Are Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns cooked?

Are Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns cooked?

Since the beginning of December, four teams have celebrated the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference standings. Three of them still reside in the West, as the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans seek their first trip to the NBA Finals.

And then there are the Phoenix Suns, the fourth member of that quartet, who entered December with a 15-6 record and ended it in freefall. Now, with star Devin Booker injured and a 20-21 losing record, the Suns face Tuesday’s showcase against the Golden State Warriors mired in the quagmire that is the middle of the Western standings — a half-game lead and they are sixth place, avoiding the play-in tournament; they’re up half a game and in 11th place, missing the postseason entirely.

Both scenarios at this point represent steep declines from the start of the season and from last season, when Phoenix came in at no. 1 seed with a record of 64-18. Even after a calamitous collapse in the playoffs, that regular-season dominance suggested the Suns would contend again. As I wrote before this season:

History favors the Suns, after they became the 32nd team in NBA history to lose fewer than 20 games in an 82-game schedule, because those previous 31 teams won, on average, 59, 3 games the following season.

In fact, none of those teams that went 63-19 or better fell even to mediocrity the following year, as the worst of the bunch still won 51 games the following season. So if the Suns win 50 games or less this season, it will represent an unprecedented collapse.

Hello, unprecedented collapse. Since the beginning of December, the Suns are on separate losing streaks of five and six (and counting) games. Before last month, their longest losing streak since Chris Paul’s arrival in 2020 was just four, when they dropped Games 3-6 of the 2021 Finals.

With Booker and key player Cam Johnson injured, and with Paul himself now injured (he missed the Suns’ loss to the Cavaliers on Sunday and has an unknown timetable for his return), Phoenix’s slump may not be over, either. Consider the challenge of the upcoming schedule, with a four-game road trip to Golden State, Denver, Minnesota and Memphis, immediately followed by home dates against the Nets, Pacers and Grizzlies. Booker will miss all of these games and more. The Suns’ hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament, or at the very least, their chances of hosting a playoff series again this spring, could end soon.

Even with their injured guards back, the Suns rest on a much shakier foundation than they did a season ago. The problems start with Paul, who is still a good offensive player at 37 — he’s making 40 percent of his 3s and has an elite assist-to-turnover ratio, but far from the player he once was All-NBA. selection the last two seasons in Phoenix. This new (er, older) Paul already missed 14 games with a heel injury, with more to come as his hip problem persists. When he has played, he has recorded career lows in:

  • Points per game (13.1)
  • 2-point field goal percentage (44%)
  • Free throw percentage (80%)
  • Adjusted True Shooting Percentage (4 percent below league average)
  • Player Efficiency Rating (17.4)
  • Offensive box plus/minus (1.7)

As a team, the Suns have dropped from third in effective field goal percentage last season, per Cleaning the Glass, to 18th now. Most individual Suns are shooting roughly the same percentages as they did last season, or even better in the case of guards Torrey Craig and Cam Payne. But Paul and Mikal Bridges have seen precipitous drops in their shot production, or the difference between their actual and expected eFG% eFG%, based on second spectrum metrics like shot location and defender distance.

Crafting Shots for Returning Sols

Door handle 2021-22 2022-23 To change
Door handle 2021-22 2022-23 To change
Torrey Craig -2.0% +1.2% +3.2%
Cameron Payne -0.6% +1.5% +2.1%
Devin Booker +7.1% +7.7% +0.6%
Landry Shamet +0.4% +0.5% +0.1%
Deandre Ayton +8.7% +8.8% +0.1%
Bismack Biyombo -2.8% -3.1% -0.3%
Cameron Johnson +5.4% +4.0% -1.5%
Mikal bridges +5.4% +1.6% -3.8%
Chris Paul +9.0% +4.9% -4.1%

Based on data from the second spectrum

Paul’s poor play has ripple effects for an aspiring contender. Even at the Suns’ peak, his offensive performance was always a bit shaky because he relied an inefficient shot profile and the midrange excellence of Booker and Paul. However, after leading the league in mid-range accuracy each of the first two seasons under Paul, Phoenix has dropped to 20th this season, by CtG.

