What a crazy three months for the Phoenix Suns huh?
After two years of not changing a single thing from the 2021 Finals team, it took sustained, massive injuries up and down the roster to induce team Pres. James Jones and new owner Mat Ishbia to upgrade the core of a contender and remake the whole rotation.
Up until two weeks ago, the Suns still had nine players from the 2021 Finals, including their top seven. A day later, they’d shipped half of them out, with the main prize being All-Timer Kevin Durant to take over as the best player on the team.
Phew! I was worried the Suns would let another season pass without making a major upgrade from good to potentially great.
How did we get here?
Mostly: injuries. But also partially: the need to infuse the lineup with more shot-creation out of nothing — a primary reason they lost in both the 2021 Finals and 2022 Second Round of the playoffs.
Injuries have been the story of the last three months for sure.
Mangameslost.com goes beyond games missed to factor in each injured player’s Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). The Suns lead the league in impactful games missed this season.
NBA top 5, impact on teams by players lost to injury (Lost-vorp metric, lost value over replacement player)— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) February 16, 2023
And you know what’s funny? Jae Crowder, who has averaged the Suns’ 6th-best +1.4 VORP since 2020, is not even a part of this metric because he was a holdout, not an injury.
NBA injury plot. Games missed by injured players and health protocols versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost for games (Lost-vorp metric)https://t.co/o263kR9oJA pic.twitter.com/7bZS1pBfql— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) February 16, 2023
Coming into the season, we could not have anticipated Torrey Craig and Damion Lee playing the 3rd and 4th-most minutes on the team, followed closely by Josh Okogie and Jock Landale!
If you had told me Craig, Lee, Okogie and Landale would be among the top eight in total minutes played at the All-Star break, I’d have been scheduling Victor Wembanyama prayer groups while knowing FULL WELL the Suns would never get that lucky.
Yet somehow, despite the injuries/holdout, the Suns are still alive. And now they have Kevin Freaking Durant.
They are only sitting in 5th place in the West but they are just 1.5 games back of 3rd. A good post-All Star record will likely net the Suns at least one round of home court advantage in the playoffs.
*Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet have appeared in less than 40 of the Suns 60 games and are still top-10 in total minutes. Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder barely played at all. Those six were projected to be among the Suns best eight players this season.
While we applaud unexpected players for making winning contributions, let’s also applaud Monty Williams and his coaching staff. How in the world did they manufacture a winning record and fresh momentum out of those injuries?
Let’s take a moment to break it down by month before we get into the fun stuff: predicting the future!
Doesn’t October seem like years ago? That was the last time the Suns had as little as ONE player out injured, or in this case holding out for money and/or starting role he wasn’t getting anymore from the Suns.
November started getting muddy, but Devin Booker still kept them at the top of the West even without four rotation players, including All-Star Chris Paul.
The season went off the rails when Booker joined the injured list. That 5-11 December record was their worst in 4 years.
January started off just as bad, and Booker wouldn’t play a single game the whole month. But late in January, the tide began to turn when Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson returned to bolster the Mikal and DA show. By this time, Mikal Bridges was building his confidence and becoming a late-game finisher for the first time in his career.
Note the incredible offense to defense swings in December and January. The defense was absolutely terrible in December amid all the injuries, but recovered in January even as the offense plummeted without any playmakers in the lineup. Give credit to the coaching staff for figuring out how to manufacture good defense while playing a ton of minimum-salaries and two-ways all month.
February, through the All-Star break, has had some swings too. They were 3-1 before “the trades” and have gone 2-2 since as they integrate new players T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross will still awaiting the first appearance of Kevin Durant.
Predicting the future!
Now the Suns have just 22 games left before the playoffs begin.
We have already heard that Kevin Durant and Cam Payne are most likely going to play on Friday, February 24, against the OKC Thunder. If that happens, the Suns would be down to one name on the injury report (Landry Shamet still has no return date from foot pain) for the first time since October.
Considering all the roster changes, we could be looking at half the rotation being loaded with players we’ve never or barely seen the past two months.
Booker has played only 4 games since his return (3-1 record) and has racked up a 21-11 record this year in games he’s played at least 6+ minutes (much of that without Chris Paul). Before his injuries, he was averaging 36+ minutes per game. Even if Monty Williams tries to manage Book’s minutes better, we’re still probably getting 33+ the rest of the year and that might lead the team.
