EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

17 reasons why the Phoenix Suns remain top title contenders

Dec 2, 2021, 9:49 AM | Updated: 9:50 am
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Devin Booker #1 after scoring against the Dallas M...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Devin Booker #1 after scoring against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on November 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Mavericks 105-98. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Amidst a 17-game winning streak that tied the franchise record heading in to Thursday against the Detroit Pistons, the Phoenix Suns have done plenty to prove why they deserve to be among the first teams mentioned when it comes to NBA championship chances.

Much of their formula resembles what got them the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and to the NBA Finals last year.

Some NBA casuals and media members might have seen that as fluky considering injuries to key members of their opponents for three series leading into the that Finals series.

But even before the Suns beat the now-18-3 Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, people who’ve paid attention to how Phoenix has risen in the past few years already believed the team remains dangerous as last year, if not more so.

With that, here are 17 reasons why Phoenix remains easily in the title-contending tier at this moment of the regular season.

1. Mikal Bridges’ Defensive Player of the Year resume

Bridges has been the Suns’ defensive ace since he arrived in the NBA, but the impact this season is something else. He’s not only bothered some of the best one-on-one scorers like James Harden and Stephen Curry early on but flatly shut them down.

There’s a little more to Bridges’ game this year. He’s averaging 2.5 deflections per outing and it feels like many of those come in crunch time — one memory goes back to a win over the Mavericks, when Dallas kept feeding Kristaps Porzingis against Bridges in the post. That went awry.

Speaking of which, Bridges also appears to be a bigger pest defending oversized wings and better at handling switches against bigs like Porzingis. His All-Defensive votes should be there this year.

It’s the central part of a consistent team defense that’s now No. 2 in the league.

2. Emphasizing transition with the wings

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Speaking of Bridges’ deflections, the Suns have made one big change since a year ago: pace.

Last year during their playoff run, the known-to-be-slow-and-controlled Chris Paul admitted that then-assistant Willie Green had told him to push the pace.

That’s carried into this year. The Suns ranked 24th in the NBA in 2020-21 at 98 possessions a game, but now sit fourth at 101.1 possessions per outing (the league as a whole has slowed compared to the final numbers last season). That’s all good because Phoenix is second at 1.18 points per transition possession, per NBA.com.

Who’s doing the most damage?

Devin Booker is seventh at 5.2 points in transition per game, while Bridges is up there at 4.3 points per game. Our Kellan Olson wrote on their connection a few weeks back.

3. Big game Deandre is still there

The win against Golden State on Tuesday highlighted what we assumed: Deandre Ayton may have a game of floating here or there, but it’s not likely to happen in the spotlight of a national TV game against a solid team.

Ayton scored 24 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and hung well against the Warriors’ small-ball units Tuesday, even though the Suns went with a switch-happy defensive scheme to limit Stephen Curry.

The big man has been excellent since returning from a leg contusion. Ayton averaged 17 points per game and got 12 shots per outing in the month of November.

He’s done nothing to indicate he shouldn’t command max dollars as a restricted free agent this offseason.

4. CP3 is a black hole

It helps Phoenix get in transition that the team ranks sixth by forcing 16 turnovers a night, which is aided by Bridges’ aforementioned deflecting.

But Paul leads the Suns at 3.2 per game and is at 2.1 steals a night, too.

The fun part is that his anticipation and hands are making up for whatever he’s lost as a lateral one-on-one defender. Paul legitimately is taking his man out of plays by not letting him get the ball.

Also, opponents had best not dribble around him. Young man Kevin Porter tried this a few weeks ago, then after failing tried to let one of his teammates deal with it.

Paul used the opportunity to make a meme.

5. Devin Booker is hitting threes

Finally, Booker is doing what he was drafted to do. He’s hitting three-pointers. He’s at 40.3% as of Thursday morning and has never for a season been above 38.3% (2017-18).

That’s somewhat made up for a downturn in his two-point accuracy. After shooting well over 50% the past three seasons, it’s down to 48%. Booker also is getting to the foul line at a rate lowest since his rookie year, which might be more of where he can make up some efficiency.

That’s a worry for another day, because when it comes to hitting buckets and getting points when it counts …

6. Their clutch-time duo

The Suns’ backcourt is a combined 18-of-26 (69%) in the clutch, when a game is within five points in the final five minutes of the game.

Their 31 (Paul) and 30 (Booker) points respectively are 11th and 12th in the league.

Paul also has 12 assists in his 36 clutch minutes played this year. He’s got a ridiculous +47 plus-minus in those minutes.

Booker has a +38, which is actually skewed negatively because he’s been curiously bad at the foul stripe (5-of-12) during his 25 clutch minutes.

7. Shootaround game-planning

Phoenix has already seen some funky things: Small-ball teams, box-and-one zones and the like.

The continuity has allowed them to make in-game adjustments quickly. Again, the past week’s Nets and Warriors games showed in-game adjustments that snapped into place en routes to wins against pretty good competition.

A veteran team that’s been in the thick of the playoff hunt can make in-game adjustments like it probably couldn’t a year ago.

8. Size on the back end with McGee

The addition of veteran JaVale McGee posed the biggest change to the team’s roster this offseason.

It provided the Suns the ability to have two oversized bigs in an NBA world where everyone is getting smaller, but it also messed with what worked: The Suns having a connector like Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky running the offense.

