After having multiple seasons of being the butt of all basketball jokes in the NBA, the 2019-10 Phoenix Suns actually look like a winning team. You have to go back to the 2013-14 season to see smiles on the fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena and a team that has a swagger about them, but a sunny outlook appears to be back on display in Arizona. Say hello to the Valley Boyz.
The offseason saw the usual derision from most media outlets, puzzled as to what James Jones was cooking up with the roster and the coaching staff. Overpaying for World Cup MVP Ricky Rubio. Drafting back to take senior Cam Johnson and adding Dario Saric. Giving up TJ Warren for cap space. Dumping former lottery pick Josh Jackson and point guard prospect De’Anthony Melton for the Memphis Grizzlies’ G League point guard Jevon Carter. Adding career backup Aussie Aron Baynes, together with signing Frank ‘The Tank’ Kaminsky who irked Arizona natives in his college days when his Wisconsin Badgers upset Arizona in the NCAA tournament. Offseason grades ranged as low as F from Yahoo Sports. However right now, James Jones is the one having the last laugh as the pieces to his puzzle begin to fit.
The Suns have caught the league by surprise, sitting second in the Western Conference with five wins from their first seven games. So far they have beaten the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors (Sorry about Steph Curry’s right hand, not Baynes’ fault) Memphis Grizzlies and the then unbeaten Philadelphia 76ers. They could have been 7-0 had they been able to close out the last 20 seconds in both single point losses to the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. The turnaround from last season is remarkable, and backed up by three key areas. Three point shooting, sharing the ball and team defense.
For the past two seasons Phoenix were the worst three-point shooting team in the league. Yes, so far it is a small sample size, but they now have five players shooting 40 bor more from beyond the arc. (Devin Booker 50 percent, Baynes (?!?) 48.4 percent, Carter 41.7 percent, Rubio and Cam Johnson tied at 40 percent.)
There will be regression over the course of the regular season as more games are played but the signs so far are encouraging that they have genuine threats from deep in every position. DeAndre Ayton serving his 25-game suspension until mid-December has opened more minutes for Baynes who has been putting up terrific scoring numbers while hitting threes at a consistent high clip. This has been slept on so far by opposing teams, and the former Boston Celtic has feasted on shots from top of the key as well as setting brick wall screens for Booker and Johnson to hit their shots from beyond the arc.
Having an experienced starting point guard for the first time in years has seen the team benefit from Rubio setting the plays and teeing up his teammates for better looks, and directing the offense so more touches are shared. The off ball cuts from Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges have led to easy buckets from the Spaniard’s distribution on the floor.
This has also taken some of the load off Booker, who has struggled at times with turnovers in past seasons, which in turn then gives him time to find his spot to get open and come off screens for his shot. At the forward spots both Saric and Kaminsky have been passing well in the post and helped spacing out to the corners to enable the offense to flow. Just like improving their three-point shooting, they now rank second in the league with 27.7 assists per game. Contrast this with last season with 23.9 per game, 20th overall. Monty Williams is a believer in a “0.5” offense, meaning making the right decision in half a second to pass, move or shoot the ball — which has seen the team distribute the ball quicker and move the opposing defense to get baskets both inside and out of the paint.
Defense has historically been the Achilles heel of Suns teams throughout the decades, even on the great winning sides in the Charles Barkley and Steve Nash eras, it was the dirty work that became their downfall. Embarrassing blowout losses had been a common sight in the Valley with attendances lower and fans disengaged from their team. Not only does Phoenix rank in the top 10 offences, they are even higher in defensive rating at seventh place.
Contrast this with being ranked at 29th last season, and it’s an even bigger eye-opener at how much the team’s identity has changed. It starts with the guards; Rubio, Booker (yes, Devin Booker) Tyler Johnson and Jevon Carter. All four have pestered opponents, fought through screens and pressurized the ball throughout the first seven games. Carter typifies this and fans have taken to his bulldog style, not letting up every minute he is on the floor. Oubre brings this same infectious energy to the wings, along with Bridges and Cam Johnson has seen opponents surrender possession either by turnover or steals, leading to transition baskets.
Having a solid rotation of players that are clearly enjoying fighting for each other shows the level of hunger and desire the youngest team in the league has. They collapse compactly inside when opponents drive, denying the space for penetration while disrupting the play. It will be interesting to see what impact Ayton has on the defensive scheme when he returns, although the one game he played in the season opener against Sacramento he looked engaged and registered four blocks.
Two areas of concern though that should be noted. Suns are second-bottom in offensive rebounding at 7.7 per game. They need to crash board better with the size they have in Kaminsky and Baynes. The loss of Ayton is a factor in this though, and should improve once he returns to the team and is available for selection. The Bahamian has a great feel around the basket for put-backs which Baynes doesn’t do so well, and Ayton does his best work in the opposing team’s paint.
The other point to watch is guarding the perimeter from opponent’s three-point shooting. So far, teams have shot poorly from deep against the Suns on open threes, and this is not sustainable. When players get into their shooting rhythms as the season unfolds, they can punish Phoenix if the defence is not switched on and too preoccupied with packing the paint.
Having said that, this is a hot start Suns fans and the league in general did not expect from this team. The laughter at what offseason moves Phoenix made has game by game been drowned out by MVP chants in Talking Stick Resort Arena for Devin Booker. Is it too soon to mention playoff contention? Quite possibly, although the early signs are hugely encouraging.
Kelly Oubre signs off his social posts with ‘Shhh’ but these Valley Boyz are making some noise…
Featured photo – Agence France-Presse / Rick Scuteri / Associated Press / NBAE/ Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington