We’ve seen this movie before, and its ending was less than desirable. The Phoenix Suns are in dire need of Cameron Payne to regain his productivity. I know, that sounds strange to say about a team that has won four consecutive games and is 16-5 since January 19. In the grand scheme of things, however, that statement has merit.
Cameron Payne missed significant time with a left foot injury this season. Prior to that injury, he was playing beautiful basketball. His speed, agility, and – most importantly – his confidence appeared to have returned following an injury riddled 2022 campaign.
We know how that ended.
Payne was in and out of the lineup last season as he nursed hamstring and ankle injuries. When he returned, he couldn’t get back to the Payne he was the prior season: The Payne who was instrumental in the team reaching the NBA Finals.
Cam Payne shot 29.7% from the field – 16.7% from beyond the arc – for 4.2 points a game in 13 postseason games in the 2022 postseason. His assist-to-turnover ratio was 2:1. These aren’t what you want/need from your backup point guard.
This season, he returned, and appeared to regain his 2021 form. In his first 26 games, 14 of which were as a starter in Chris Paul’s absence, Payne was averaging 12.7 points on 41.6% shooting and 38.7% from. That assist-to-turnover ratio? 2.65:1.
And then his injury happened. Cam missed 9 games, came back for two games, and re-injured his foot. In total he missed 29 games.
He fought hard to return to the court, but when he did, he was met with an entirely new challenge. For his first two games, he was playing on ball as the backup point guard. In his next three games, due to the arrival of Kevin Durant and his playing time with the second team unit, Payne played off ball. KD injured his ankle prior to the game on Wednesday, Payne return to on ball duties.
It’s a small sample size. Six games filled with inconsistency relative to his role within the second team offense following 29 games out. He’s averaged 11.2 points on 40.9% shooting, including 36% from deep. That assist to turnover ratio is at 2.45:1.
Now there is news that Kevin Durant is out until at least the final week of the regular season.
Phoenix needs Cameron Payne. Now. They need anyone they can to help carry the load offensively for the Suns, and Payne’s role of providing respite for both Booker and Paul is vital to the teams long term success.
Again, we’ve seen this movie before.
An injury to Chris Paul late in the 2021-22 season caused him to miss 15 games. Devin Booker, who surely appreciated the 14.9 points and 10.7 assisted CP3 provided each night, put the team on his back. He carried the team to the best record in franchise history.
It might not have been a direct result, but you could argue that the physical stress of carrying the team indirectly played a factor in Booker’s hamstring pull in Game 2 of the first round against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Phoenix won the series, but it wore down Chris Paul as he compensated for his teammate’s absence. As annotated above, Cameron Payne wasn’t much of a help.
Payne will see more on ball activity with Durant out. That time needs to be productive.
With Payne, a lot of it is mental. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and we love him for that. In his first game back on February 24, he was yelling, he was screaming, he was letting everyone know how excited he was to return.
That onslaught of emotion is also apparent when he’s struggling. He hangs his head. He rolls his eyes. He pouts. Cam Payne doesn’t just need to get right for the team, he needs to get right for himself. He needs to regain that confidence as the Suns close out the season, for if he has an answer in the postseason, he can carry the team for stretches of the game.
This piece contains no instructions on how to do it. The minutes will be his, and it will be his not to lose. There is no true back up or secondary option to Payne. It is the one area of the roster the Suns did not address at the trade deadline or via the buyout market.
While some players have the ability to bring the ball up the court, Payne is the one who’s getting paid to do it. And with Kevin Durant out for a while, Point Book isn’t the way to go. We’ve seen what happens when he has to carry this team for extended periods of time. He does! And then he gets injured.
It’s a delicate line the Phoenix Suns are toeing for the final 16 games of the season. They find themselves two games out of the second or third seed. And hopefully they’ve given himself enough separation to avoid losing the fourth seed and losing home court advantage in the first round. They can’t afford to begin the playoffs with both Devin and Kevin watching street clothes.
Players need to step up and take the pressure off. Cameron Payne is one of those players.