Phoenix Suns – Dark Horse Title Contender?

The Phoenix Suns have missed the playoffs for the past ten years, having been a perennial lottery team since their Conference Finals appearance in 2010. But with Chris Paul and a handful of other additions, is this the year that the Suns can put it all together?

Ever since losing to the Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the Suns went on a bit of a downward trend. With franchise cornerstones Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire leaving town, Phoenix has since struggled to put together a basketball contender. Save for a 2014 season which saw the team finish 48-34, the Suns had a losing record every year.

But now, things appear to be on the upswing for the Suns. With a motivating head coach in Monty Williams, a promising general manager in James Jones, and a slew of offseason additions spearheaded by Chris Paul, the Suns look ready to become a contender again. Add in a surprising 8-0 run in the NBA bubble by the Suns, and it’s hard not to be excited about the team’s direction. Given how the team has played to start the season, one might think that the Suns could be a dark horse team to win the NBA title. And it’s not as crazy as you think.

These four elements are crucial or everything to come together for the Suns this year.

Devin Booker, Franchise Cornerstone

We all know the story with Devin Booker. A lone bright spot for the Suns since 2015, Booker has certainly proven himself as a prolific scorer, scoring more than 22 points per game every year after his rookie season. But despite putting up big numbers every year, he has never enjoyed a winning season. More often than not, Booker was constantly relied upon to carry the Suns to victory. However, with a new and improved roster, Booker wouldn’t be relied on so much and score relentlessly to team his team competitive. Which could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for him.

By having a more well-rounded team around him, Booker doesn’t necessarily have to go full Superman in every game just to keep games close. Instead of having to score at will, Booker can be trusted to find open looks for his teammates. And he doesn’t have to close out games all the time, especially with Paul in the fold. Booker might have a point per game total that may look underwhelming to some (only averaging 21.5 points per game to start off the season), but he has still shown to be a very effective player regardless.

The CP3-Ayton Dynamic

Chris Paul might be known as one of the best playmakers in NBA history, but he’s also a bit of a big man whisperer. Just look at the previous big men that Paul worked with.

DeAndre Jordan? Led the league in field goal percentage five times when Paul ran point for the Los Angeles Clippers. Clint Capela? Led the league in field goal percentage in 2018, when Paul was with the Houston Rockets. Steven Adams? His pick-and-roll scoring frequency went up to 66.2 percent when Paul led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a surprising playoff berth.

Working with Deandre Ayton, Paul could help the former first overall pick in the 2018 draft achieve career-highs. Ayton is currently 11th in the NBA in field goal percentage, albeit at .584 percent. (Jordan and Capela both averaged .632 or above with Paul). With Paul being top five in the league in both assists and assist percentage, Ayton can and should continue to receive good looks in the paint. The pick-and-roll may not be there as of yet, but once Ayton and Paul find their rhythm, Ayton may finally reach his full potential.

Wingin’ It With Bridges and Johnson

It was only two years ago that a trade snafu which occurred in late 2018 saw Kelly Oubre of the Washington Wizards being traded to the Suns. While Oubre helped energize the Suns and endeared himself to Suns fans everywhere, there was one fatal flaw with his game – his tunnel-vision. This proved to be very apparent in the bubble, as the Suns’ offense seemed to flow much better with Oubre out of the lineup with a knee injury.

Oubre’s injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the Suns’ other wings, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, had more opportunities to shine. And ever since the bubble, Bridges and Johnson have done more than enough to meet expectations.

Fully embracing the starting role, Bridges has averaged 14 points per game so far. He’s also proven himself to be a great defender, sitting at 20th in the NBA in defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) and 11th in defensive win shares among qualified players. His turnover percentage is the lowest in the league by a considerable margin, showing how adept he is at protecting the ball.

As for Johnson, he’s been putting up 13.1 points per game off the bench. He’s third on the team in scoring, second in the league in net rating, and his true shooting percentage currently sits at .678, 15th in the NBA. His defense isn’t that shabby either, ranking 21st among qualified players in defensive rating.

When Bridges and Johnson are together on the same court, it’s hard to stop them.

Best Defense in the League

Remarkably, the Suns have the best defense in the NBA so far, only yielding 102.4 points per game. What is even more remarkable is that the Suns have five players in the top 30 in terms of DBPM. Additionally, there are three Suns players in the top 30 in Defensive Win Shares, with the Philadelphia 76ers being the only other team having that distinction.

Phoenix Suns, a Team on the Rise?

It has been a long time since the Phoenix Suns were a contender. But after a decade of futility, the team appears to be back on the upswing. Although it might be early, it wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary to see the Suns winning it all. With an exceptional head coach and a deep squad, the sky is the limit for the Phoenix Suns.

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