Can the Phoenix Suns jump back in the mix?
3:52 p.m. ET
Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane.
For the 2020-21 season, Chris Paul joined the Suns and partnered with rising young star Devin Booker to lead the Suns to the second-best NBA record at 51-21 (COVID-19 shortened season; 70, 8% win percentage would translate to a 58-win pace). They would win the Western Conference Finals and lead the Milwaukee Bucks two games to one before succumbing in the NBA Finals.
In the 2021-22 season, the Suns returned with the NBA’s best record by far at 64-18 (78.0 winning percentage), a full eight games ahead of the second-placed Grizzlies. They won the Pacific Division by 11 games against the Golden State Warriors. But, after leading the Western Conference Semifinals two games to zero, they were upset by the Mavericks in seven games.
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Now fast forward to this season. The Suns were favored to struggle again in the West, with among the shortest chances of winning the Pacific Division, Western Conference, and NBA championship. But, as it stands in February 2023, the Suns would be out of the playoffs and into the playoffs if the season ended today.
What happened? Are the problems fixable? And is there a way for the Suns to reclaim their status as one of the league’s top teams and legitimate contenders for elusive crowns?
How the Suns got here
You can’t tell the story of the Suns 2022-23 without mentioning injuries. In a league where most teams deal with injuries, the Suns have been hit much harder than average. Here is a table of games played and missed, for their five starters and sixth man to start the season:
For those keeping track at home, that’s 115 games missed and 197 games played by the main team. Booker and Payne are still out, so their numbers grow with each game. Bridges is an iron man, having never missed a game in his NBA career, but four of those six have missed more than 20 games and we haven’t even reached the All Star Break yet.
Booker is the biggest injury. He is their best player, after a season where he finished fourth in MVP voting. He turned 26 during the season and is likely still in his prime. He is currently averaging career highs in runs scored, as well as composite box scoring stats like PER.
With him and Payne both out, the team doesn’t have the top two perimeter shooting/scoring options on the roster. Earlier in the season, when Booker and Payne were healthier, it was when Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson were in the middle of the longest parts of their absences. So there really hasn’t been a moment this season where the Suns have fielded a healthy roster with any consistency.
So, it’s not a stretch to believe that all the Suns need is to have all of their guys on the field at once, and everything will be set up for them to make a late-season run. But, it may be a little more complicated than that.
Problems Beyond Injuries Jae Crowder’s Absence
There are two major differences between the 2022-23 Suns and the previous two iterations that won’t be fully resolved with just the return of their top six players from injury. The first is the absence of former starting forward Jae Crowder, who left the team in the fall over a contract dispute and hasn’t played a minute this season.
In April 2021, months before their march to the Playoffs, I wrote an article called “Don’t Sleep on the Suns”, in which I detailed all the reasons why the Suns looked set for more success than the general public or Las Vegas predicted at the time.
One of the big but unsung reasons for their success was Crowder, which I highlighted in a section on the team’s glue guys that also included Bridges: “Yeah, whatever. I can’t even name anyone else on the team.”
Well, you should know Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges. The team’s glue guys round out the Suns’ starting five as the kind of role players who help win championships. Both rank in the NBA’s top 25 in DRPM, joining Ayton and Paul, and giving the Suns one of the strongest defensive units in the league.
A quick read of Second Spectrum illustrates how they make their defensive impacts. Crowder is a strong catch-and-shoots defender. Bridges is stingy as an off-ball screen defender. These specific types of situations can be difficult to defend against, but Crowder and Bridges stopping them quietly are game winners even if they don’t show up in the stat sheet.
Overall, Crowder and Bridges join their most heralded teammates Paul and Booker among the league leaders in RPM wins, making the Suns the only Western Conference team besides the Utah Jazz with four. players in the top 60 RPM wins. It’s no coincidence that the Jazz and Suns have the two best records in the NBA.
