attempts. This season he is at 8.5, which qualifies for the 5th most he’s taken. So yeah, having Booker and Durant combine for 16.6 attempts from the line directly affects their ranking in the league.
Did Booker’s superstar performance in the postseason finally change the narrative? Are officials finally giving him his due for his willingness to attack the cylinder? Through 9 games this season, Devin Booker has driven to the basket 142 times, or 15.8 times per game. How has he fared in seasons past?
- 2022-23: 12.8 drives per game
- 2021-22: 9.9 dpg
- 2020-21: 13.4 dpg
- 2019-20: 14.3 dpg
- 2018-19: 13.9 dpg
The increased rate of free throws for Booker isn’t coming from reputation, it’s coming from aggression. He has adjusted his style of play in Vogel’s system to be more of a penetrating force versus a pull-up jump shooter.
“Our team’s structured completely different than it has been in the past,” Booker said after the Suns’ win over the New York Knicks on Sunday evening.
What we have been clamoring for for years has come to fruition. The Suns are an aggressive team that is forcing the issue, getting to the line, scoring valuable points in that manner, and winning basketball games as a result.