Currently 11-8 and in sole possession of fifth place in the West, and the ninth best record in the league, the Phoenix Suns can be content with their start and current positioning.
They’ve had a handful of integral pieces miss time in this first 19 games, some due to Coronavirus close contacts, some to injury. As a team, they’ve even endured a seven day stretch where they had three games postponed and went practice-less due to collective close contact with the Washington Wizards after their game on January 11th.
Before the impromptu hiatus, they were 7-4. Since returning they’re 4-4, and currently amidst a three-game win streak with a win over Golden State, then a two-game sweep of the Dallas Mavericks on the road.
In the return, we’ve seen the pick and roll pairing of Paul and Ayton work its way through the rough patch and establish a connectivity.
Part of it has been a mental switch of sorts that has been flipped on in Deandre Ayton, which has shown up in other areas of his game too. The other part is Paul-Booker challenging Ayton every step of the way, to which Aytons been accepting of and receptive to.
“I enjoy people telling me how to do things. Showing me that they care ’cause if they didn’t care, they wouldn’t even bother wasting their breath. I love it.”
It’s been evident as, in the last three weeks, his attention to detail, discipline, and diligence in fine tuning his efforts and timing with his two all-world guards has proved to be fruitful. He also made note that he’s been watching film of Paul in his time with Lob City, making note of and applying the angles and timing Griffin and Jordan took after screening for Paul. Aytons game has been a revelation since they returned from the week off.
Paul and Booker have had their own highs and lapses in production individually, and have seldomly enjoyed much simultaneous success. However, Monday night we saw some harmony and organic tandem play between the two down the stretch, resulting in an impressive road win over Dallas.
I mean just admire this poetry in motion, for the win nonetheless. A play we later found out that Paul suggested to coach Williams, one Paul ran with Redick in Los Angeles 🔥.
As a team, they’ve allowed a few games to slip through their fingers, more than they’d like, but a lot of those occurrences are of the expected “learning curve” or “bumps in the road” variety as a foundation is being laid. All the while chemistry is being established.
One thing they are still in search of is a true identity, which CP3 spoke on with Charles Barkley last Thursday after a comfortable win vs Golden State on TNT.
Now having Booker back, they will atleast be able to have their top dogs in Booker, Paul, and Ayton together. They’re still awaiting the return of Cam Payne from a foot injury as well as Dario Saric, who’s been out for health and safety protocols though his return is imminent as he’s working his conditioning back up to game level shape.
Having ran down their season as a collective so far, let’s now dive into individual grades for their main pieces.
It’s clear what the point of emphasis was in the abbreviated training camp. It started with defense, and that’s where coach Williams wants for his team to excel most at.
They’re currently 4th in defensive efficiency and 2nd in defensive rebounding percentage. So not only are they moving on a string defensively as a unit, but they’re putting finishing touches on their defensive possessions by securing the rebound at an elite frequency.
Even more, Monty has spoken at nauseum about how prolific of an effect the 3-point line has on the outcome of games, and how teams have to be able to guard the 3-point line to win with any consistency. This season, the Suns are 3rd in opposing 3-point field goals per game (10.9), so they’re limiting the attempts teams are able to get off. They’re also coupling those efforts with great contests on the attempts teams do get off, ranking 5th in opposing 3-point field goal percentage (35%).
In all, their defense has been tight. They do a great job in not putting themselves in a box defensively and being too vanilla, as they deploy different pick and roll coverages over the course of a game, mix in matchup zones, and do a great job in communicating when to switch and when to stay. All a credit to Monty.
Offensively they’ve had their hiccups but as the chemistry and dynamics continue to develop, they’ve found their way. Coach Williams made note a week ago that they have three offenses. Freelance where their creators make plays from their spots, pick and roll, and set plays where his 0.5 offense emphasizes ball and player movement with plenty off-ball screening and cutting action.
The lineups he’s trotted out have been solid but some of the rotations have been slightly janky at times.
