EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

A very subjective composite star ranking of the Suns-Clippers series

Apr 21, 2023, 11:32 AM | Updated: 2:56 pm

Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton...

The Phoenix Suns react on the bench during the final moments of Game Two of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs against the LA Clippers at Footprint Center on April 18, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The crux of debating the Kevin Durant trade at the surface level begins with arguing about depth. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are a human being more than Durant.

The trade also threw off a roster built over time with complementary pieces, regardless of evaluating the net talent gain.

But most everyone can agree the Suns’ blockbuster for Durant made this true: A more top-heavy roster will have to lean more heavily on its top players.

That includes but goes beyond Phoenix’s two best players. Deandre Ayton must tamp down inconsistencies and even rise to near-star levels when teams give up the farm to stop Booker and Durant.

Same goes for Ayton’s pick-and-roll partner, Chris Paul, whose age and inability to string together multiple above-average efforts as he did two years back will be under the microscope.

Starting with a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s become about how many times the Suns could get a third or even fourth player mentioned as a top performer by game.

In other words: If stars take you places in this league, which team has been getting more star performances? Through three games, it’s surprisingly not as one-sided despite Los Angeles beginning the series without Paul George and losing Kawhi Leonard to a knee sprain after Game 2.

I’m here to subjectively rank ’em. And yes, there’s a lot of room for arguing. But the Clippers are getting strong games out of their personnel and hanging with the Suns to many people’s surprise.

We’ll rank the best star to the fifth-best player of each game. I’m tossing in multiple contenders for that fifth spot if necessary to give credit to all rotation players who are supplementing the stars.

Points are assigned for first place (5), second place (4), so on and so forth down to a point for each fifth-place vote. Adding them up creates a series composite ranking that looks like this:

Composite rankings (through Game 3)

1. Devin Booker (13)

2. Kawhi Leonard (9)

T-3. Kevin Durant (8), Russell Westbrook (8)

5. Norm Powell (4)

6. Torrey Craig (3)

7. Chris Paul (2)

T-8. Deandre Ayton, Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland (1)

Through three games, Booker has made a leap and would be right with Leonard if Leonard had played well in Game 3. Durant has yet to have a takeover game but has been feeling things out. Russell Westbrook, traded and waived by two other teams this year, has seen his career become resuscitated in a matter of weeks. Has he been as impactful as Durant? It’s at least a conversation.

Beyond that, it’s been iffy. Torrey Craig has given Phoenix a huge boost as the fifth starter with three consistent games, which only makes you wonder if Paul and Ayton can at least match that consistency, if not flash more themselves.

Here’s how the players were ranked by game:

Game 1 – Clippers win, 115-110

Suns F Torrey Craig guard the Clippers'Kawhi Leonard (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

1. Kawhi Leonard: Thirty-eight points, backbreaking shots and clutch defense on Durant gave him the easy No. 1 slot. It was a classic, peak Kawhi game.

2. Kevin Durant: Despite scoring zero points in the first quarter for the second time in his long playoff career, Durant rebounded to get Phoenix back into it during a second quarter of 15 points and a few assists. He finished with 25 points and 11 assists, making the right passes as the Clippers hounded him.

3. Devin Booker: It was an efficient 26 points, but the performance most impressively included four steals and three blocks to make up for five turnovers.

4. Russell Westbrook: A 3-for-19 shooting night is forgiven for Westbrook flying around like a hawk over water on defense, snatching any signs of a midrange defense like a fish bubbling near the surface. He added 11 assists, two steals and three blocks as Durant’s primary defender.

5. Torrey Craig/Chris Paul/Eric Gordon: It’s a real tossup. Gordon dropped 19 and lowkey played great defense for the Clippers. Paul added 11 assists and 10 points but was hardly a threat as a scorer.

Craig might be the best option with 22 points scoring on just 12 shots as he was promoted — surprisingly — to the starting lineup. The forward responded despite the offense featuring him with great success as a roll man as Ivica Zubac guarded him. Craig does get dinged for being but a fruit fly on Leonard for the night.

Game 2 – Suns win, 123-109

Devin Booker, Game 2 of Suns-Clippers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

1. Devin Booker: A no-brainer. He scored 38 to go with nine assists, catapulting the Suns with a monster third quarter where he just decided he needed to be the point guard.

