Last Season: 34-39, 10th in the Western Conference

Though they shocked the league and ran off eight straight when the league made its return in the bubble, which was the best they could do for themselves, they needed too much help externally, which never came to fruition.

Off-season in review

The Phoenix Suns are now primed for a postseason appearance, and have firmly planted themselves as one of the teams under a spotlight for the 2020-2021 season.

A surprising 5-2 start, which then grew to 7-4 was the news of the league to start last season. This stretch, along with how they finished the season as stated earlier, garnered a lot of attention and respect.

Off season moves ensued which all serve as affirmations that the Phoenix Suns have transitioned back into a team with expectations for the first time in quite a while. 

GM James Jones and company enjoyed one of the best off seasons in terms of talent acquired. Adding said acquisitions can be attributed directly to the attention and respect their successes have garnered over the last calendar year, which Jones made note of in his initial interviews during media week:

“The guys that we added this offseason wanted to be in Phoenix. There wasn’t a lot of convincing that I had to do. They’ve seen the work that coach Monty and his staff put in, they’ve seen the progressions for Devin and the rest of our group and they wanted to be a part of it.”

This statement encapsulates the many strides this franchise has quietly made down in the desert. 

What do these acquisitions address?

Age and Experience 🧠

Last season the Suns had the youngest roster in the league. They’ve now added multiple veteran pieces that bring intangibles and experience that this team longed for last season. The acquisitions, mainly Paul and Crowder, come from numerous contending situations that can do nothing less than better prepare this team for meaningful games past the 72-game marathon.

Defense 🔒

The 2019-2020 Suns finished 17th in defense, middle of the pack. Paul and Crowder instantly bring an intensity and identity for the team that coincides with effectiveness on the less glamorous end of the floor. Those two are culture setters and will bring out the best in anyone who shares the floor with them defensively. Moore and Galloway are no slouches defensively either, as they’ll surely help to shore up those efforts in the second unit as viable bodies. 

A top 10 finish defensively should be comfortably attainable, and would be an indicator as to whether or not they’re operating at or near their peak potential.

Crunch Time Execution 👀

The Suns were 30-4 with the lead going into fourth quarters last season. They were also, however, only 16-21 in games deemed “clutch.”

The addition of Chris Paul, who was by far the clutchest player in the NBA last season, directly addresses one of their most glaring weaknesses 🎯.

In presence alone, he’s a three level scorer that is also always a threat to pick apart any defense with his passing ability and vision. Being this dynamic, in tandem with the all NBA level talent that Devin Booker is, who has his own prowess for scoring in the clutch, instantly equips Monty Williams with trustworthy closers regardless of opponent.

Intangibles 🙇‍♂️

This could be attributed to the aforementioned overall age of this group last season, but the Suns lacked this dynamic that playoff teams usually have. Leaders are hard to come by. No, not players with the leadership title thrusted upon them because of their superior talent. Leading by example is one part, but past that, being able to instill confidence into teammates or invigorate them in a profound manner when it’s needed most is something that is at an extreme premium across the league.

The Suns added the best leader in the NBA in attaining CP3. Look no further than his efforts in orchestrating the restart of the NBA through his personal networking, then finding a common ground for men of varying ethnicities and standpoints to come to terms with and finish one of the most trying seasons in history. Not to mention his efforts in uplifting a projected gutter team in OKC to a top 5 finish in the Western gauntlet, all the while going to the final possession of a round one game seven versus a contender in an all star level 15th campaign. Whew! The many intangibles he brings will pay great dividends at varying points throughout this season.

Jae Crowder also brings leadership of his own.

His is more via accountability and taking ownership, especially on the defensive end and in extra efforts conducive to a winning environment, nonetheless, they are invaluable. He was a key cog in Miami last season for these exact reasons.

Role Players ☑️

In addition to their homegrown players (Bridges, Saric, Johnson, Carter, Payne) now have low usage players surrounding their big three in Crowder, Galloway, and Moore. They also have a few more of those low usage guys on the bench that can play in different combinations with, and operate independent of, said big three. Having players who don’t need the ball to be effective surrounding your start talent is a recipe for a very good team, especially when your key guys fit well together.

What are the biggest variables in play?

Health

In any season, but especially one that coincides with a global pandemic, health is quite easily the biggest variable across the league. Past injury, the contracting of the virus is still hard to trace and is a very fluid situation as well. Players being lost for days or weeks at a time, then them having to follow protocol and potentially not workout for an allotment of time, to then coming back and risking injury from their stoppage could make for a very tumultuous or maybe even detrimental situation. This remains to be seen, but the chances of this occurring (especially come playoffs) will be in the back of everyone’s minds.

