EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ extended skid does not eliminate opportunity to win West

Jan 18, 2023, 6:06 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2023, 7:16 am
Cameron Payne #15 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns react on the bench during the final momen...
Cameron Payne #15 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns react on the bench during the final moments of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Footprint Center on January 06, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Heat defeated the Suns 104-96. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I will not pretend to speak for all of them but I get a sense from my limited reach that Phoenix Suns fans are defeated. At the very least, pessimism has peaked.

Over a 5-17 stretch in the team’s last 22 games that now has them 12th in the Western Conference, the quality of basketball in the first half particularly inspired those types of responses.

“It just isn’t their year. Time to think about the future.”

“The window is closed.”

“Tanking for a better lottery pick doesn’t sound so bad.”

I get it. To an extent.

On Dec. 9, the last game Devin Booker played before three separate time periods of missing contests that will go up to 17 of the last 20 fixtures on Thursday, Phoenix was third in offense and 16th in defense, per Cleaning the Glass. Even when it was moderately healthy, it was a good team, sure. A title contender still? Eh, write it in pencil if you do.

Since then, the Suns are 29th in offense and 20th in defense across their previous 19 games. All total, they’re 15th in offense and 19th in defense. Average. A 21-24 record more or less reflects that.

It requires a layer of context, though, one I will toss the number 15 on.

Entering Thursday’s matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, the Suns have had six of their most important eight players miss at least 15 games: Booker (16), Jae Crowder (45 while waiting for a trade), Cam Johnson (37), Chris Paul (19), Cam Payne (17) and Landry Shamet (15).

This is with the second half of the season still to come. Last year, a season in which the Suns still won 64 games through lots of guys being out with smaller injuries, Payne and Deandre Ayton were the only everyday rotation players unable to crack the 65-game mark. This season, they’ll be lucky if two guys hit that mark at all.

This year covers Phoenix being down its starting 4 last season (Crowder) and their starting 4 this year (Johnson) the majority of the season, plus the recent spurt without its three primary ball-handlers (Booker, Paul and Payne).

The roster is flawed, suffering from a lack of offensive creation and consistent source of rim pressure. That goes back to last summer, when I said I wouldn’t give general manager James Jones a passing grade if a key ball-handler wasn’t added. This has been why.

Chris Paul’s decline has put a strenuous amount of weight on that foundation. You know when the movie star hears a crack while walking on ice or making their way through a creaking building, before the camera pans and follows the extension of the crack?

That is what it has done to the Suns’ stable, constantly churning offense. Paul is shooting 45% from the midrange, a pedestrian mark for a player who is anything but pedestrian. He borders on godly percentages from that area of the court, where he’s on pace for his worst mark since 2007, back when an underwhelming “Spider-Man 3” topped the box office and the Plain White T’s debuted on the Billboard charts asking Delilah what’s it like in New York City.

The league should put a small CP3 logo on the right elbow of every court when he retires. He’s on the short list of guys you can attribute to a specific spot on the floor. But he’s not moving nearly the same at 37 years old than he was at 36 and it’s affecting even the most reliable parts of his shotmaking.

His absence and Booker’s over stretches allowed Mikal Bridges and Ayton the opportunity to explore bigger roles, one they both proved not to be ready for. It was a chance for them to broaden their horizons as offensive players, prove that head coach Monty Williams should treat them as the secondary option to Booker in April and May. They both had their moments but nothing that came off as sustainable.

And yet, there’s an unknown to this team of what it looks like with a fully maximized roster, a wonder hopefully for our sakes we no longer possess within a few weeks.

Johnson is set to return on Thursday. Paul is questionable, suggesting he should come back from a sore right hip within a few games at the absolute latest. Payne will have his sprained right foot re-evaluated on Saturday while Booker’s for a left groin strain is a week from Wednesday on Jan. 25.

On top of that, the Feb. 9 trade deadline puts a now or never timeline on a Crowder deal. If picks are attached to him, it could be a difference-maker. If they aren’t, it’s still a rotation piece in place of a guy at home.