The following season, Crowder would become even more essential to the Suns’ success. In 2021-22, Crowder would rank fifth in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus Minus, establishing himself as one of the most hard-hitting defenders in the entire NBA. He, along with Bridges, formed the backbone of the Suns’ team defense and Crowder’s advantage helped define their defensive identity on the field.
So, Crowder’s absence for the whole season is a blow for the team, and from which I don’t know if they can fully recover without outside influence. More on that below.
The decline of Chris Paul
The other major problem this season? Paul turned 37. And, in field value, it was like a flipped switch. Or, as the clock struck midnight on Cinderella. Paul was 36 for the majority of the 2021-22 season, with his birthday on May 6. All season, Paul led the Suns and finished eighth in the NBA in Real Plus Minus, sandwiched in the standings between Trae Young and Luka Doncic.
This followed, as Paul is the maestro on the pitch, responsible for putting his team in the right position to succeed and leaving his mark on the game even more than top scorer Booker. In the playoffs, Paul’s box score numbers tell how his production dropped on May 6, when he was 37:
Paul in Playoffs 2021-22GPPPGAPGTORPGSPGAge 368184.108.40.206.61.6Age 37220.127.116.11.41.2
As of May 5, the Suns had won their first series and were two games to nil over the Mavericks in their second. Beginning May 6, they lost four of five games to lose the series.
Age tends to shift its game inexorably in one direction. You don’t see too many career revivals in 18th grade or later, unless your name is LeBron James. And, so far this season, Paul has been no exception. His Real Plus minus score this season is down nearly 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Instead of being eighth overall in the NBA in RPM, this season, Paul ranks 19th among the only point guards.
So, taking into account the loss of Crowder and the apparent decline in Paul’s production, the Suns weren’t going to be the same team even if they were perfectly healthy… which they didn’t. sure not been.
How to go up the mountain
The Suns absolutely need to be active before the NBA trade deadline if they are to have any chance of really struggling this season. And their biggest potential business asset is Crowder. They simply cannot afford to continue getting nothing from a player who was so vital to their previous success.
Paul in Playoffs 2021-22GPPPGAPGTORPGSPGAge 36818.104.22.168.61.6Age 3722.214.171.124.41.2
In the ESPN article “NBA Trades we want to see”, two of us offered trades that would send Crowder to help out the Suns. My proposed trade centered on the arrival of Patrick Beverley, currently second in the NBA among point guards and fifth among all guards in defensive RPM and with the infectious attitude that could help the Suns regain their defensive edge.
But, whoever it is, the Suns have to be buyers and they have to get some value from Crowder. With veterans like Paul in the fold, the Suns’ window for victory is not just now, but now, so staying pat or playing for the future aren’t viable options.
Future of the NBA
According to Caesar’s Sportsbook, the Suns have the 11th shortest odds to win the NBA championship at +2000, making it 20-1 longshots to win. They are +1100 (sixth shortest odds) to win the West and +380 (fourth out of five teams) to win the Pacific Division.
Interestingly, despite the injuries and issues I outlined above, the Suns are still just one game down the Home Court Advantage loss column in the first round of the playoffs, and just 2.5 first place matches in the Pacific Division. I believe they will be healthier for the rest of the season than they have been so far, and are likely to take action before the trade deadline to strengthen the squad.
So, I think the Suns are a safe bet to win the Pacific Division at those odds. Also, since there is currently no juggernaut team in the West, I think the Suns also have solid value at 11-1 to win the Conference. I wouldn’t make them favorites, but if things go well, they have about as good a chance of winning the Conference as anyone else, but at much longer odds.
There are several teams in the Eastern Conference that I think are solidly stronger than even the best-case scenario for the Suns, so I’m knocking them out to win the title even at such long odds. But, at 20-1, if you wanted to take a flyer on them even for the biggest crown in the game, I wouldn’t be mad.
Not too long ago, the Suns had a legitimate argument as the best team in the NBA. They have some work to do to get back to that level, but with more health, a smart trade or two and a bit of luck, you never know. So the Suns still have a solid chance to come back this season.