Last season, the Phoenix Suns finished 64-18 and finished comfortably in first place. This season, the Suns may not even win 45 games.
How did such a huge fall-off happen? Was it all due to injury?
Certainly, injuries were a lot of the problem. Chris Paul missed a month early and another chunk in the middle. Devin Booker and Cameron Johnson both missed two months. Kevin Durant has missed almost two months since being acquired in early February. Deandre Ayton missed time too. Torrey Craig — yes, that guy who was the Suns 11th man the last two playoff runs — will likely lead the team in the minutes played this year. It’s been a rough year in the health department.
But what specifically on the court can explain the substantially worse record? What does the data tell us about where the 2021/2022 Suns outclassed the 2022/2023 Suns in the regular season?
I set out hoping to find a fairly obvious answer, something I could distill into one or two data points. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. But here are some interesting things I did find, and which you may have noticed on some level too.
Yeah, the free throws. Last year’s Suns had an issue with it. This year’s Suns have been worse. The 2022 Suns made 15.9 free throws per game, and their opponents made 17.3 per game. So that’s a 1.4 point differential.
The 2023 Suns are actually making more free throws...17.1 per game. But their opponents are making 20.5 per game. That’s a 3.4 point per game differential, a huge percentage increase year over year. When you consider that the Suns’ per game point differential is fewer than two points, this seems even more significant.
Even one wasted possession can decide a game. Last year’s Suns averaged only 12.9 turnovers per game, good for 7th in the NBA. This year’s edition is coughing it up 13.8 times per game, only ranking 12th in the league. This seems like a small thing, and perhaps it is, but again, the Suns’ per game point differential is only a single possession.
This one is pretty obvious. The Suns shot almost 49% from the field last season, leading the league. This year it’s 47%, still very respectable at 6th in the NBA, but still a fairly significant drop in efficiency from the field. Looking at the more telling metric of True shooting (since we did talk about free thows already) last year the Suns were 5th in the NBA at 58%. This year they are at 57%, a seemingly small dip that nonetheless ranks them all the way back at 22nd. That just goes to show you how much parity there truly is in the NBA, that what separates a top 5 scoring team from a bottom third scoring team is not necessarily going to jump out and slap you in the face when you take a look at it.
This one is obvious. The combination of Ayton missing time, trading Mikal Bridges, and Chris Paul losing another half step was bound to impact this, and it did. The Suns went from an elite 107.3 points allowed per 100 possessions (#3 in the league) last year to a merely pretty good 113.3 (#8) this year. Despite having a great offense last season, defense was what the Suns really hung their hats on, and they haven’t been able to dominate on that end this season.
Taken one at a time, none of these little declines would likely add up to a major drop off for an NBA team. But taken together, they’ve dropped our Suns from the class of the regular season to a pretty average team. We all can intuit some of these reasons. Injuries, especially to Booker and Durant. Declines from prior years, especially for Chris Paul. Whatever you think the main cause is, or who you blame, the facts are the facts out on the court, and that’s what the Suns have to reckon with.
The good news is that the Suns are still in playoff position, and look to be at least in decent shape to start the postseason healthy-ish and with home court advantage in the first round. They are 4-0 with a starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Josh Okogie. Their bench has scorers in Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren, a speed demon in Cam Payne, and good defenders in Bismack Biyombo and Torrey Craig.
Durant is the key, of course. His presence for 30-35 minutes a night will solve just about every problem listed above. Shooting? He’s one of the best in the history of the game, including this year. Free throws? He’s averaged 7 per game for his career, so that closes the free throw gap right there. Defense? He’s long enough to defend on the perimeter and at the rim, allowing the Suns to be more aggressive all around because now there’s two rim protectors in the game at once.
Get into the postseason, and is there a team the Suns just can’t beat when they’ve got all their guys?
I don’t think so. I don’t take any of the top teams lightly. Several would offer a serious challenge to even a healthy Suns team, especially in a road series. But I still think the Suns have a team well-crafted for the playoffs, even if the regular season wasn’t quite what we’d hoped.