See what I did there? Comedic genius. All (brilliant) jokes aside, the Suns have been a pleasant surprise to start the season. At the time of the writing of this article, the Suns are 7-4 and 5th in the Western Conference. That may seem tame but when you consider they’ve been last in the Western Conference for the last three seasons (and second last in the fourth!) it seems they may have finally turned a corner. Devin Booker has been scorching and they have maintained success despite Deandre Ayton (last year’s #1 overall pick) serving a 25 game suspension (only one game played). We’re going to take a look at the stats behind their hot start, the changes from last year, and whether they can keep this up or not. In other words, if the Suns can continue to rise, or if they will eventually set (I am on fire!).
The Suns lost around seven regular contributors in the off-season. Among them were Trevor Ariza (now stinking it up on the Kings), Josh Jackson (looking more and more like a bust), and Jamal Crawford (still a free agent). So yeah, they didn’t lose much there. What they did gain, however, is some adults in the room. They traded for Aron Baynes, Dario Saric, and signed Ricky Rubio. Three savvy veterans who all played for playoff contenders the season before (Saric was on Philly before Minnesota). They also added Jeveon Carter (who plays like a pitbull of a backup point guard) and Frank Kaminsky (who has looked surprisingly very solid off the bench)
Rubio represents the first real point guard that Booker has played with since Eric Bledsoe. He may be the only pass-first point guard he has EVER played with. It has payed huge dividends for both players. Rubio is averaging 14 points with 9 assists (3rd in the league), while shooting 40% from three and playing very well defensively. Booker is SCORCHING with 25 points, 5.8 assists, and 3 rebounds a game. He will very likely be an All-Star for the first time and could be a dark horse MVP candidate. Kelly Oubre, acquired in a trade late last season, is taking another step in his development. He’s averaging 15 points a game, shooting league average on 3 pointers, and wreaking havoc on defense (nearly 1 block and 1 steal a game). So what’s changed? Nearly everything. They have a pass-first and defensive point guard, a legit fire breather at shooting guard, a bouncy do-it-all small forward, a REAL (sorry Dragan) stretch four, and a brick wall at center. We wrap it up with a real NBA coach. Possibly the first of Booker’s career. Monty Williams is a real professional and he’s going to have this roster perform higher than its talent level on most nights. With the roster they now have, that could mean some real success.
The Team Stats
The Suns are fifth in the NBA in points per game, scoring 116.6 points per game. Only one of the teams above them didn’t make the playoffs last season. They are third in three point percentage as opposed to…last in the season prior. The addition of Rubio has made the whole team pass-happy, as they are first in the NBA in assists per game. They were 20th last season. They are fourth in +/- while being second to last the season before. The three teams above them are considered legitimate playoff contenders.
What’s most impressive to me, though, is their defensive rating. They are 14th in the NBA right now. That may not seem incredibly impressive, but compared to their history, it is stellar. This would be the first time they’ve been in the top half of the NBA in defensive rating since the 2013-14 season! Monty has his team playing hard and has them committing to the defensive end. If they can sustain their top four offensive rating while playing league average defense, they’re going to outscore teams on most nights. That’s a recipe for success. The team has a top 15 player in points per game (Booker), steals per game (Rubio), and assists per game (Rubio).
Is it Sustainable?
Are the Suns for real? Is this just a flash in the pan? Let’s start by looking at the opening schedule. In their seven wins, half of them have come against teams that are considered ‘playoff teams’. The Clippers and 76ers in particular, are considered contenders. The other four were won by an average of 16 points. All four of the losses have come against good teams. They’ve only lost one by double digits. The opening schedule has not been a cake walk and they have stepped up to the challenge.
There are 16 games until Deandre Ayton returns from suspension (if it isn’t shortened by appeal). About two thirds of them come against teams that range from solid to great. The Suns can’t afford a slip up now. As of right now, the always playing for the future Suns have seemingly turned a corner. They are a different team, both physically and mentally. For their fans’ sake, I hope this new trend lasts.