Kevin Durant has averaged 36 minutes per game for his career, but with the way the Suns have been managing injury comebacks we can expect at least the first month to be lower on minutes and games played than usual. He just needs to be healthy and full speed come playoffs.
We can also expect Cam Payne to relieve Chris Paul of playing so many minutes (34 per game over last 13, as the Suns have gone 9-4), and for T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross to continue to fill in on wing minutes to replace the lost Bridges/Johnson minutes, even moreso while Kevin Durant’s minutes are managed.
That’s five ‘new’ players to join five who’ve been battling on the court since calendar 2023 began. I’d expect Deandre Ayton (23 points, 11 rebounds in 33 minutes, over last 11), Chris Paul and Torrey Craig to keep their starting spots around Booker and Durant.
Josh Okogie, Damion Lee and a backup center will likely round out the rotation, while everyone else only plays in case of emergency.
You might wonder what about Landry Shamet, Monty’s favorite bench player, and I wonder about that myself. It’s just that Damion Lee has more than proven himself worthy of a playoff-level rotation, and they went to a lot of trouble to talk Terrence Ross into joining the team last week. That’s makes the shooting guard position 3-deep before Shamet returns from the foot injury, whenever that is.
The other whatabouts are two-way players Ish Wainright and Saben Lee.
Ish has been an important fill-in this season due to injuries, but has now played out his NBA-level eligibility and given the newfound health of the roster around him he’s not going to beat out anyone above him for minutes unless Okogie’s shot completely abandons him. Even if he gets that last roster spot this week, he won’t play much.
Lee is now the third-string small backup point guard. I don’t expect Monty Williams to go deep on 6’1” point guards if Booker, Durant and company are available again. Payne will be lucky to keep his rotation spot, considering a lineup with Booker at point guard is so tantalizing especially late in games. Still, it’s good to keep Lee as insurance on Cam Payne’s health.
Projecting the record
The Suns need to win 1+ more games than both the Kings and Clippers the rest of the way if they want the 3rd seed going into the playoffs. What kind of record would that take?
Let’s use some baselines. Assuming a modicum of health (4 or fewer rotation players out injured), the Suns are:
- 16-7 to start the season through December 4, and
- 11-4 over the past 15 games as they’ve slowly gotten Paul and Booker back
When the Suns can keep the injury chart below 4 major players at a time, they’ve won at a 71% clip. Applying that to the final 22 games is a 16-6 record, which gives them a 48-34 record on the season.
According to tankathon.com, which calculates remaining schedule strength only on current opponent records and nothing else, the Suns have the 6th-toughest remaining schedule in the league and 3rd-toughest in the West. But the Suns have only three more back-to-backs, and only one of those has the second game on the road.
To beat out the Sacramento Kings for 3rd in the West, the Suns need the Kings to finish no better than 47-35. Right now, the Kings are 32-25 with 25 games left. To lose the 3rd seed to the Suns, they would have to finish with a 15-10 record or worse as the Suns go 16-6 or better.
That’s more realistic than you think. The Kings are only 6-7 in their last 13 games and have an even tougher schedule than the Suns’ the rest of the way, per tankathon.com. They also have 6 back-to-backs among those final 25 games.
Looming in between the Suns and Kings are the Los Angeles Clippers (33-28). Assuming the Suns go 16-6 and Kings go 15-10 the rest of the way, the Clips can grab the 3rd seed by going 16-5 in their last 21 games to finish with a 49-33 record. They’ve certainly been playing better lately — a 10-4 record in their last 14 games — but they’ll need to be even better than that the rest of the way AND they just added Russell Westbrook as a buyout signee.
The Clips also happen to have THE toughest remaining schedule in the West, per tankathon.com, with an opponent winning % of 52.3%. Only the 76ers have a tougher remaining schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage. Add in four back-to-backs, especially with THIS team’s load management plan, and I find it hard to believe they can go 16-5.
So, I conclude that a 16-6 closing record by the Suns, which is very doable as long as two of Book/CP/Durant are available every game, will net them the 3rd seed.
And once they have the third seed, they at least get the first round of the playoffs with home court advantage. That’s a heck of a lot better than a few weeks ago, when the Suns were 21-24 and fans were talking about shutting Book down for the season and counting ping pong balls.