My only true gripe with him has been the switch in the starting lineup where he’s swapped Crowder out for Johnson. Johnson is by far the better shoot from deep so, in thought, it would make sense to have him as the stretch four next to Ayton. However, Johnson is so much more than a spot up shooter, and it’s noticable that he is not truly comfortable in the starting lineup as the type of touches he gets are different when sharing the floor with their big three.
When off the bench, and typically with just one (or two max) of the big three on the floor with him, he has more range in freedom, versus being more defined in role with all three on the floor.
Crowder on the other hand, predictably so, plays much better in the starting lineup. He’s a much more natural fit and helps bring more veteran intangibles to that lineup.
He needs to make that change, especially with Booker now back and their other ancillary pieces who have been out (Dario Saric and Cam Payne) will be back in rotation relatively soon.
Started off the season slow in the scoring department, but as he’s done the last two seasons he’s stayed true to his gradual uptick in impact as the season progresses.
Being the purest of point guard (sometimes to a fault), Chris gets a feel for the group of guys he’s with early on. Then, even as one of the most integral pieces, he finds out how he can fit in best rather than making others fit around him.
I call it meticulous ingratiation, on brand for the savant that he is on the floor.
Over the last five games, four of which without the services of backcourt mate Devin Booker, the Point God has found his touch, rhythm, and flow in scoring. He’s averaging 25.8 PPG with a slash of 53.3/38.5/95.5.
There’s also this ⬇️
He continues to be an assassin from the mid-range and as deadly a orchestrator of an offense, especially in pick and roll, as the league has ever seen. He’s in the 87th percentile in shooting from the mid-range (52%, 83/159) and is unlocking the Suns offense more and more as he asserts himself, casing point below.
Not bad for an old man!
He’s also continued to be a monster in the clutch. In the front end of their two-game stretch with the Mavs, he scored 14 points over the last five minutes of the game, outscoring the Mavericks as a whole!
He’s continued to come up big-time for them when they need it.
Defensively he’s been passable by his standards, though he’s admittedly left more to be desired on that end. He’s been caught in rotations out of position and has been beaten off the dribble with some consistency at times, but those are things that can be corrected. Where he’s let them down on a few possessions there, he’s won them extra possessions in communication and anchoring from the guard position. Still as deadly a defender to involve in pick and roll or dribble handoffs, the ever-savvy Paul will never not be an effective defender. He’s a +1.3 in boxscore plus or minus right now.
As he continues to gradually up the energy he exerts, and develop synergy independently with Booker as well as Ayton, we will see the Suns begin to peak.
Book has had a few interesting developments throughout this season thus far.
He’s missed free throws at a rate that has caught some attention, though easily addressable.
He’s also turned the ball over a lot. I mean, a LOT! He’s currently in the 7th percentile for turnovers and is averaging 4.0 a night. That’s something he has to clean up.
Like Paul, he’s enjoying GREAT success operating in the midrange, where he is in the 86th percentile shooting 49% from there. He and Paul will be a version of murders row as games are tight and especially come the postseason with how they operate in tandem offensively. The game slows down and being able to rely on midrange pull ups is a dynamic any contender needs, the Suns have two of the absolute best in the league.
He’s shooting alright from deep, at a respectable 36% clip. He is however shooting 56% from the corners, though on just nine attempts.
He’s also finishing at the rim very well, at 66% which is almost on par with his career-high 69% mark from last season.
Book is really coming into his own in scoring, and as he finds that synergy with CP3, I expect for his scoring average to go up. I predicted he would hit the 30 PPG playing alongside Paul and I expect for him to inch toward that mark from this point on.
The Arizona product has been under much scrutiny as he’s had a spotlight on him in his third season.
After his very slow start which snowballed into a lot of questioning and criticism, he seemingly needed a switch to be flipped from within. As I mentioned earlier he credits Paul and Booker for pushing him relentlessly and making sure that he is tapped in mentally at all times. The week hiatus they had to endure did wonders for him.