The closest we got to seeing what this team is about was the first eight games, some that Ayton missed. But in a number I’ve cited a few times the last week, the four-man unit of Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Paul in 148 minutes together outscored teams by 29.5 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league at the time over 100 minutes, according to NBA.com.

This is still going to be a squad with an elite starting lineup. The depth produces trepidation but that five, even with Paul in his current state, will still rock teams. And on the point of depth, all the losing has at least let good signings Damion Lee and Josh Okogie show they are capable of swinging a playoff game.

The question at the core of all this is how much ground can the Suns make up. They are 21-24, and looking at the beginning of February as a realistic time to expect the injury report to find some normalcy, that would be with 30 games left on the season.

Can the Suns catch fire, replicate some of last year’s magic and get to a few games beyond .500 to likely snatch a top six seed? I like their chances. Even if it’s not as dramatic, something like an 18-12 mark — like the Suns’ 18-11 record with Booker — would put them right around .500 and safely in a play-in spot due to the extreme parity in the West.

I know, I know. Not quite as rosy as you were expecting.

But in all our talk the last handful of months about the juggernaut the West is, don’t let that mischaracterize it when it comes to a colossal giant or two to fear in the postseason.

Lower in the standings, the Dallas Mavericks (24-21) flutter around the same number of wins and losses despite a historical scoring season in progress from Luka Doncic. Who knows who is playing when for the Los Angeles Clippers (23-23) and the Golden State Warriors (22-22) are 5-17 on the road (!).

Up top, the world-beaters aren’t there. I could at least hear an argument on the East, where the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics all pose serious threats in multiple facets.

On top of basketball talent, what all those teams are showered with is postseason experience.

The furthest any top four seed in the West has made it recently is the second round.

One of those occasions was the Suns sweeping a shorthanded Denver Nuggets (31-13) squad. They were without Jamal Murray but the league MVP Nikola Jokic was also effectively neutralized (and outplayed) by Deandre Ayton.

Most of the players on the New Orleans Pelicans (26-18) just made their playoff debut last year against the Suns. Zion Williamson still hasn’t yet and Brandon Ingram joins him to form the league’s top star duo in terms of missed games this season.

I can buy some optimism on the Memphis Grizzlies (30-13) but their last two postseasons have been defined by a lack of help for Ja Morant (sound familiar?), a trend Desmond Bane should help snap in some fashion.

Then there’s the Sacramento Kings (24-18), the best story in the NBA. They also start a rookie, lack depth and have Domantas Sabonis’ 13 games in the playoff represent how battle tested their 1-2 punch is with him and De’Aaron Fox.

To compile these points together, FanDuel’s leader in the clubhouse to get to the NBA Finals in the West is the Nuggets by a hair at +360, which translates to them having no idea. Phoenix, despite falling off a cliff the last six weeks, still sits with the fifth-best odds at +650, not even fully doubling Denver’s odds. Vegas isn’t ready to give you juicy odds for a lower-seeded run just yet because they usually support track records, and so should you!

By comparison, the Celtics (+180), Bucks (+220) and Nets (+440) have separated themselves from the pack on the other side of the country.

If I have failed to convince you the Suns still have a shot, fair enough.

But please, I beg of you, enough with mentioning “tanking.”

Let’s say Booker’s insertion is too late and this team is already too far gone.

It’s March and this team is 10 games below .500 with 15-20 remaining. Is Jones supposed to stroll into the locker room and tell one of the most competitive guys in the league, “Hey Book, it just isn’t our year. We’re gonna cite the hammy and groin that’s been bothering you and have you fresh for next year. How’s some extra time off sound?”

A different regime did a similar thing with Eric Bledsoe during a season in which the Suns actually had a real reason to tank and that led to him voicing his unpleasantries from a hair salon.

Forgive me but giving the guy a shot who was honored as the West’s top player shortly before his injuries seems more than rational. Since when is punting on a chance at a championship a thing?

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