Desert Revival: How The Phoenix Suns Have Returned To Prominence
The Phoenix Suns have won 25 of their past 34 games, and along with the Utah Jazz, are one of just two teams in the league boasting both a top-ten offence and defence.
Most importantly, they appear set to put ten-straight seasons of play-off absenteeism in the bin, and set it on fire.
It’s taken plenty of pain, humiliation and a handful of head coaches to get the Suns back into NBA relevance, with the Suns implementing a system which could set them up for a sustained run of success.
Indeed, what's transpired in the desert qualifies as one of the most astonishing stories in the league, so let's take a look at some of the key factors underpinning one of the NBA’s most profound makeovers.
It’s beyond comprehension to even contemplate what Monty Williams has been through in his personal life, so for him to even make it back into the NBA, let alone excel, speaks to one of the most incredible figures working in professional sports today.
While there’s a myriad of reasons explaining why the Suns are back, the buck truly stops with Williams who's completely, and rather rapidly, turned around this franchise’s fortunes.
Williams inherited a team who’d gone a dismal 87-241 (26.5%) in its previous four seasons, yet within a season of his appointment, the Suns missed the play-offs by a solitary game, lighting up the Disneyworld bubble, wining all of their eight games therein.
Among the numerous positives Williams has bought to Phoenix, stability and a defined game-plan have functioned as his crowning achievements. The Sun’s starting five of Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, Mikel Bridges, Devin Booker and Chris Paul have started 18 games this season, logging 215 minutes together which makes for the NBA’s tenth-most entrenched unit.
This structured, methodical approach is being reflected in their game plan too. While they are operating at a snail’s pace, cooking up just 96.6 possessions per-48 minutes, qualifying as the league’s second slowest team, it’s a style which is suiting them to a tea, and allowing them to execute an offence which is humming at a ten-year high.
With 35-year old, 16-season NBA veteran Chris Paul in the pilot seat, a much calmer version of the Suns is prevailing, with the team ranked 6th from an assist to turnover ratio, and which is still operating at a top-ten offensive efficiency despite its slow pace.
Phoenix’s offence, which has placed a premium on meaningful, structured possessions has ushered in a much better organised defence as well. Through more than a quarter of the season, the Suns have the fourth-best defence in the western conference, and one which has been relatively impenetrable from deep, allowing opponents to attempt just 31.3 threes per night, hitting an NBA-low 10.9, while converting at a stifling 34.7% to boot.
While Chris Paul has bought to Arizona so many positive elements of his hall of fame career, completely transforming the way the Suns play in the process, the keys to this offence remain in Devin Booker’s pockets. His 24.5 points per night easily leads the team, with 30.7% of Suns’ possessions running through his very capable hands.
While Booker’s scoring and volume of shots are at a four-season low, we’re witnessing the full Chris Paul effect on his play, with Booker employing a much more selective, and ultimately efficient game. Not only is his overall 49.4% field goal efficiency at a career-high, but he’s is also turning the ball over at a four-year low. During the Sun's current six-game winning streak, he's averaging 28.3 ppg on 54.7% shooting while hitting the deep-ball at 43.8%.
An add-on benefit of Chris Paul being in town is that it’s allowed Williams to experiment with Booker in different situations, with the former lottery pick moonlighting more frequently with the Sun’s second unit than in previous seasons. In fact, the 174 minutes he’s shared with Cameron Payne have resulted in a +23.4 number, while it’s a similar story when his shared court-time with Cameron Johnson, with the pair posting a +10.7 number form their 327 minutes together.
Like Booker, Deandre Ayton’s offensive numbers are down across the board, but don’t for a moment think this suggests he’s having a reduced impact on the team.
The former #1 pick is a big reason why Phoenix’s defence is shining this season, with the opposition unable to make any deep inroads against his massive interior presence.
While Milwaukee lead the league in percentage of field goal attempts which are dunks owing largely to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s octopus-like presence, it’s a similar story with Ayton, with the Suns ranked second in that stat, while just 45.3% of opposition shots are arriving via an assist- the league’s third-best number.
To punctuate just how important Ayton is to this team, the Suns are a staggering 8.8 points worse-off per 100 possessions when he’s not on the court, while it's scary to think how massive the Sun's upside is once Ayton finds his offensive rhythm.
The Phoenix revival has been staggering, and constitutes one of the most refreshing stories of the season. Not only do they appear to be in the thick of post-season calculations, but the model their front office and coaching team has put in place should serve them well for seasons to come.
The hard work they’ve put in behind the scenes is being reflected in a much more robust on-court outfit as well. They've so far negotiated the NBA’s fifth-most difficulty schedule, claiming the scalps of Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia during its current 6-game winning streak.
After years of turmoil, the Suns are back, and, with the core of this squad being under 25, this desert revival is likely to endure.
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