Phoenix has never seen a Suns team like this one before
The Phoenix Suns haven’t made the playoffs for a decade, the second-longest active drought in the NBA and one of the worst overall across the four major professional sports in the United States.
After a strong offseason, the Suns are projected to break that streak, which is more than enough to celebrate.
Head coach Monty Williams, though, is leading a Phoenix team unlike any in the franchise’s 52-year history.
That’s not to say this will be one of the top teams over that half-century, but it’s different in a couple of exciting ways.
Let’s take a journey by combing through that history while comparing the 2020-21 Suns to it. Here are a few of the unique traits for this coming year’s team:
Have the Suns had better teams when it comes to star power? Absolutely. Without question.
The combination of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire benefitted from mutual symmetry on top of their own individual brilliance. There were still independent dual-destructive forces like Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, along with a Big 3 before it was cool to have a Big 3 in Alvan Adams, Walter Davis and Paul Westphal.
Those three are far ahead of this upcoming team.
But what about a ball-handler duo? What — and I should preface this with a gag warning — you pictured when hearing about the Backcourt 2000 duo of Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway?
More simply, a backcourt that can do everything you wish of a primary initiator in an offense. Has there been one better than Chris Paul and Devin Booker?
I think not!
For the sake of argument, let’s try our best to find these other complete ball-handlers in franchise history.
We want someone who can run the show, providing for teammates at a high rate, excelling in a similar way with how they score. And we want efficient buckets too. None of that chucking nonsense.
There’s no fool-proof way to do it statistically, but we’ll try with just three numbers.
We will eliminate three-point percentage, but still reward it by including true shooting percentage, incentivizing the most effective of scorers.
Instead of assists per game, we will go with assist percentage, a better encapsulation of the playmaking load these guys take on for the whole team.
For production, I nominate player efficiency rating (PER), a flawed metric on its own, but one that’ll quickly whittle anyone out who isn’t, well, productive.
Here are the three qualifiers: AST% of at least 30%, a TS% of at least 60% and a PER of at least 20.5.
For reference, Paul last season was 34.0%/61.0%/21.7 and Booker was 30.0%/61.8%/20.6. And remember, even if those two weren’t teammates last year and the dynamic between them isn’t a foregone conclusion, Paul did his sharing in OKC with two other ball-handlers and the same goes for Booker with Ricky Rubio.
Back to our results. Our winners: Steve Nash (six times!) and Kevin Johnson (three times). So, technically, the Suns had that backcourt at one point! Just not when they were both at that level.
But that’s it. Other really, really great players in franchise history don’t come close when you’re talking about true guard skills, the expert craftsmanship in facilitating while scoring methodically.
If we bump the qualifiers way down — let’s go 5% lower for each — we get a couple more K.J. seasons and three nods for Westphal, plus an appearance a piece for Goran Dragic (2013-14) and Eric Bledsoe (16-17).
Taking the AST% to 20% gets us our first pair of teammates, and what was likely your first guess, the late 70s and early 80s runs with Westphal and Davis we already mentioned.
To get our admission rate up and some other duos in the door, going to 20 AST%/50 TS%/17.0 PER, there pops Westphal and Adams in the mid-70s, K.J. and a 33-year-old Davis (!) in the late 80s and the Johnson-Jeff Hornacek tandem that followed. Then there are other Johnson backcourt partners like Elliott Perry (!!), Sam Cassell and Jason Kidd before the arrival of Hardaway alongside Kidd (BACKCOURT 2000!!!!!).
Our modern wing of duos includes the 48-win 2013-14 team led by Dragic and Bledsoe, and then, yes, Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, who only did so before the trade deadline frenzy in February 2015. It was working! They should have kept them together!
I will accept all arguments coming my way that contest Paul and Booker as the best backcourt the Suns have ever had, and I could be wrong, but it’s a claim I’m willing to make if Paul is within range of the Second-Team All-NBA Point God Reunion Tour form he captured in Oklahoma City last season.
The value of inexperience
Zooming out a ways to go more full scale … Not that far out. Take us back in a little bit. Liiiitle more. There we go. Better.
Now that the big dogs are out of the way, let’s look at roster construction.
This team is going to get better as the season goes on in a way few can compare to because of experience. Well, actually, inexperience.
Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson will likely be among the team’s top-six in minutes per game, with Johnson entering his second season while the 2018 draft class starts year three.
There have been 29 playoff teams in franchise history, and in only two of those seasons have three Suns players finished in the top-six of minutes per game that did not yet have three years of experience. Again, that’s three players entering either season one, two or three of their careers that finished top-six in minutes per game.
So who were the two? They’re rather noteworthy answers.
Firstly, that would be the 55-win, Western Conference finalist 1988-89 Suns with Johnson (second year, 39.2 MPG), Hornacek (third year, 31.9 MPG), Armen Gilliam (second year, 28.6 MPG) and Dan Majerle (rookie, 25.1 MPG).
The other? The 1977-78 gang, another featuring franchise icons in their beginnings like Davis (rookie, 32.0 MPG) and Adams (third year, 27.3 MPG), along with Ron Lee (second year, 23.5 MPG).
Booker doesn’t even make the cut entering his sixth year, but he won’t turn 25 until next October, making him younger this season than Hornacek, Gilliam and Lee were for those respective teams.
This could be one of the best young teams the Suns have ever had in terms of the level of contribution outta the kiddos for a playoff team.
And youth is a common theme across these all-time great Suns teams, including the nine conference finals trips in total for the franchise.
