EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Cam Payne returning to Suns would be continuity, but also near necessity

Jul 31, 2021, 6:55 AM | Updated: 6:56 pm
Phoenix Suns' Cameron Payne (15) shoots as Milwaukee Bucks' Bobby Portis (9) defends during the fir...

Phoenix Suns' Cameron Payne (15) shoots as Milwaukee Bucks' Bobby Portis (9) defends during the first half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Pool Photo via AP)

(Christian Petersen/Pool Photo via AP)

The Suns would not have survived Chris Paul playing the first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers with one arm had Cam Payne’s reserve role not translated to more minutes.

They would not have gone up 2-0 on the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals with Paul out due to COVID-19. It was easily overlooked that before the Valley-Oop in Game 2, Payne scored six fourth-quarter points and accounted for 12 more via his assists in the fourth quarter.

And Phoenix would not have breathed one last gasp of air after a horrendous start of Game 6 in the NBA Finals had Payne not put up 10 points in 10 minutes — all in the first half.

All of that is to say Payne, like he did when he joined the team in the Disney bubble last season, played beyond expectations this past season.

Now he enters free agency with the clout of a certified rotation player — maybe even a lower-tier starter. Whether the Suns can afford to keep him remains to be seen.

But do they want to? It would be hard to imagine they like a better backup on the market.

“As far as being a team member, the way he played this year was phenomenal,” Phoenix general manager James Jones said Thursday after the NBA Draft. “I couldn’t be happier for Cam. I know the team — we all enjoyed his success. He’s a kid that has played his way back into a position … which is a really good, quality, rotation NBA player. We’re excited for what he’s done.

“Looking forward to talking to him soon to keep him with us. We know how valuable he is for us and I believe there is a lot more growth in his game that (coach Monty Williams) can unlock.”

Payne, 26, played a career-high of 60 outings in the 72-game regular season and averaged 8.4 points and 3.6 assists.

His shooting numbers (48%, 44% from three and 89% from the foul stripe) stood out. The point guard’s floor-spacing and ability to create of the bounce gave Phoenix something that even Paul, who also could opt out and become a free agent, could not.

After Booker and Payne, who on the 2020-21 Suns can on their own get their hips past an elite perimeter defender and get downhill to the basket?

The answer is nobody.

With comfort playing behind Paul and learning from the future Hall of Famer in Williams’ offense, it was how Payne attacked and probed and shifted gears that leaves you wondering what upside hasn’t yet been unsurfaced as Jones suggested.

A few words about the clip below: patience, manipulation and gravity.

Payne includes all three as he shifts gears at the right time to draw four defenders, leaving the roll man and a corner shooter wide open.

The point guard uses changes of speed and tempo to attack. He creates with his athleticism much moreso compared to Paul and Booker, who drop defenders more with their toolbox of straight skill.

Below, check out the halfcourt possession, a set play. The Clippers are all back, but Payne picks up on lax body language and gets the Suns into their offense mere seconds into the shot clock. Devin Booker puts a money mid-range shot up with 15 seconds left because Payne hit the gas.

Maybe that clip is the most important regarding what made Payne so impactful. He plays within the system well, but as himself. He makes the easy read, using his pace and tempo to surprise defenders and help his teammates attack without putting the ball at risk of a turnover.

So many of his assists came after unimpressive passes that generated easy looks because of how his own attacking or change-of-tempo before the pass manipulated the defense.

Looking over his playoff tape, where his minutes were stretched, you see true starting point guard flashes: the accurate lob-entry passes to Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric; the quick swings to Cam Johnson to set up an easy drive with the defense trying to recover to the corner; the pesky defense and the ability to play next to the Suns’ two backcourt stars.

Of course, opponents feared Payne because of his own scoring abilities that include his quirky spread base and quick-release set shot.

But the driving scoop shots, that’s the stuff that put so much pressure on the rim.

That isn’t great communication by the Bucks, but that’s Payne blowing by Giannis Antetokoumpo, who could recover if he weren’t so worried about the speedy guard looping under him and drawing a foul on his low-release scoop shot.

Paul does not bring that rim attacking off the bounce. Neither does recent trade acquisition Landry Shamet.

Payne found his favorite weapons of choice and found his identity in an offense for the first time in his career.

Another team overpaying the point guard with an eight-figure salary might not happen, but even inching toward that threshold will stress the Suns’ salary cap books as they also try to re-sign Paul.

Continuity was stressed by Jones heading into free agency, and continuity very much includes Payne returning.

“I see great potential from this group and to see us come together the way we have, it just gives you confidence,” Jones said of his staff. “It gives the guys confidence that if we continue to operate this way, we’ll continue to improve and reach our guys. It’s been a pleasure to work with these guys. I’m just excited about what the future holds, the flexibility we created and more importantly the continuity that we’re building.”

Not only is Payne re-signing about continuity. The Suns simply need his skillset.

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