If the Suns can’t score from mid-range at an efficient clip, and they still are prey mid-range shots at a high tempo; they just aren’t making them anymore; they just won’t score much, period. They still never get to the rim (29th in rim rate this season, 30th the last two seasons) and bleed points at the free throw line every night.

Phoenix ranks 29th in offensive free throw percentage and 30th in defense, per CtG, for a net difference of minus-6.7 free throws per 100 shot attempts, by far the worst in the league. Last season, by comparison, the Suns had just 1.7 fewer free throws per 100 shot attempts.

To be fair, the Suns aren’t as bad as they’ve looked lately, for two reasons. The first is bad luck in close games, which is unprecedented for a Paul-led team (at least in the regular season). In every season of his career thus far, the 18-year veteran’s teams have finished with a winning record in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes). They were often the best in the league. Last season’s Suns, for example, went 33-9 in the clutch, marking the fourth-best clutch winning percentage in the past quarter-century, according to NBA Advanced Stats .

But this year’s Suns are just 5-11 in clutch games, giving them the 29th-best winning percentage, and already have more losses than they did all of last season. They’re even worse, going just 1-8 with Paul on the floor. He’s certainly declined, but not to this extent, and the Suns’ point differential suggests they should have a couple more wins than they actually have.

The second problem is Booker’s injury. In the past, with a fit Paul, the Suns could survive without their leading scorer. Now they are lost. According to CtG, Phoenix scores 122 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor (better than the league’s best offense) and 107 points per 100 without him (worse than the league’s worst). That split is the second-most for any rotation player this season.

Bigger offensive on/off differentials

player differential
player differential
Nikola Jokic +16.7
Devin Booker +15.1
Luka Doncic +14.9
Stephen Curry +12.8
Aaron Gordon +12.7
Domantas Sabonis +12.6
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope +12.2
Mount Morris +12.1
Kevin Durant +11.6
Kevin Huerter +11.4
Cedi Osman +11.3
Damian Lillard +11.2

Based on data from Cleaning the Glass, among rotation players

There’s no shame in struggling without such an important player, just as the Nuggets or Mavericks would struggle if Jokic or Doncic, respectively, missed extended time. But there’s a difference between struggling and putting up a full face, and the Suns have veered toward the latter. The Warriors offer a worthwhile counterexample: They’ve mostly weathered Steph Curry’s absence, going 6-5 since injuring his shoulder, while the Suns are just 2-9 since Booker’s injury (counting his four-minute cameo at Christmas).

The Suns’ supporting cast doesn’t have anyone capable of filling the gaps between an injured Booker and a subprime Paul. After an offseason of discontent, the former no. 1 pick and recent max contract Deandre Ayton hasn’t made any notable strides and is still struggling to create an offense of his own. Seve a long-standing aversion to contact puts a firm cap on his ceiling: Of 22 centers with at least a 20 percent usage rate this season, Ayton ranks 21st in free throws, and the only players close to him — Nikola Vucevic and Naz Reid — at least shoot 3s, which Ayton doesn’t.

The Suns could re-emerge as a contender if a number of things happen between now and April: if they don’t fall further in the standings during their brutal stretch of the schedule; if your mid-range domain returns; if they find a decent win now in a trade for Jae Crowder, who is still holding out. But Paul’s slide and Ayton’s stagnation and all the recent struggles laid bare the stark reality: That special something that permeated Phoenix for two glorious, if not quite winning, seasons is gone.

In Paul’s first year, the Suns made the finals; the second year, they were the best team in the regular season. In the third year, it is not clear whether the window is already open.

Stats are current through Sunday’s games.

#Chris #Paul #Phoenix #Suns #cooked

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