By Matt Brooks
Here’s a question: Why isn’t anyone talking about the Phoenix Suns?
Look, maybe that line of questioning is a tad bit too hyperbolic, but is it fair to say the general discourse around them hasn’t exactly been in line with a team off to a historically great start? Have the Suns entered that “We don’t care what you do until it’s playoff time” tier already? In just Year 2 of the Chris Paul and Devin Booker era?
The Suns are on pace to win 67 games this season. Read that again. 67 games. Only 10 teams in NBA history have won 67 games or more since the NBA merger in 1976. Of those teams, seven won the NBA championship that season. Phoenix is somehow soaring in rarefied air while flying deeply under the radar.
That said, the Suns haven’t completely oozed that “we’re going to decimate you at all costs” machismo that teams like the 1996 Chicago Bulls (72 wins) or the 2017 Golden State Warriors (67 wins) have flaunted in the past. If the season ended today, Phoenix’s Net Rating of plus-7.9 would be the lowest of any team with a .805 winning percentage or better.
Winning games with that margin of victory places the Suns in a different threshold, one that accrues around 64 to 65 wins in a single season. (Think, the 2018 Houston Rockets or the 2006 Detroit Pistons.) That is to say — though the Suns haven’t necessarily profiled as a historically dominant juggernaut (at least according to this specific metric) — they’re still an extremely dangerous squad, and a rightful favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien in June. They’ve somehow improved in every facet after nearly squeaking out a title last season. This team doesn’t mess around.
Balance is the first thing that comes to mind when musing about this talented Suns group. Phoenix is the only team in the NBA that ranks in the top-five in both offense and defense, per Cleaning the Glass, and is currently on the longest winning streak in the league with 10 straight. They’ve weathered the storms that have formed from the rocky seas of the 2022 season; whether it was Devin Booker’s hamstring strain in early December, the COVID-19 protocols at the turn of the new year or Deandre Ayton’s extended absence. Nothing seems to faze these dudes; they’ve got the confidence of a college senior strutting around campus during syllabus week.
So, about that straightjacket-tight defensive unit, which currently sits at second-best overall — Phoenix’s defense adheres to the analytical rule of the land: minimizing at-rim shots (No. 3 in the NBA) and corner threes (No. 4) while allowing boatloads of shots from the midrange (No. 28). Schematics fuel such a sharp and pronounced analytical profile, as Phoenix has settled into running mostly drop coverage with Ayton on the mend.
Phoenix’s guards and wings have taken a liking to “ICE-ing” ball-screens and funneling opponents toward its bigs; JaVale McGee, who remains submerged in a deep drop coverage where he can thwart opponents with his 7-foot-6 wingspan, and newcomer Bismack Biyombo, who plays slightly closer to the level of screens to flash his quick hands for an average of 2.9 stocks (steals and blocks) per 36 minutes.
It makes perfect sense for Phoenix to allow its smaller players to dictate defensive possessions in the pick-and-roll. Chris Paul is as pesky and persistent of a point-of-attack defender as ever. Devin Booker has taken a stupendous defensive leap, playing up into dudes with proclivity while showcasing increased attentiveness away from the action. Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges form a nearly unrivaled cadre of wings, each player bringing size (Crowder), length (Johnson), guileful cunningness or a combination of the traits mentioned (Bridges).
Phoenix has found its blueprint to defensive success thanks to feisty screen navigation, switchability 1-through-4 and sturdy defensive anchoring. The Suns rank second at neutralizing isolations, defend the half-court better than all but two teams and smother enemy-transition opportunities with more proficiency than anyone in the Association.
Here’s a great example of Phoenix’s defensive fluidity from the first of the two games against the Utah Jazz. To start, Paul and Booker exchange like-sized matchups (Danuel House Jr. and Trent Forrest) to keep the ball up front. Rudy Gay then sets a screen for House to cut to the rim, which Johnson and Paul expertly snuff out with a switch. Utah then flows into Gay setting a pindown screen for Jordan Clarkson, and so Phoenix trades assignments yet again to place Paul on Clarkson and Bridges on Gay. When Gay comes to set a ball-screen for Forrest, the Suns — yup, you guessed it — switch once more for Phoenix’s fourth matchup exchange in 10 seconds.
Utah now has 5 seconds to make something happen. Knowing this, McGee hedges the pick-and-roll to slow Clarkson in his tracks and force a pickup of his dribble. Rather than hitting Hassan Whiteside in the short roll, Clarkson lofts a skip pass to Forrest in the weak-side corner. Booker spots Bridges camped out in the paint to tag Whiteside, so Book bumps down to the corner to cover for his teammate while Bridges instinctively “X’s out” and grabs Booker’s man, Gay. Phoenix’s holistic team effort is fittingly awarded with a shot clock violation.
Together, you’re looking at a well-oiled machine of whirring gears and gizmos that produces turnovers on an assembly line; the Suns are currently the eighth-best team at generating opponent giveaways and are scoring 1.30 points per possession after doing so, fifth-best in the NBA, per InPredictable.
Phoenix’s offense operates with similarly devastating exactitude, capable of evaporating defenses in almost any setting. There’s a certain level of precision to the flow of Monty Williams’ group, like using a ruler to draw a straight line, his players unified with the purpose of discovering corridors of opportunity against skittish defenses. The Suns’ half-court offense ranks No. 3 in the NBA behind only Atlanta and Utah (hello, shot creation!), and they terrorize in transition with the fifth-best fastbreak efficiency in the NBA. There’s simply no hiding from Phoneix, and not a second spared for defenders to catch their breath.