It’s well publicized that Chris Paul has had his bouts with nagging injuries. Last season, however, he enjoyed his second most healthy season of his career. Missing only two games (one for rest in the bubble seeding games ahead of the playoffs, and the other in respect for the shocking news of Kobe Bryant’s passing), his services were ever-present and the impact of that is evident in the Thunders final record last season. His successes have been attributed largely to his continued growth in knowledge of his body, but also to him and his plant-based initiative. Changing what he consumes, as well the money he’s spent on his body (not unlike his best friend LeBron James, and the likes of Russell Wilson) have resulted in a spry version of Paul the tail end of his prime which should last for the next few seasons.

Though they could stay afloat should he miss a short spurt of time or two, it seems as if Chris doesn’t anticipate any lapses of that manner.

The Growth of DeAndre Ayton

There’s plenty of cohesiveness and continuity that will need to develop. However, the sole entity that could put Phoenix over the top is the evolution of DeAndre Ayton.

I spoke on Ayton in a previous post regarding Most Improved candidates.

The manner in how he goes about amassing these stats and the effect in which it has on the outlook of the game and on his team is a key point in where he can grow. The addition of Chris Paul and the statistical bump in production and efficiency that his presence presents his big men with has never failed. Ayton being the most dynamic center he has ever been paired with, should reap those benefits maybe even more than any other center has. Which could be the most perfect timing in Ayton’s case too.

Defense is where, potentially, can help this team most and help himself the most. In attention to detail, positioning, communication, and fundamentals with the goal of him establishing himself as a true defensive anchor, he could thrust himself into that rare air of tiers amongst big men.

In this era of basketball it’s well publicized that the traditional big man has been phased out. There’s an onus on big men being much more dynamic and versatile on both ends of the floor. Ayton is of the rare ilk that came into the league with a litany of potential on both ends of the floor. He tapped into the offensive side of that a lot quicker than the defensive aspect, though the players surrounding him so far in his career haven’t helped with his growth much defensively.

He is now surrounded with the adequate amount of defenders (on and off the ball needed for him to be a true anchor. He also has a wing anchor in Crowder, and a guard anchor in Paul that can both almost roll a red carpet out for him to flourish defensively.

Aytons failed to register a positive season in defensive box score plus or minus to date. He did up his 0.9 blocks per game average from his rookie campaign to 1.5 last season which showed promise. 

He’s already had in-depth and real time conversations in game with CP3 and Crowder, as well as film sessions which serve as those two planting the seed for what they expect to make a consistent occurrence as he evolves. Quite frankly, if he truly wants to reach his potential, all excuses have been removed. He’s even acknowledged and attributed how different things have been already with Chris and Jae in his ear.

He’s also already had a stark difference in approach and thought to defense, evident by some of his situational efforts in game one fo the preseason to game four. Matched up with Gobert, then Davis, those were great tests for him to apply the acquired knowledge he’s received from Paul and Crowder.

He’ll be a running topic with anything Suns related as his rookie extension and the franchises decision on how they value him looms. There’s an onus being thrusted upon the Arizona product. Let’s see if he fulfills what everyone presumes he’ll become.

The dynamic of the Paul and Booker pairing

This will be a lot more organic than the working dynamic of Paul (and Crowder) with Ayton defensively. Paul, the purest of point guards ever, and Booker, one of the more complete scorers in the NBA, already compliment each other in style of play.

Chris had longed for being able to play off the ball with someone viable assuming play initiation. He got that finally in the pairing with Harden and we saw how effective that was, as they nearly took down one of the best constructed teams in history. 

Booker, compared to Harden, is not on that level of prolific scoring or playmaking, though he is an elite scorer and above average playmaker in his own regard. Where he bridges some of that gap is how well he plays off the ball, a dynamic that unlocks a scorer’s full array of ability. Playing off of Paul, Booker can now fully tap into his ability to backdoor the strong side and sneak being unaware help defenders (not unlike how Mikal Bridges does at an elite level). 

They’ll eventually develop a synergy that will be an offense in itself, and unlock more offensive potential for their team.