The 1993 NBA Finals team had rookie Richard Dumas. A first-year Adams was a stud immediately for the 1976 finals run, and ditto for Davis in his second season (1978-79). Larry Nance blossomed in his third year (1983-84), we already hit on 1988-89 and that carried over to 1989-90.
Even role players like Cedric Ceballos (1992-93), Jared Dudley (2009-10), Joe Johnson (2004-05) and Boris Diaw (2005-06) gave those terrific groups an extra push.
The 2020-21 Suns can get that from the top of their roster (Booker and Ayton) to the core (Bridges and Johnson). And in what’s an unknown for them, there are big-time improvements that could be coming from any of those four.
Shooting, shooting, shooting
Stylistically for this team, the most obvious area to spotlight is shooting.
Looking at last season’s numbers, including Cameron Payne’s eight-game sample size and Jalen Smith’s sophomore year at Maryland, the Suns have 11 certified three-point shooting threats on their roster who shot at least 35% from deep.
Everyone who is projected to play in the rotation except for Jae Crowder is in that cluster, as Crowder’s volatile percentages can have him go from 29.3% in Memphis to 44.5% in Miami over the course of one season. Let’s say the Suns get closer to Miami Crowder than Memphis, then that’s a full dozen good shooters.
If someone was crazy enough to add up the over 2,400 attempts those guys took across different teams, they’d land on a three-point percentage as a 12-man unit of 37.2%.
That’s a top 10 mark in franchise history. But the groups above it in the rankings aren’t really comparable based on the sheer volume of treys this group will be hucking up. For goodness sake, Cotton Fitzsimmons’ 1991-92 bunch attempted only 7.3 threes a game. Cam Johnson might break that on his own this season after posting 7.8 per 36 minutes as a rookie.
The best team to line up comparatively is the 2005-06 team, which shot 39.9% on 25.6 threes a game and had eight players by the end of the season taking at least a pair a night. That, also, was after mid-season acquisitions Jim Jackson and Tim Thomas joined the fray.
Six of those eight Suns converted at least 38% of their attempts, including current general manager James Jones. Playing with Steve Nash in that Mike D’Antoni madness, of course, an overwhelming majority of those shots were catch-and-shoot looks.
Given Booker and Paul will be playing off each other more with the big fella sucking the defense into the middle, there are notable increases that should be coming via more catch-and-shoot looks to bump up that three-point percentage. Which, duh, of course. But stick with me.
The three players on this season’s team with the highest usage percentages last year have discernible jumps from overall three-point percentage to catch-and-shoot three-point percentage: Booker (35.4% to 39.3%), E’Twaun Moore (37.7% to 41.2%) and Paul (36.5% to 42.3%).
Add in Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway and Cam Johnson’s marks all hitting at least 39% overall and we’ve tidily matched those six from the 2005-06 squad. I snuck that up on ya, didn’t I?
So, the quantity of shooters is a landslide, and the quality of shooters isn’t all that far off. We didn’t even get to Ayton yet, who could see the team reach a baker’s dozen of snipers if he walks the walk he’s been talking about extending his range.
And going back to his 11 teammates, would you be able to guess who had the worst percentage last season? Why, yes, it is Booker. How’d you know? What’s that? I wouldn’t have asked otherwise? Ah, touche, reader. Touche. Just having a conversation with an imaginary reader. Nothing to see here.
Any way you stack it, this will be the Suns’ most versatile shooting team ever, and probably one of the best.
How about defense? Yes! That other part of basketball! The one the Suns haven’t been top-10 in for 18 seasons!
We have to travel back to the 2002-03 season to find it, and they squeaked in at 10th for defensive rating, the amount of points a team allows per 100 possessions.
It’s the other half of the game Suns teams have rarely ever been known for, but this could be one of the exceptions.
After Phoenix finished top-10 in defensive rating for five straight seasons from the late 80s to early 90s, culminating with the NBA Finals run, it was a two-year blip at the turn of the millennium as one of the league’s best.
That’s the last time Phoenix had a truly great defensive team, and a good example to weigh up against this roster.
The 1999-2000 Suns were third in defensive rating and then second the following season. The team was led by head coach Scott Skiles, who replaced Danny Ainge 20 games into that 1999-2000 campaign.
Over that two-year stretch, there were key attributes that this year’s group shares.
Jason Kidd was at the helm of those teams, firmly entering the prime of his late 20s. He had earned First Team NBA All-Defense the season prior, and then made the second team with forward Cliff Robinson for that 1999-2000 run. It’s the only time in franchise history two Suns players received an All-Defense nod the same season.
Kidd was the leader and voice at point guard, and while Paul is beyond his peak as a defender, he’s tied with Kidd for sixth all-time in All-Defense Teams made with nine.
The versatility from Robinson and a young Shawn Marion is where Bridges comes up, and the toughness through Tom Gugliotta and Rodney Rogers is a modern-day comp for Crowder.
Ayton is the key differentiator and the piece that will likely swing how good (or bad) this season’s Suns defense is, as his speed at his size gives him an almost immeasurable ceiling as a defender.
He has the ability to switch out and stick on guards, what he was best at as a rookie. Ayton grew in year two as an anchor, showing a much better feel for his positioning defending ball screens. He improved with his spacing between the ball-handler, his man and the rim.
Marion is the only comparable defender the organization has had when looking at what’s possible for Ayton’s versatility. This is the only part of this exercise where we’ll go into projectables, but if Ayton improves in his third season at the same rate he did over his first two, this will be Phoenix’s first good defensive team in nearly two decades.
And if he makes a big jump, one that should be borderline expected of a player with his talent, it will be a great defensive team.