2. Kawhi Leonard: It was a step back from Game 1 as Phoenix did a better job forcing the ball out of his hands, but it still ended at 31 points, seven assists and three steals. Leonard accounted for 23 of 29 first-quarter points.

3. Russell Westbrook: He found his stroke! Twenty-eight points on 9-of-16 shooting along with more maniacal defense of the midrange.

4. Kevin Durant: It was a quiet 25 points, five assists and two blocks for Durant.

5. Chris Paul/Deandre Ayton/Torrey Craig: This was more clear-cut and deserving than Game 1, with Ayton hurting the Clippers in the midrange during the second quarter as his team hunted for any offensive consistency at all. Paul and Ayton ran pick-and-rolls down the stretch of the fourth, converting enough to pull away.

Then again, Craig hit five threes — very timely ones — en route to 17 points and with help did a better job of forcing Leonard to get rid of the rock.

Game 3 – Suns win, 129-124

Devin Booker and Russell Westbrook (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

1. Devin Booker: It was a shot-making gem from Booker. He scored 45 points on 18-of-29 shooting to go with three steals and two blocks. And his defensive efforts didn’t fall off despite him carrying a disjointed offensive night for the Suns.

2. Norman Powell: Leonard’s sudden knee sprain kept him out, and Powell delivered all he could with a playoff career-high of 42 points and seven made threes as the Clippers gave the Suns a scare.

3. Russell Westbrook: Let’s say it’s safe to label Westbrook as not washed. He dropped a 30-piece to go with 12 assists and three steals. Were it not for six turnovers and a few erratic shots, he could’ve challenged Powell for No. 2.

4. Kevin Durant: Durant struggled with Los Angeles’ physicality in some respects (six turnovers) but thrived in others (11-of-11 from the foul stripe). He scored 28 to go with five assists and six rebounds. He’s yet to have that classic Kevin Durant game.

5. Bones Hyland/Torrey Craig: Not good for the Paul-Ayton temperature check! Hyland, a defensive target of the Suns, had been ice-cold in Games 1 and 2 before he put up 20 in 21 minutes.

Craig gets a mention for the third game in a row. He scored 15 points to go with four boards and two dimes but hit a near-dagger three in the corner as the Clippers challenged Phoenix late.

Meanwhile, Paul went 5-of-18 from the field, including 1-of-8 from three. Ayton posted 12 points and 11 boards but was too often a ghost on defense and a butterfingers on offense. It’s not good if they aren’t outperforming guys like Hyland and Craig.

Empire of the Suns

Royce O'Neale of the Phoenix Suns...

Kevin Zimmerman

ESPN’s Marks: Royce O’Neale’s contract details show bargain for Suns

If we're to shrug at how Mat Ishbia cares to spend his money, Royce O'Neale's four-year, $42 million contract is a bargain.

23 hours ago

Amen Thompson #29 of the 2024 USA Basketball Men's Select Team guards Devin Booker #15 of the 2024 ...

Kellan Olson

Devin Booker continues to look the part for Team USA vs. Canada

Devin Booker continued to prove why he will be a valuable asset in the Paris Olympics for Team USA in an exhibition win against Canada.

2 days ago

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during a 124-108 win over the LA Clippers at Crypto.com Arena ...

Kellan Olson

Kevin Durant clears up his reported frustration in Phoenix Suns offense

Kevin Durant provided some clarification on reports regarding his frustration with the Suns' offense and standing in the corner.

3 days ago

Kevin Durant and Anthony Edwards...

Kellan Olson

Anthony Edwards has ‘butterflies’ to be Kevin Durant’s Olympic teammate

Anthony Edwards has been Kevin Durant's favorite player for a long time, and after the two battled in the postseason, they are now teammates.

4 days ago

Devin Booker #15 of Team United States poses with his gold medal during the Men's Basketball medal ...

Kellan Olson

Devin Booker back for Olympic gold after thriving as ‘perfect FIBA guy’ in Tokyo

Devin Booker didn't struggle at all with a large role change for Team USA in the 2021 Olympics and he should thrive again this summer.

4 days ago

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles the ball while being guarded by Tyrese Haliburton #0 o...

Kellan Olson

Tyrese Haliburton was open to Suns drafting him, had zero pre-draft communication

Tyrese Haliburton told Arizona Sports he was open to being selected by the Suns in 2020 despite reports he forced his way to the Kings.

5 days ago

A very subjective composite star ranking of the Suns-Clippers series