EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ reserve backcourt of Cam Payne, Landry Shamet still work in progress

Jan 13, 2022, 5:26 PM | Updated: 6:57 pm
Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks to pass the ball under pressure from Landry Sh...
Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks to pass the ball under pressure from Landry Shamet #14, Cameron Payne #15 and Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of NBA game at Footprint Center on December 25, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Warriors defeated the Suns 116-107. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns entered Thursday’s action with the best record in the NBA, 31-9.

They’ve got the league’s second-best defense statistically and are eighth in offense, one of four teams to hold a top 10 ranking on Cleaning the Glass’ metrics for both sides of the ball that eliminate fodder like garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves.

This year’s statistics, in general, are wonky to analyze considering the unprecedented amount of in-and-out activity on rotations because of COVID-19.

Everyone is just trying to come out of the other side a better team when they entered this fracas, the type of seasonal improvement that is necessary for contenders. (I’m looking at you, Utah).

This rocky boat we are in makes that more difficult to do, and one of the teams that is able to transition out of this storm the best is going to be holding up a trophy in June.

If we’re using this lens to take a gander at the Phoenix Suns, their sources of secondary offense — aka from people not named Devin Booker and Chris Paul — are what needs to get better. More specifically, their backups Cam Payne and Landry Shamet have had an underwhelming impact at the halfway point of the season.

The roster shuffling has hurt them the most out of anyone, forcing altered lineup constructions game-by-game to the second unit. Their attempt to find consistent rhythm is hampered by this.

Looking at how many points the Suns outscore teams by per 100 possessions when a player is on the bench, Payne’s 10.1 off-court net rating leads the team and Shamet’s 8.4 is third. Yes, this is likely to happen for the backups to Paul and Booker, but Payne last year had the team’s second-best on-court net rating of 7.8.

Payne at least has that clear reference point to look back on. He was one of the 3-5 best backup point guards in the NBA last season and it got him paid.

Stylistically, Payne was a perfect change of pace to Paul, someone who pushes the tempo and provides constant pressure on the rim. Because of Payne’s underrated vision and playmaking, that got the gears whirling on Monty Williams’ offensive principles centered around ball and player movement.

Paul would start first quarters like he always would, assessing the way defenses were shifting and getting his teammates involved, the equivalent of the train leaving the station. But that sucker would really start hauling when Payne came in, sending those gears into, erm, high gear.

That sounds like a responsibility that could easily turn into Payne trying to do too much, which is exactly what has happened.

Payne’s usage percentage, the amount of a team’s offense a player amounts to through shots, free throws, assists and turnovers, is 29.0%, by far the second-highest on the team. That’s up dramatically from a 22.8% mark last year, per Cleaning the Glass.

There is not a simple answer as to what is happening here. Going off the eye test, to me at least, it looks like he’s still adjusting to being a more consistent part of the scouting report.

Payne’s dip in shooting percentages from last year is alarming. The field goal percentage goes from 48.4% to 38.8%, thanks largely to his accuracy for 3-pointers sitting at 31.9%, a far cry from an elite 44.0% a year ago.

Payne’s efficiency at the rim is down from 57% to 49% and there’s a similar drop at the midrange, 47% to 39%.

Has anything changed significantly to attribute to this? There are two numbers that stand out.

Looking at NBA.com’s tracking data, Payne is attempting 31.3% of his total shots when he takes over six dribbles. That’s up 10% from last year, and the conversion rate change is staggering. Payne shot 55.2% on those shots in 2020-21 and is at only 32.7% this season.

Payne is not like a lot of ball-handlers across the league who will take a dribble or two to shake a guy with the threat of a potential pull-up. And it’s not that Payne is one-dimensional, as he’s got an ability to pass and also drain floaters, but it seems like more teams are ready for a roaring downhill slasher.

It’s less space than he’s accustomed to when he turns on the jets. Payne is so good at sneaking layups off the backboard. Opposing defenders know that trick, though.

Speaking on the rotation changing, Payne’s initial take here is blocked off by Elfrid Payton’s defender leaving him, giving Payne three defenders to worry about. He re-assesses but can’t find quite enough room for the floater on the second go.

Teams know he wants that left hand and he’s going to almost exclusively use it, even with room to use the right. You can see where the reliance hurts.

‘Sup with the 3-pointers, though?

This one is easy. On shots NBA.com deemed as wide open with six feet or more of space, Payne’s 3P% is 30.9%. That’s a freefalling nosedive compared to a 49.2% knockdown rate last year, and it’s the same 2.0 wide-open 3s he’s taking a night.

That’s a clear indicator that he’s just going through his own struggles.

The good news is he’s still been mostly the same provider. The percentage of his team’s baskets he assists has maintained at 28.7% after 28.4% last year, and his turnover percentage isn’t in a dangerous place considering his level of play at the moment.

The safe bet is this is a lengthy shooting slump for Payne while adjusting to how defenses have shifted philosophies on him.

The Suns really need Payne to push through this, because if he does, that’ll really help Shamet.

What we know at this point for Shamet is that we are very likely not going to see what I previewed in training camp, that the Suns could be “unlocking” Shamet and his ball-handling prowess put on display at Wichita State. Too far into the season for that now.

With no role from last year’s team to use as a guide for Shamet, it’s a lot more cut and dry.

He is a phenomenal shooter but has been average this year. Going back to wide-open looks from the tracking data, Shamet shot 43.8% on those at range in his first three seasons. He is 26-of-76 (34.2%) this year. That is hard to believe.

Wide-open 3s account for 31.1% of his total shots. That number has to go up.

As a playmaker, Shamet could be more of a contributor, even though that next step of him being used as an occasional primary ball-handler hasn’t come yet.

Shamet understands he needs to go quickly in Williams’ system. Move yourself or the ball. Fast. He’s shown this awareness. It’s just a matter of it benefitting the team more when he gets aggressive with it.

He has never been a guy to explode past defenders and that’s OK on a team full of shooters that knows how to get open.

Even a dribble or two attacking a recovering defense will do just fine.

And once this translates more to a bit of him running actions, his teammates will help him out. Jae Crowder knows he has to cut here.

Payne and Shamet are both Suns guys to a T. They are great for the locker room, know how to play the right way and compete at the level Williams wants. Payne has been solid again defensively and Shamet is right there alongside him on that end.

The Suns are also in a championship window right now. A. Championship. Window. Right. Now.

Phoenix does not make the NBA Finals last year without Payne. They need him to get there again this year.

Can they rely on Payne again? Will Shamet be the extra boost to the rotation he appeared to be heading into the year?

My gut says yes on both fronts. My gut also does not matter. James Jones’ gut matters. Williams’ gut matters.

The trade deadline is less than a month away. If there is any real doubt on either of those two and a deal to be made elsewhere for another guard that can help off the bench, the Suns need to consider all their options.

These windows don’t come that often, and they never even ensure a crack at a ring. Of all the franchises, the one with naked fingers should know.

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