Alone at the top again, but what’s different this time?
For the third consecutive regular season, the Phoenix Suns (5-1 so far) sit at or near the top of the NBA. Their five regular-season wins, including wins over last year’s playoff opponents the Mavericks and Pelicans in addition to wins over Golden State and the LA Clippers, are tied with the Bucks for the most wins among the likely contenders this season. His offensive rating (1st), defensive rating (4th) and net rating (1st) are also tops in the league again.
You might assume they’re the same old team you’ve seen the last couple of years, and for the most part you’d be right. Four-fifths of the starting lineup (Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges) is unchanged for the third year in a row.
As a team, they still dominate midrange, pass for big shots (2nd in assists), take fewer threes than most (24th) and don’t make many free throws (19th). It’s a beautiful thing to watch the Suns come up with pass after open shot after open shot, though too few of them are of the three-point variety.
So far so good this year. After blowing out defending champion Golden State last week, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said the Suns are “really buttoned up,” meaning the execution is at a high level.
His formula has been wildly successful in the regular season (most wins in the league since Chris Paul’s first game in a Suns unit) and even helped the Suns to the second-most playoff wins in the league the last two years.
But in every playoff, they’ve run into a defensive scheme they can’t crack. Both times, after taking a 2-0 series lead and looking like a sweep was looming, the Suns were defeated by defensive adjustments that left them powerless. Dallas used ball-handler blitzes (aggressive double teams) to force weak passes to weak players, while the Bucks switched passing lanes to force Book and Paul to take every shot.
Both schemes were successful because, as good as the Suns’ offense is, they only have two guys who can create a shot out of nowhere when the offense collapses, and one of them is stuck short most of the time. Chris Paul (6’0″ on a tall day) just got swallowed up by a really good long defenseman, and from there the Suns offense is in “Oh shit, somebody do something” mode.
Coming off of last year’s playoffs, the Suns’ brain trust knew they needed to manufacture more high-level players, either through free agency, trades or developing their own players.
Unfortunately, they did nothing in the offseason in that regard and now we’re looking at the same team with the same final weakness. Only to make matters worse, their second-best creator, Chris Paul, 37, appears to be in rapid decline.
So, skeptical expectations for this team when the 2023 Playoffs come around. They’ll win some games, for sure. Maybe even a couple of playoff rounds. But when the opponents get better, times will get tougher.
A skeptic’s view
No matter how good All-Star/All-NBA guard Devin Booker has looked so far this season. He looks even better than the guy who scored the sixth-most points in NBA history before turning 26, scored the most points of any player in his first playoff debut (2021) and is one of three players (along with LeBron and MJ). ) who did all that scoring while also averaging at least 4.5 assists per game.
But he can’t carry the Suns alone.
Only a handful of players in history (Michael Jordan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to name a couple) have successfully navigated the NBA playoffs like the distant No. 1 offensive weapon surrounded by baby birds that need food for dinner. With apologies to Scottie and Khris, they just can’t/couldn’t consistently break down a defense to create a score out of nothing on their own. And the Suns don’t even have a #2 yet playing at the level of Scottie or Khris.
Heck, even LeBron James needed top tier #2 scorers to win his championships (Wade, Irving, Davis) and even he fell short in years that weren’t in his prime. See also Dallas. Luka Doncic is a perennial MVP candidate and an unstoppable offensive force, but Dallas didn’t even win a playoff series until it got a huge build from other players around him.
Booker is great, but he needs help. If the Suns enter the playoffs next spring with Booker backed up only by a declining Chris Paul and a handful of birds, he can’t be expected to carry the Suns all the way home.
During the season that the Suns reached the Finals, Chris Paul was at his best offensively in the second round and the Conference Finals to help the Suns close out those series. He seems unable to repeat that performance over four full playoff rounds at age 38.
An optimistic view
Wow, Dave, who peed on your cereal this morning?
Of course, the Suns can win the championship as it is currently constructed, as long as the young players around him continue to improve.