Phoenix’s spacing is among the league’s best, with six rotation players shooting better than league-average (36.1%) on catch-and-shoots — two of which are Johnson and Booker, each posting career-highs in such situations at 42.9% and 41.9% respectively. The Suns have the luxury of consistently featuring multiple plus-shooters on the weak side of the court, which stresses help defenders tasked with covering up for defensive leaks.
Here, the Suns run an empty-side pick-and-roll with Paul, Johnson and Landry Shamet flanking the weak side. When Lance Stephenson shades over to stop the drive, it opens up the easy kick-out to Shamet in the corner. Note: Because Johnson is such a hellishly-effective marksman, Chris Duarte feigns at sinking down to the corner to cover for Stephenson.
It helps that the Suns are helmed by perhaps the best, most versatile playbook practitioner in Monty Williams. Here, take a gander at arguably the most aesthetically-pleasing offense in the NBA:
To open the game against the Jazz on Jan. 24, the Suns used Booker in some “Hawk” action by having him screech off a back screen from Johnson to the basket. Phoenix then flows into double pick-and-roll for Paul with Johnson and McGee screening. Meanwhile, on the weak side, Bridges sets an exit screen (or “pin-in” screen) for Booker to scurry to the corner.
Utah panics for a second, as Clarkson and House are unsure if they’re supposed to switch; and so, Bridges tactically slips to the rim. Meanwhile, Whiteside, Utah’s rim protector, is preoccupied with the action on the strongside — Johnson flying off a “veer” screen from McGee. Thus, an open layup for Bridges.
40 seconds later, Phoenix went to the exact same play, with Booker first streaking off a Hawk screen, and the Suns fluidly moving into a double ball-screen for Paul with an exit screen on the weak side. This time, however, instead of hitting Bridges with a pass, CP3 finds Johnson tearing off that veer screen from McGee while Forrest inexplicably goes under (??) the pick. Three points to the Valley Boyz.
Now, think about the plethora of options that Phoenix has at its disposal at any given moment with this specific set.
Paul can hit Booker on the Hawk cut to the basket. He can also find McGee rolling to the rim or Johnson popping to the three-point line after the double pick-and-roll. Paul has the option to pass to Booker coming off the exit screen in the corner, or he has room to sling the ball to Bridges slipping the exit screen. Dishing the ball to Johnson cutting off the veer screen is also an option, and if the defense plays up higher, a lob to McGee after setting the veer screen is definitely imaginable.
From just one play, that’s seven different possible options to pick from, with one of the best passers in the league leading the charge. Now do you see why this Suns team is such a nightmare to deal with?
Speaking of which, man, oh man does Phoenix have Paul’s fingerprints all over it once again. The Suns have continued to caretake the basketball better than all but five teams in the league, a hallmark of any team helmed by CP3; though, this year they’re playing faster than any Paul-led offense ever relative to the competition, slotting in at No. 7 in the NBA’s pace ranking.
Phoenix is absolutely blitzing teams in the clutch, yet another telltale sign of Paul’s basketball DNA. Actually, “blitzing teams” is putting it lightly. In the last 5 minutes of games decided by 5 points or less, Phoenix is winning those minutes by a blistering 44.7 points per 100 possessions. For context, second in crunch-time NET are the Washington Wizards with 22.6 points per 100 possessions. Yup, you’re reading that correctly. Phoenix is nearly doubling the productivity of its nearest competitor in close games. So yeah, maybe “eviscerating opponents with no regard for human life” is a better way to put it.
For a second, can we stop to appreciate what Chris Paul is doing in his 17th season? Seriously, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Just thinking about it scatters my brain in every direction like hitting the shuffle button on your entire music library. For all the chatter about LeBron James’ productivity in Year 19, it’s Paul — a 36-year-old and a barely 6-foot point-guard — that is breaking any and all parameters for what is possible for players of his ilk.
For starters, he’s just one of 11 players in NBA history to even play an NBA game at his age and height. Oh, and he’s yet to miss a single contest this NBA season. But Paul isn’t just suiting up for games with Cal Ripken Jr. consistency; he’s by far having the most productive season of all-time for a smaller, older guard. He’s the only non-big-man player in the NBA to rank within the top-seven in Basketball Reference’s win shares, which measures the estimated number of wins contributed by a specific player. (This statistic tends to favor larger-sized players, for reference).
Here’s another fun stat: Paul is also the only player this season who’s racked up at least 500 assists and 50 steals. (He’s got 507 dimes and 92 swipes entering play on Feb. 1.)
Nothing emblematizes the Chris Paul effect more than the recent surge from Bismack Biyombo, who was originally acquired on Jan. 1 via a 10-day hardship deal. The dude has been finishing literally everything in the pick-and-roll while being spoon-fed a consistent diet of pinpoint passes from CP3, and the Suns are averaging 1.29 points per possession when Biyombo is involved as a ball-screener (81st percentile). The Suns are plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions better as a team when Biyombo shares the floor with Paul versus with him off it. Phoenix’s profitable pairing has produced a plethora of plucky highlights.
The Suns appear to be without a weakness, not even a soft spot in the armor. Their defense ranks among the elites at containing fastbreaks and half-court attacks, and they’re just as proficient at creating buckets with an advantage in transition or against set defenses. Phoenix’s depth is rivaled by few in the league, with the lineup flexibility to ooze and conform to a bushel of opponents. The biggest questions may pertain to the team’s ceiling — namely, can the Suns win a championship without a bona fide Tier-1 star or a top-seven NBA player? (That said, a pair of Tier-2 guys isn’t exactly a bad consolation prize).
Still, in a league that’s plagued with questions about availability (howdy, Brooklyn and Golden State!), the Suns appear to be the surest bet to finish the season as the last team standing. Shoot, even if Brooklyn and Golden State manage to get healthy, Phoenix could still very well be the correct answer.
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