June 15, 2024

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Are the Phoenix Suns somehow flying under the radar?

10 min read
Are the Phoenix Suns somehow flying under the radar?

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{cf07cd047201b183b19c0b335dbd7d35a498f84568531c8abe8643bd3ccfd494}) on
catch-and-shoots — two of which are Johnson and Booker, each
posting career-highs in such situations at 42.9{cf07cd047201b183b19c0b335dbd7d35a498f84568531c8abe8643bd3ccfd494} and 41.9{cf07cd047201b183b19c0b335dbd7d35a498f84568531c8abe8643bd3ccfd494}
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. 

Hold up.

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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