After years of mediocrity, the Phoenix Suns have convincingly jumped out to a 5-3 record, effectively shocking the basketball world. With wins against the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, many fans have hopped on to the bandwagon. With many others putting on their skeptical lenses instead, it’s time to ask… Are the Suns here to stay?
124-95, Suns win. This was the result of Phoenix’s first 2019-20 matchup against the Sacramento Kings. In an offensive league where defense still manages to be a deciding factor in the playoffs, this score could not have been more promising. While it may have only been the first game of the season, the trend has continued. Despite constantly finishing in the bottom five of the league in both offense and defense the last few years, Phoenix has jumped out to the 8th ranked offense (Offensive Rating Per NBA.com) and the 11th ranked defense (Defensive Rating). Put together, the Suns have the 6th best net rating in the NBA. Enough with the stats, let’s look at what has made Phoenix so good.
Why They’ve Been This Good
If the first thing that popped into your head was efficiency, you certainly would not be wrong. While the Suns have made strides in being more careful with the basketball and having less turnovers, they still have been one of the more careless teams in the NBA. Rather, it has been their shooting percentages that have really made this offense improve. So, what’s the cause for this rise? At first glance, one can attribute this rise to the Suns’ developed system leading to better, more efficient shots. Take this:
The first thing to be noted is how intelligently and well-executed this play is. Instead of taking a contested floater, we see Rubio come off the handoff and find Baynes off of a well-played screen fake in which the defense was seemingly unprepared for. It’s this evolved motion and passing implemented by HC Monty Williams and offseason additions such as Rubio that have made the Suns’ offense so different. They’ve had less isolation, more pick and roll action, and a LOT more cuts. With the offense featuring high IQ passers in Rubio, and more dynamic shooters at the big positions such as Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric, and now even Baynes, the team has become a lot harder to guard. The new threats have also created more opportunities for the team’s scorers such as Booker and Oubre, due to better finds and more space to operate. An example of this spacing:
Even if Baynes didn’t shoot here, that would leave a wide-open Kelly Oubre, as the newfound gravity caused by Baynes leads the defense to close-out, showing the importance of having big man threats. Furthermore, the Phoenix shot selection has improved. Instead of settling for mid-range shots as they’ve done the last few years, they’re now taking more efficient shots at the rim and launching the three-ball more often. Their accuracy behind the arc has also astronomically increased, where they’ve gone from the worst team in the league at 3P% (Per CleaningTheGlass) to the 7th-best. While the hot hand factor may be a large part of this and in all likelihood they’ll cool down, expect them to still be extremely improved from downtown with the new offensive play style and opportunities. Nonetheless, this team only goes as far as their star Devin Booker takes them and, this season he has more than certainly lived up to the challenge. His efficiency has skyrocketed, his scoring has been elite, and he’s been able to run the offense effectively as well. He’s also been apart of a great transition offense, which has gone from bottom ten in the league all the way to the top ten. Switching sides to defense, the Suns’ transition defense has also vastly improved, going from bottom ten to top ten in the league as well. The teams’ defensive rebounding has followed a similar trend, not to mention their overall halfcourt defense. A large part of this improvement is surely that the Suns are allowing much less second-chance points than last year, which is something that looks to last with the rebounding and box-outs of Aron Baynes. Speaking of Baynes, he and Rubio have been arguably the two biggest proponents of this newfound offensive success personnel-wise, with their high energy and IQ sparking the match for the Suns. Behind these two, the team has been able to force a lot more shots from mid-range and a lot less at the rim, making the opposing team’s efficiency drop like a rock.
Take notice of how Baynes’ presence in the above play forces Herro into a tough mid-range shot. Additionally, the team has seemed to be everywhere on the court defensively, swarming offensive players and forcing worse three-point percentages for opposing teams. So…. with all that has been said, the question remains, will it last?
Possibly the most important addition for the Suns this year has been their culture. They’ve remained well-disciplined as a team and, when they have slipped up such as against the Heat, they recognize their mistakes and try to improve. This can be best summed up by this Kelly Oubre quote: “We just got to get back to who we are and back to the basics.” The players have bought into Monty Williams’ environment and techniques, causing a what has been described by Williams as “A really good environment”. It’s this new environment that leads me to believe that the Suns will be able to adjust and keep their heads up when they start to slip. While their hot hand and oftentimes defensive luck in forcing turnovers may simmer down, they’re focused and they know what they need to do. I don’t expect them to be a top seed in the West this season, yet I do expect them to be fighting the whole way through for a very prized playoff appearance.