Rise And Shine: Why Phoenix Is A Legitimate Championship Threat

The Phoenix Suns are contenders for the NBA title. 

They're 18-3 for the best record in the league and that conversation is over.

Strangely, it never really began.

Plenty had their doubts over the Suns heading into the season. Almost everybody outside of Phoenix - and some within the fan base - subscribed to at least one narrative that put question marks around the Suns:

• Chris Paul is another year older and 'surely' can't keep this going
• Devin Booker doesn’t have another level
• Deandre Ayton’s contract situation will derail his season
• Last year's finals run against injured opposition was a fluke

Every fanbase thinks their team is underrated to start the season. For those that start to perform better than the preseason consensus, a relative lack of coverage starts to become a point of contention. 

For the Suns, they started the NBA season on the eighth line of the Stats Insider championship chances list at 4.2%. They flew under the radar as the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets took up the top spots while the Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers took up a lot of the secondary conversations.

Even as the Suns won 16 games following a 1-3 start, the hype train didn't get going until they went head-to-head with the Warriors in a battle for the best record in the NBA.

As if the 104-96 win wasn't enough, the Suns did it with Booker playing just 15 minutes.

It made it a franchise-record 17 wins on the bounce for the Suns and perfectly captured why they're so good and deserving of championship hype.

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CP3 & Book

Chris Paul is one of the best point guards in NBA history but his shortcomings in the playoffs are too often the first thought when assessing his career.

Devin Booker began his career as the primary scoring option on bad teams. An elite scorer who has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last six seasons, it never took long for somebody to call him a chucker as he carried the franchise with a 30, 40 or 50+ point performance.

An element of doubt has surrounded both Paul and Booker to some extent throughout their careers so it's no surprise to see them largely ignored as championship contenders before now. However, as we've seen through 21 games this season, they're the perfect compliment to each other.

Paul commands the offence without overplaying his hand. Part of that comes down to preserving his 36-year-old body but the 32.2 minutes per game he is playing this season is the most he has averaged since 2015-16. However, his 19.8% usage rate is the lowest of his career. 

One way to preserve your body in the NBA is reducing contact. He's shooting at the rim on a career-low 3.52% of his shots per PBP Stats. Instead, he's pulling up between 4ft and 14ft on a career-high 34.3% of his shots. He's one of the best mid-range shooters in the game so it's no surprise that with a few of his physical tools becoming limited over the years that he has focused on getting to areas on the court he's most comfortable. Of all players averaging over four mid-range attempts per game, only LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant shoot better than Paul's 53.8%. When he's not getting buckets, Paul is handing them out to others through his league-leading 10.3 assists per game.

Booker is also prolific from the mid-range. Only the Bulls and Lakers take more shots from mid-range than Phoenix's 16 per game and Booker's 6.1 attempts per game (4th-most in the NBA) are a big part of that.

He's excellent in isolation and has a menu of options with the ball in his hands. Booker is comfortable from mid-range which is a shot most NBA defences are happy enough to give up right now. He's shooting a career-high 40% from three-point land and is a recognised threat at the rim. Booker can hurt defences from anywhere, and with Paul beside him in the backcourt, he's getting to the spots he can be most effective depending on what the defence does in front of him.

Booker has been capable of this level of play his whole career. It wasn't a matter of time but a matter of teammate. In Paul, he has the perfect partner.

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Keep Ayton

Instead of sulking his way through the season after the Suns decided against offering Deandre Ayton a max extension, the 23-year-old is playing the best basketball of his career.

Averaging 16 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.7 blocks per game, Ayton is doing it on both sides of the ball. He's active on offence which translates into better looks for Booker and Paul, in particular. Ayton's 5.3 screen assists per game rank 5th in the NBA and are a key feature of the Suns offence. 

Sky Hoops highlighted where the Suns are excelling on offence and an Ayton screen often played a part. Here he slips the first screen before flipping it and providing Booker with the space to rise up from mid-range. 

Teams have been looking to switch on Booker and Paul at the top. Ayton has a strong grasp on where he needs to be and when as a screener but can also have an impact as the roll man. Of all players with at least three possessions as a roll man per game, only John Collins scores more points per possession than Ayton's 1.3 points.

With defenders switching on Booker and Paul while Ayton can also force them into drop coverage, the Suns trio are an elite offensive threat.

Unlike other teams that are struggling for a supporting cast, the Suns have the sort of rotation that keeps them competitive across the full 48 minutes.

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The Suns don't have any glaring weaknesses

They're strong on both sides of the ball and a productive bench ensures that they maintain a high level across the full 48 minutes.

Phoenix's starting lineup (Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Ayton) had played the most possessions of any five-man lineup in the NBA before Booker left the Warriors game with a hamstring injury. Scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions, the Suns starting five is one of the best-attacking units in the league.

The versatility on offence through Paul's organisation, Booker's triple-threat, Ayton's activity and the spacing provided by Mikal Bridges (39.1% 3P%) and Jae Crowder (33.6% 3P%) translates into the Suns playing with the fifth-best offensive rating overall scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions.

The options available have seen the Suns produce true shooting percentages above league average everywhere on the floor.

The bench keeps things going as Cameron Payne, JaVale McGee, Landry Shamet and Cameron Johnson all perform on both sides of the ball.

Payne's strange career arc continues on an upward trajectory as the 27-year-old averages 9.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in 17.6 minutes.

McGee has always been a capable player despite his sometimes meme-like status and has been an exceptional contributor off the bench for Phoenix. His 10.1 points, 7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game ensure the Suns play with an inside presence throughout the minutes Ayton sits.

Shamet, like any high-volume three-point shooter, has his ups and downs but his 37.8% on 4.5 three-point shots per game are valuable numbers off the bench.

Meanwhile, Johnson is proving to be a solid bench option in both offence and defence with his 39% shooting on 4.8 three-point attempts per night particularly noteworthy. 

Offence and defence. Starters and bench. The Suns are a 48-minute basketball team and it's proving too much for the opposition more often than not.

Outlook

It's hard to look at the Suns and not see a potential championship team. 

Even with the usual "it's early", "injuries" and "they've never won anything" prefaces that come up in unexpected championship conversations at this time of the year, there is something about the Suns that promotes confidence in their chances.

They're a playoff-ready team in their style and seem to be keeping that intensity for the regular season too. While the Stats Insider Futures Model still has the Suns behind the Bucks and Nets, the two Eastern Conference contenders have issues of their own. 

The Suns have just won a franchise-record 17 games in a row. They're not flying under the radar anymore. Good teams are circled on the calendar and hunted by the chasing pack. With the Warriors, Jazz, Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers all in with a shot of getting out of the Western Conference, the pressure is now on the Suns to keep rising and go one series better than last year.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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