Yes, pun very much intended.
Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns suffered their third loss of the season at the hands of the Miami HEAT. Miami, so far, has appeared to be one of the better teams in the league, so seeing them get in the win the desert isn’t too out of the ordinary.
The real shock is that this was the first time that Phoenix was outclassed all season.
Keeping it modest, the Suns were expected to be outclassed left and right when the season began. But, with the loss to Miami, they now stand at 5-3. At first glance, a start like that is encouraging, especially for a team like Phoenix that has dwelled in the NBA’s depths for the better part of 10 years.
But — and good news Suns fans — there’s more to it than that.
Before the HEAT loss, Phoenix’s other two losses came at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, playoff teams a season ago and, in 2019-20, expected to once reside in the class of the Western Conference. Better yet, both games were decided by a single point, and on last-second shots, no less.
Even against Miami game, the Suns gave it their all for most of the game, which hasn’t exactly been the case for them in recent seasons.
Factoring that in, it’s not just that Phoenix has won more than most thought they would, but they’ve hung around with the best of the best this season.
It’s an odd wrinkle to the season, for sure, that absolutely no one saw coming. But, nevertheless, it’s a welcome sight. In a season that has had plenty of surprises, Phoenix’s best start in years may top them all. But what can we take away from that encouraging start? What should we? Let’s take a look.
Devin Booker and the “Good Stats/Bad Team” Label
Practically since he stepped on an NBA parquet, Devin Booker’s put up magnificent offensive numbers. In fact, following his rookie year, Booker may be the closest thing to a guaranteed bucket that we’ve seen.
In his now five NBA seasons, Booker has also taken massive strides as playmaker. In that time, he’s seen his assists per game jump from just 2.6 his rookie year to a strong 6.8 last season.
Yet, despite the offensive fireworks, Booker has generated little All-Star buzz. The reason has almost always been the same — Phoenix’s success, or lack thereof, combined with the boatload of talent that has made up the Western Conference.
Of course, an All-Star appearance isn’t the be-all-end-all for NBA players. But, unfortunately, the lack of buzz Booker has generated has made many question whether his numbers are truly elite or just empty calories, just an alright player stat-stuffing on an offensively inept roster.
Hopefully, at least thus far, those doubters have come to the conclusion that Booker is anything but. In eight games, Booker has put up his usual, dominant stat line — 25.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5 assists — but, with improvements made up-and-down the roster, has managed to do so more efficiently; Booker has shot the ball 52.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range, both career highs.
Behind him, the Suns have started the season on a roll. But, if you’re still not convinced, just check his on-off numbers: Phoenix is plus-18.4 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor.
It’s a small sample, sure, and Booker has a lot left to prove defensively. But, when he’s on the floor, the Suns are clearly a better team.
And, assuming their start isn’t just a big fluke, then there may be nothing stopping Booker from making his first All-Star appearance (or at least drumming up some consideration).
The Importance of the Right Personnel
It’s a shame that they’ve only now started to garner some attention, but Phoenix has sneakily made some great moves in recent seasons, and especially this last offseason.
Now, not to say their front office is perfect — they’ve been far from that. The number of moves or former players that one could attach “-fiasco” to is astonishing.
But Phoenix has gotten to where they are this season through some seriously competent additions. They acquired an undervalued asset from the Washington Wizards in Kelly Oubre Jr., an overpaid but productive Tyler Johnson from the HEAT, a buy-low candidate in Dario Saric prior to the 2019 draft.
And, of course, perhaps their most important acquisitions in the last five years, the installment of James Jones as the team’s general manager and Monty Williams their head coach.
The Oubre deal flew under the radar, in part, because of the failed three-way trade with Washington and the Memphis Grizzlies just days earlier. An energetic 3-and-D wing whose youth made him another potential asset on the same timeline as Booker, Oubre was acquired for a then 33-year-old Trevor Ariza, who wasn’t long for Phoenix anyway. The Suns gave Oubre a rich extension over the summer — a two-year, $30 million pact — and, so far, he’s proven worth every penny as he’s averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds on respectable shooting splits.
Johnson, to a much lesser extent, was another successful move. Grossly overpaid? You betcha. But, while they may have had to swallow the $19.2 million price tag, Johnson brought stability to the guard spot and, behind Booker and now Ricky Rubio, is an upgrade over what Phoenix had had there previously.
Many were confused when Phoneix traded the sixth overall pick for the 11th and Saric, but he has proven a strong option in the frontcourt as he’s averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and posted a plus-6.1 in eight games. Saric can also add some much-needed floor spacing and playmaking, while he also is one of the few on the team with some postseason experience.
There have been plenty of other, solid additions: Rubio, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and others. While the general consensus wasn’t exactly positive, the team desperately needed a veteran like Rubio in the backcourt alongside Booker, while Baynes and Kaminsky have proven vital in the absence of Deandre Ayton, lost to suspension.
As a result of these moves, the Suns are more well-rounded than they’ve been in years. They’ll definitely need further reinforcements, but now they have a solid core around their star, Booker, a core that, clearly can compete night-in and night-out.
We Have Our First Coach of the Year Candidate
Even with the right roster in place, a good team still needs the right maestro to make it all work. And Monty Williams has proven the right man for the job in Phoenix.
For the longest time, Phoenix has had little to call home about; they’ve ranked near the bottom of every statistical category whether it be offensive or defensive rating, three-point percentage, total points, rebounds or assists. It was never pretty.
But, in his first year, Williams has done everything he can to turn that around. The Suns, thus far, are sixth in the NBA in net rating (5), while they have also shot the second-highest true-shooting percentage (58.2) and seventh-highest three-point percentage (37.3). They have averaged the second-most assists per game (27), while their 114.1 points per game is good for seventh in the NBA.
Of course, give credit where credit is due and applaud the players for the turnaround. But, much of that success should also be attributed to Williams, who has established a system that has worked wonders on the court and positive culture in the Suns’ locker room.
In fact, he’s done such a great job to this point, that it would be a shock if he wasn’t in the running for Coach of the Year in his first with the team. The season is still young, but if Phoneix can keep this up Williams could prove a shoo-in for the award.
This Might Not Be the Final Product
As it’s been stated before, Phoenix improved in many areas, but they’re not without their flaws. No team is.
With Ayton gone, they lack a major scoring threat to take the load off of Booker. And, as good as they’ve been, opponents should start to take advantage of that and dare the Suns’ lesser players to score. Even once Ayton’s back in the fold, another option behind him and Booker would only ease the burden on Phoneix’s young roster.
The Suns could also use more help on the defensive perimeter. As of now, they’re in the middle of the pack on that side of the ball. But, if they want to completely right the ship, they need to get even better.
That said, it’s impressive to see how far Phoenix has come, and even more exciting to think that they could even get better. Lucky for them, there should be plenty of players on the market that could help them and, with Johnson’s large salary, the Suns should have no trouble matching salaries.
Danillo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and a number of other veterans on not-so-great teams could prove solid additions, depending on where the Suns find themselves later in the year.
Don’t get ahead of yourself: nobody is saying Phoenix is a title contender. The excitement may fade, and it may be all for naught if they miss the postseason.
But playing competitive, winning basketball is a huge step in the right direction. And, so far, the Suns have done little else than do just that. “The Phoenix Suns are back!” sure does have quite a nice ring to it.
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