In the eight games since then, he’s embraced his self-proclaimed nickname of “Dominayton.”
He’s averaged 16.6 PPG, 15 RPG, and 2.1 APG. The aforementioned synergy with CP3 in pick and roll has been a beautiful development, and his effectiveness when on the floor has continued to rise. He’s also been a rebounding machine on both sides of the floor.
He is in the 93rd percentile for offensive rebounding and the 83rd percentile with putbacks, garnering extra possessions left and right while rarely getting caught being outran by rim running counterparts as he gambles for those rebounds.
Defensively he’s also asserted himself, moreso in positioning and activity out in space versus in just shots blocked. He has FULLY embraced his role in defensive anchoring.
His impacts finally arrived and as he continues to build and find his feel for his role here, I expect for him to be the piece that puts them in that top four range of the Western Conference ranks.
The most fun development has been that of the 24 year old Villanova product. He’s truly been a revalation!
His shot chart is quintessential for what a 3&D wing is, but that is just the floor for what he can potentially become, he’s scratching the surface.
Via Cleaning the Glass ⬇️
Bridges has a handle that allows for him to create some offense in isolation and via dribble drives, while also being able to make timely passes to help any offense hum.
The trendy saying at the moment is “every team could use a Mikal Bridges” and that couldn’t be more true 🎯.
He’s even-keeled, high and consistent in effort and activity, and quite simply is a winning player. All of which can be attributed to his college program in Villanova under the coaching of Jay Wright. That program just grooms NBA ready talents.
Much like Paul, Bridges excels in dribble hand off defense as well as in pick and roll. Teams will go out of their way to not involve him in those actions as they do with CP, so when they share the floor it makes for menacing pressure.
He’s been their third best player for the season as a whole, and in a handful of games this season he’s been the BEST player on the floor for the Suns. If he continues to out-pace Ayton in that respect, that does nothing but raise the ceiling for this team.
Crowders been up and down partly due to the lineup switch, but his impact is still present. He’s been very good defensively and is a great tandem wing defender in balance with Bridges.
Not unlike Crowder, Johnsons play has been a tad inconsistent due to the lineup switch, nonetheless he’s remained effective as he finds his role within the offense.
The change of pace guard off the bench, Payne has remained effective as he was last season in the bubble. He’s been under control while playing at the pace he enjoys, and has four 5+ assist games including a 10 assist game versus the Raptors. He’s been a plus in all but four games this season.
Though he has a few DNP-CDs on the season now, when he has played he’s been effective. A +2.2 in defensive boxscore +/-, he’s as good as you’d want him to be on that end. Offensive is where his impacts simply been lacking. He hasn’t enjoyed much success from 3, which is very surprising as he’s shooting now 27.7% from deep. He’s still remained a glue guy in energy and positivity from the bench and that can be seen during any Suns game, I don’t think he’s ever sitting down.
Tough to grade Dario so far as he’s only played in seven games, though when he has played he’s been reliable and effective in spelling Ayton. Once he able to see some consistency on the floor game to game, it’ll certainly do nothing but better this Suns team.
Moore and Galloway
These two veteran guards have been plug and play, as expected, but they’ve brought their game when we they’ve been called upon. Both have not been bad in any way when on the floor, and have done great in mentoring the younger guys on the bench as well. They’re both extremely reliable so as the games grow more important, they’ll be called upon to do as they’ve done all season so far.
You can tell that this team is growing together as they have their injured bodies return to the fold.
The big names are finding their synergy in coexisting and they are starting to peak.
Coach Williams has a strong group of guys in this group and as the season continues, we’ll see how much he can truly bring out of them as a collective.
The Suns are in New Orleans tonight on ESPN at 9:30 ET, tune in and thanks for the read! 🏀
All stats come from ESPN, BasketballReference, or CleaningTheGlass unless stated otherwise.