Williams’ system principles and ability to adjust

Along with the multiple onus placed upon players is one on coach Monty Williams. He’s done an amazing job galvanizing these young guys both early last season and in the restart via the bubble seeding games. He’s been nothing less than lamented for his leadership, positivity, and optimism even when odds are stacked heavily against his squad. That dynamic along with his personability and relatability make him unique from his counterparts.

He’s made note that he will deploy a Point-5 system in which the floor is spaced as much as possible, and will incorporate plenty of read and react scenarios from his players, it’ll include some horns and double horns action where Paul-Booker-and Ayton are all included in one singular action that has numerous possible outcomes. There will also be a steady diet of pick and roll play (on or off script) to keep two of their three players involved in direct action, working in the most advantageous manner.

The regard where he’ll be under a microscope is how well he man’s the sidelines. In rotations, and especially adjustments (and adjusting to adjustments) will play a big factor in how much success they sustain.

He will have a task regarding coaching of the second unit. It’s a collection of talent but it will need to be tended to properly for the effectiveness to come. Not natural in it’s assemblage, Williams will have to make sure players tap into their most effective skills for those minutes to be positive.

Players like Saric, Johnson, and Carter, with specific and obvious skillset strength’s, will need to hone in consistency and growth early on this season to set a tone as the games grow more and more meaningful.

*One noted disclaimer

  • Williams showed no indicators that he’ll be staggering Paul and Booker for the entire 48 minutes, but I strongly feel that this tactic in his rotation will be extremely necessary as this roster could struggle to sustain any success without either of those two on the court for any stretch of a game. That’s a heavy demand, but their present roster construct doesn’t allow for any other feasible tactics.
  • I also see their roster suggesting that, more nights than not, they need to collectively attempt north of 30 3PA’s. A good majority of their roster shoots above average from deep, and that is a dynamic that needs to be tapped into as much as possible.

James Jones adding to his roster

Though I feel they are well constructed, I feel that they are still one piece away from making their presumed ceiling less optimistic and more definite. They are one bigger bodied defender who can shoot (and add in other dynamics offensively) away from firmly placing themselves in the mix for conference finals teams. They are also in dire need of a back up center. Whether the player they acquire is one that can play the wing/forward but also double as a small ball center, or it comes in the form of two additional players, it needs to be addressed.

Prospects I have in mind as players attainable: 

-PJ Tucker or Aaron Gordon.

These two are attainable, scream versatility on both ends of the floor, and can play viably at the 3, 4, or 5 in effective small ball play.

They are firmly anted in the win-now mode both on the court and financially. One of the biggest mistakes they could make is flirting with this initiative in roster construct, and not being full-fledged in eexecution.

That may take more willing participation financially from owner Rob Sarver, and thought he’s shown no propensity to doing so times may have changed with the aforementioned additions as well as Aytons extension coming up, and the noted unrest from Devin Booker before this off-seasons additions.

Predictions

Ceiling: Western Conference Finals Appearance

Floor: 1st Round Appearance

As it stands, they have one player with MVP potential, three with all star and all NBA potential, two to four with all defense potential, and a coach of the year candidate manning the sidelines. As well as an executive of the year candidate should he add the needed final piece to this roster he’s assembled.

The floor for their seasons successes is surely a return to the playoffs. They should finish with a top six record in the West, avoiding the likely tenuous play in tournament construct. Should they slip to 7th or 8th and have an immediate matchup with the Lakers or Clippers, that would result in a quick out.

Conclusion

45-27, fourth or fifth in the West

Adjusted to a 72 game season, they should be able to garner 45 wins. That would result in a win percentage of 62.5%, good for 4th place in the West last season. 

This would be a +11 jump in wins from last season to this season. Looking back at the close games that they played in last season, being  both better prepared and better equipped for those high-leverage moments in this rendition for Monty Williams should bode well in manifesting 45+ wins (while also firmly planting him at the top of the coach of the year race).

Suns fans are in for some fun and some mastery in playmaking that will give them deja vu. Hopefully the successes enjoyed will match that same revisiting that they’ll have all season. 

Operating with their current roster in mind, I believe that the Suns will make the playoffs as a middling seed around 4th or 5th, and they’ll win a first round match up. The Paul-Booker pairing will be as good if not better than anticipated, Aytons evolution will be gradual but effective, and their young core guys (Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jevon Carter) prove that they’re ready for meaningful basketball. 

These successes lead them into next off-season with some very interesting decisions to make as Aytons contract duration matches with CP3’s.

Game one of the season is tonight on ESPN in an intriguing matchup with Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in Phoenix. Tip-off is at 9:30 EST. Tune in!

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