Turns out, it’s mattered little what type of backup big man spells Ayton.

Kaminsky is fifth on the team with a +4.3 plus-minus, while McGee is sixth with a +4.2.

McGee is averaging 10.1 points and 7.0 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game while shooting 67%. He has been a problem despite turning the ball over at a career-high rate.

9. A deeper, more versatile perimeter group

The Landry Shamet addition is maybe Phoenix’s biggest problem at the moment, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly a problem.

He’s shooting a career-worst 38% overall and a near-career-worst 37.8% from deep. While it seems questionable whether he is more than a shooter, Shamet has not appeared to be a negative on the defensive end — he’s actually been pretty good by the eye test! — and is still a floor-spacer when he’s shooting poorly by his standards.

He and Elfrid Payton are upgrades over Jevon Carter, and their additions allow backup point guard Cam Payne to sneak into some off-ball stuff. Having more ball-handlers never hurts, and the Suns will continue finding out how to best use a more versatile group of backup guards.

10. Winning on the road

It does not seem to matter where Phoenix plays. A four-game road trip that included well-coached Spurs and Cavs squads, then ended with a back-to-back against the New York teams, was fairly clean.

The Suns are 9-1 on the road so far, and only Brooklyn (8-2) and Golden State (7-2) have done nearly as well.

11. They go against analytical standards on offense, but not on defense

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Whereas the analytics say most NBA teams should target layups and three-pointers, the Suns break from the mold in taking a lot of mid-range jumpshots. That’s because they have a rare group of players who can actually hit them at a high enough rate to make it efficient.

That does not mean Phoenix doesn’t believe in the analytics of mid-range shots being less-than-ideal. We know because they force opponents to chase mid-range buckets.

Phoenix leads the NBA by allowing 14.5 mid-range shots per game, and opponents are shooting at the ninth-worst rate (38.5%) in that area. On the opposite end of denying good shots, the Suns are also top-five in fewest corner three-point shots per game allowed (7.0), and opponents have the third-worse accuracy there (31.4%).

The Suns additionally allow the seventh fewest shots in the restricted area of the paint and are 11th in percentage allowed there.

In short, Phoenix pushes opponents to shoot where Phoenix does. Because the Suns are just better there.

12. Cam Johnson, shooting well and being a sneaky good defender

A shooting slump in the second-half of last season is old news for the reserve forward. He’s back at his rookie numbers (39%) with his shooting stroke looking pure.

Johnson has dabbled in hunting more mid-range shots to complement his threat from deep, but at his core, he’s a key piece to a bench unit that has excelled no matter who is playing point or who’s at center.

Also, Johnson continues to be a sneaky tough defender on switches or against bigger wings.

13. Opponents can’t shut down one thing

Here’s the easiest way to put this: If Kaminsky were healthy (stress reaction), the Suns have 10 capable rotation pieces averaging more than six shot attempts per game.

While Booker and Paul have divvied up and found a rhythm of who can take over when, Ayton, Bridges, Payne, Johnson, McGee, Shamet and Jae Crowder can all put up 15 points on a given night.

The Warriors game, again, provided an example of how Phoenix can hit opponents with something fresh (lots of Ayton touches) to take advantage of matchups. The Suns then for a stretch went with a new five-out group to fight the Golden State zone. It sorta worked, at least in terms of good looks.

Anyway, it’s hard to put a finger on how to stop the Suns — still.

14. Big help on the horizon?

(AP Photo/Matt York)

We don’t know if Kaminsky’s stress reaction in his knee will heal by the end of year, though AZCentral’s Duane Rankin reported it is not expected to cost the big man his season.

Dario Saric’s ACL injury suffered in the NBA Finals also puts his status for this year in jeopardy. An optimist would say that either one of them returning would at the very least bolster the backend of the roster if injuries hit. They know the systems very well by this point.

15. Open roster spot

With Chandler Hutchison and Ishmail Wainright on two-way deals, the Suns have kept only 14 players on their roster. The hole gives them flexibility to maneuver if there happens to be any players worth picking up before the trade deadline or in the waiver market down the road.

Boasting a roster of contenders, they could be an attractive landing spot to add a player who could actually pack a punch. And with a title as the primary goal, every roster spot counts.

Saric’s status could also call for a disabled player exception if the team believes he won’t be back this year.

16. Monty Williams’ culture

(AP Photo/Matt York)

We can’t leave this exercise without mentioning the head coach, whose teams’ consistency came with his arrival. Williams has gotten the most out of all his players, maybe save for Shamet at this point, who the coach has been very, very high on (It’s still early).

A few examples:

– Ayton’s contract situation hasn’t appeared to impact his play.

– Phoenix hasn’t shown many ill affects of losing a huge voice in first-year New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green, as the defense he led remains in high gear.

– The Suns’ bench, again, has thrived with new pieces. Credit lots of that to Williams.

– The biggest one: Amid the reports alleging workplace misconduct by owner Robert Sarver, Phoenix’s basketball operations staff has blocked out the noise to go on this streak.

17. The Western Conference champs are not surprising people

The Suns finished second in the Western Conference last year. Opponents had all that season to take them seriously. They beat the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers in the playoffs. Those teams probably took them seriously.

At this point, Phoenix is not a surprise in NBA circles. The Suns are respected. Teams want to go at them.

It has not worked. And the Suns have won 17 in a row. 17!

They are title contenders.

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