EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

How the Suns can certify elite status after the NBA All-Star break

Feb 21, 2024, 8:04 AM | Updated: 7:20 pm

For all the rightful talk about parity in the NBA this season, Vegas is patting that notion on the head and calling it adorable.

Coming out of the All-Star break with a little over two months until the playoffs start, oddsmakers have championship odds tiered off to four teams: the Boston Celtics (+230 on FanDuel), Denver Nuggets (+440), Los Angeles Clippers (+500) and Milwaukee Bucks (+650).

The Phoenix Suns are next at +1400, followed closely by other potential contenders like the New York Knicks (+2000), Cleveland Cavaliers (+2500), Oklahoma City Thunder (+2500) and Minnesota Timberwolves (+2500).

While it feels like a dozen teams could make the NBA Finals, right now, sports books aren’t buying it. And the reason they work as a business is because they are normally right.

The Thunder and Timberwolves won’t be able to do much across these eight weeks to change their minds. The Suns, though, could.

Vegas replaced them with the Clippers in that top echelon around the turn of the new year following an uninspiring start to the season in Phoenix. But since a loss on Christmas, the Suns are top-10 in both offensive (third) and defensive rating (eighth) with a 19-7 record.

That push has obviously been a good sign and shown they are capable of stacking wins. There’s still plenty of work to be done in 27 remaining regular season games before picking them to win the West, and here is what Phoenix has to do to be considered elite again entering the postseason.

Stay healthy

Phoenix can’t get better at what is ailing them if it is not keeping its core group healthy. Day-to-day-type injuries are going to come that force guys to miss a few games in smaller pockets of the season but anything stretching across longer than a few weeks would seriously jeopardize the chances of the continuity maintaining its acceleration toward the point it has to reach.

Kevin Durant’s freak injury in pregame warmups last year cut down 10 games he needed. This year, there is less urgency for players like Durant, Devin Booker, Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon, who have all played enough together to get acclimated.

Bradley Beal, however, has to stay on the floor. He had a procedure done on his nose over the break to fully complete that process while also rehabbing his way back from the hamstring tweak that sidelined him for the last game Phoenix played.

To continue to state what has been said since the trade, Beal has the most difficult role on the team. There are segments of a game, like the start of the second and fourth quarters, where he has to be the guy while running the offense. Most of the time, that’s Booker and Durant holding that baton, so it challenges Beal to be effective in other ways for the majority of his minutes. He’s looked the part in spots when he’s been able to not miss games.

Don’t discount this for Royce O’Neale and Thaddeus Young, either. O’Neale is a plug-and-play piece. But learning the system by playing in it, particularly defensively, are important reps for him. If the Suns project Young as someone who could get even situational playoff moments, he will require some playing time as well.

Make a new friend (math)

A unique distinction Phoenix gets is it has the best field goal percentage in losses this season. The Suns are shooting 47.3% across defeats, tops in the NBA. Some contenders see a simple drop in 3-point percentage to explain losses, like the Celtics (31.4%), Cavaliers (32.2%), Nuggets (32.2%) and Knicks (32.5%). Not the Suns. They are at 35.1%, fifth leaguewide.

And losses aren’t coming because the other team is shooting the lights out, either by dumb luck or as a result of bad defense. Phoenix opponents in Suns losses are shooting 49.2%, tied for the fourth lowest.

Now, a few ticks of these percentage points are influenced by garbage time, but the point stands on indicating something else is going wrong to a significant degree.

It’s the math game.

Again, among all teams in losses, Phoenix is 29th in turnover percentage, tied for 25th in opponents offensive rebounds per game and last in 3-point attempts per game. And in wins or losses as a whole, the Suns are attempting 31.4 3s a game, 26th leaguewide.

When the Suns are dropping games, nearly every time it comes down to a combination of a field goal attempt disadvantage that stems from the rebounding/turnovers and getting outscored on the 3-point line.

Or it’s the other problem.

Eliminate fourth-quarter woes

Surely the Suns’ fourth quarters have improved over the post-Christmas surge, right?

Nope!

The Suns’ offensive rating in fourth quarters over the 14-15 mark up to Christmas was 103.6. Since then over a different 26-game sample size, it is 102.1. It’s worse! The defensive rating goes from 118.5 to 119.2. So, again, worse.

Even when going 19-7, it is a -17.1 net rating that is historically bad and last in the NBA.

There needs to be dramatic growth over this last third of the season or the Suns won’t even make it past the first round.

Explore small ball further

A loss to the Golden State Warriors and win over the Sacramento Kings near the All-Star break might have revealed what the best version of this Suns team is.

Perhaps it’s an overreaction to a two-game sample size. But Draymond Green had his way with Nurkic, and a game later, over a dozen minutes without a center showcased the heights Phoenix can reach.

The latter had a lot to do with O’Neale, as does the entire thought as a whole. The Suns were a guy short on both ends for a hypothetical five-man small-ball lineup.

O’Neale’s positional versatility on defense is maximized by his strength. Even at a listed 226 pounds, it allows him to bang with centers for small bursts while stifling ball-handlers by beating them to the spot with his anticipation and physicality. Offensively, the Suns having another high-IQ member who can both reliably knock down open shots and become a playmaker when the situation calls for it is a game-changer.

There is no way to defend a five-man group comprised of the Big 3, Grayson Allen and O’Neale. It’s impossible. There are only bad choices for opposing defenses to make. On defense, it’s not so much viable as it is acceptable. Phoenix benefits from the enormous positives the offense brings. Booker in particular has really been bringing it defensively the last two weeks, and that type of effort from him, Beal and Durant would make it work.

If Young can still hang defensively, he would cushion the minutes when Nurkic sits prior to crunch time instead of putting those all on Durant.

There will be games where Nurkic should play 35 minutes. He’s been fantastic this year, a big-impact player more often than not in the last 10 weeks.

There are also other games he should be playing closer to 20 minutes, like the Sacramento win. His deficiencies will be targeted.

This isn’t a pitch for a head-first dive into small-ball. More so, unlocking it as something Phoenix can turn to when it requires a spark and/or the matchup calls for it.

The Western Conference is the wrong conference to try this in. As you make your way down the standings, nearly every team has a big that presents issues in some way. Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Chet Holmgren, Ivica Zubac, Nikola Jokic, Jonas Valanciunas, Domantas Sabonis and Anthony Davis is a long list.

Phoenix could also fully space out the court and dare those teams to defend it with those centers when postseason games are on the line.

It is an imperfect solution. The Suns, however, still have to land on some type of identity and figure out how to get within reaching distance of their ceiling. Embracing more versatile lineups is their best shot at doing so.

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