The keys to a championship would be Mikal and/or DA really stepping up, the defense actually stifling their playoff opponents, and Cameron Payne becoming the Payne of 2021 again.
If all of these things happen in May and June of 2023, the Suns could celebrate the Larry O’Brien Trophy during a raucous parade in downtown Phoenix.
Mikal/DA level up
The Suns know they need better from their top players. To that end, both Mikal and DA’s touches per game are up a lot from last year.
DA is 3rd on the team in touches per game (53 per game, not far behind Book) after being 5th a year ago. While he’s still getting help on nearly all of his shots (85), he’s now become a bigger part of the offense and has shown some brilliance in finishing shots against wild defenses in the late stages of the game. This is a big step in DA’s offensive evolution, even if he’s still not creating much out of thin air. On the plus side, he has his shot-making bag (he was assisted just 71% in Years 1 and 3) and a growing comfort level to be creative in the Suns scheme.
Mikal is 4th in touches (43.2) after being 6th a year ago. He works, at least for now, almost exclusively inside the three-point line getting buckets in the paint and mid-range. Like DA, he’s still getting help on most of his shots (70%, down from 76% the last three years), but he’s being more creative on the catch to create shots that weren’t there to begin with. He is making a career-high 63.7% of his shots, with a True Shooting over 71%.
Still, when your second and third scorers (well, most of your scorers in general) are assisted on 70% of their shots all season, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t know what to do with the ball. the playoffs if the pass does not score them directly.
The Suns will need to gradually increase the chances without the help of Mikal and DA throughout the season. especially when Book and Paul are on the floor. That’s why you see Paul doing more catch-and-shoots than he’s seen in years.
What got the Suns to the Finals in 2021 but hurt them in 2022 was their playoff defense. The Suns played the fourth-best defense through four rounds of the 2021 playoffs, but 14th-best (out of 16 teams) in 2022.
What hurt the Suns in 2022? In the first round he was pounded on the boards for second-chance points, and in the second round it was diminutive Chris Paul and other weak defenders who traded back to Luka Doncic.
In the first steps of the 2022-23 season, the Suns’ coaching staff has already shown its willingness to adapt. They beat Dallas on opening night by – gasp! — sit Chris Paul for the last 6:41 to make it easier to keep a good, bigger defender on Luka all the time. Also, Mikal Bridges stayed locked on Luka more often, instead of automatically switching whenever Dallas wanted him to. And then against the table-happy Pelicans, they actually showed off their new rebounding muscle even after losing Ayton to a sprained ankle. The Suns are, I know, it’s early, 5th in the league in rebounding. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are hitting career highs so far, while the bench outscores their opponents on a nightly basis.
Another big development is seeing Cameron Payne return to his 2020-21 form. He’s making nearly 40% of his threes and showing flashes of being a difference-maker off the bench in a playmaking role. Payne was sore last year and ultimately lost his job late in the second round against Dallas. Instead, he played a big role in the playoff wins over the previous year lakers and Clippers, including a 9/29 night in the conference finals when Chris Paul was out with COVID.
If Payne can play a role similar to what Spencer Dinwiddie played on the 2022 Mavericks, as a surprise shot creator off the bench when Book and/or CP are rested, then the Suns have a much better chance of surviving the playoffs.
In fact, the “good” Payne was a big part of the 2020-21 Suns second unit that helped give the starters big 4th quarter leads not only in the regular season but also in the playoffs. And “bad” Payne was part of a second unit that squandered a lot of leads, forcing the starters to win clutch minutes time and time again because the game was always within 5 points as the final 5 minutes began.
We expect the “good” Payne to be back all season.
Everything can break right for the Suns, even if they don’t make a blockbuster trade. But all these things have to happen for the breaks to materialize.
When the Suns once again end up with one of the top playoff seeds, watch carefully how they do it. He has to be with Ayton, Bridges and Payne on par, while defense remains his calling card when it matters most.
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