Ten years ago, the Steve Nash-led Suns ended their dominant run on the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for just the second time during his tenure. The team traded him after the following season and began a rebuilding process with some nice prospects and rotation players. Within two years, they had revived the franchise with fresh young stars and came within one win of returning to the postseason. That 48-win campaign in 2013-14 is the closest the team has gotten to a playoff berth since.
The last half-decade in Phoenix can simply be defined as incompetent player management. It started when the front office decided its three best players should all be point guards, then became worse when they were each traded at their lowest value for next to nothing. They slid more when they committed to playing veterans past their prime over newly acquired prospects. They dug an even deeper hole when they poorly utilized their high draft picks.
Management had to watch its team suffer while the three playmakers, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas, racked up NBA honors and helped their teams climb in the East. Their best prospects, Marcus Morris and T.J. Warren became juggernauts for other offenses. Their draft picks, Alex Len, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss (via SAC), and Josh Jackson, couldn’t live up to the star talents selected after them.
The front office didn’t help any of their last six coaches from getting fired. They weren’t able to build a balanced young core and commit to it for long-term success. The last straw was landing the #1 overall pick in 2018, and passing up generational talents Trae Young and Luka Doncic.
Phoenix hasn’t made the NBA playoffs since 2011.
When the world stopped this time last year, the team was wrapping up another mediocre season. Their best player was thrown into trade rumors, and scouts began their annual routine of watching films of lottery players. The league was set up to resume play in Orlando after a four-month layoff, inviting all teams either clinched for the playoffs or having an outsider’s chance at the postseason; Phoenix fell into the second bracket. What ended up transpiring for the team in Orlando, during unprecedented times, became the most exciting storyline in professional sports.
In this new season, a calendar year after the official league stoppage, the team has the third-best record in the NBA. Something came alive for the team last summer, and what’s followed is a complete-180 for the franchise. New coaching, a new roster, and a new executive have Phoenix on-track to end their postseason drought. With a 9-2 mark over their last 11 games, a record that expands to 15-4 over 19, it’s time to acknowledge the scorching-hot Suns and how they were able to rise up.
Bursting Through “The Bubble”
The 26-39 Suns sat 13th-place in the West when the league calm to a halt, and were shocked, while grateful, to be invited to “The Bubble” as one of 22 teams to finish their season. Not only was being six games out of 8th nearly impossible to salvage in just eight games, but the deck was stacked further against the 21st-best team when their second-leading scorer Kelly Oubre Jr. announced he wouldn’t return and five players tested positive for coronavirus before play began.
First-year Suns coach Monty Williams had a miraculous task and a depleted roster to work with, but the team came out red-hot and performed incredibly posed behind his lead. Devin Booker went on a rampage as the focal point upping his scoring average to 30 PPG, while making spectacular clutch shots and shooting an efficient 50% from the field. Second-year Deandre Ayton flashed great offense against playoff-caliber bigs (15 PPG, 53% FG), rookie Cameron Johnson became a fearless scorer (13+ PPG), and Ricky Rubio and Mikal Bridges played terrific team-ball and caught fire from 3-point range (> 40%).
The Suns finished their eight-game slate a perfect 8-0 as the only undefeated team in “The Bubble”, thanks largely to the All-Bubble First Team heroics of Booker. They still managed to miss the play-in tournament by a hair, but nobody could deny their amazing effort in turning things around, bursting right through “The Bubble” in spite of all their immense challenges.
Lighting Up the Sky
There’s some irony in dark storm clouds hovering over the Suns’ franchise, but that’s exactly what the team has succumbed to over the last decade without a proper general on the ground. Previously-known point guards were shipped out only to shine brighter on the Eastern border, “potential-capped” point guards like Elfrid Payton and Ricky Rubio couldn’t break through during their stints, and emerging star point guards like Jamal Murray and De’Aaron Fox were passed over during the draft.
Looking to capitalize on their surging momentum, young executive James Jones leaped at the opportunity to acquire All-NBA point guard Chris Paul in the offseason. Despite being 35-years-old and carrying a hefty price tag, the future Hall-of-Famer has performed tremendously and surpassed his value as the point, running the Suns’ best offense since the one they constructed with two-time MVP Steve Nash. Paul is matching the efficiency from his All-NBA days as a Clipper (49% FG, 39% 3PT), is averaging his highest assists-per-game in four years (8.8), and is leading the second-most-efficient offensive unit in the league (48.9% Team FG).
It took seven years and several bottom-10 finishes for the Suns to return to a top-10 rated offense, and while much should be accredited to Booker’s individual excellence, Paul is clearly the engine driving the ship as one of the greatest point guards in the history of the game. He’s still making a significant impact, seen best as the beautiful Arizona blue sky begins to open up widely.
They Glow Up So Fast
Now that there’s lots of light to play under, the plants can start to grow even higher. Shadows of aging veterans like Channing Frye, P.J. Tucker, and Jared Dudley couldn’t give the team’s prospects breathing room to develop and instead saw them leave for healthier environments. Since leaving Phoenix, Marcus Morris (9.5 PPG) and T.J. Warren (14.4 PPG) have each jumped five points in scoring average (14.2 and 19.5 respectively)
The no-consequence, all-or-nothing, freedom to fly elements of “The Bubble” made a great platform for the Suns to see what they had in their young players, and all four of their cornerstones impressed and elevated their chemistry. Entering 2020-21 with a clean slate the young Suns are on the attack, with Deandre Ayton averaging his most efficient double-double yet (14 PPG, 11 RPG, 60% FG), Mikal Bridges playing his supporting role to perfection (13 PPG on 53% FG), and Cameron Johnson soaring into a starter (10 PPG in 24 MPG). Even some journeymen entering their prime are revitalizing their careers like Cameron Payne, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, and Jevon Carter.
Impatience caused by horrible fit and more likely unsophisticated coaching both led to endlessly poor developments of prospects, but now Monty Williams, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul are bringing out the most of the organization’s young talent. Everyone seems to be finding their niche on the team and playing hard to earn more minutes. The prospects and second-chance opportunists are growing up real fast and glowing on the stat sheet.
Steve Nash’s iconic Suns’ teams were engineered by a brand-new philosophy, designed by head coach Mike D’Antoni around his players’ strengths, where the team would play and pass fast looking to shoot the ball within seven seconds or less in the half-court. It was incredibly successful guiding four consecutive seasons leading the NBA in team 3-point percentage, and in most cases by a wide margin above the league average. As soon as Steve Nash left the offense to no surprise plummeted, yet it fell down really hard to the bottom-3 in team rating on four different occasions (’13, ’16, ’18-’19).
Clearly, the team got cold in the last decade especially behind-the-arc, but everything changed when they drafted prolific scorer Devin Booker, caught fire in Orlando, and most importantly brought in offensive-genius Chris Paul. The Suns are now annihilating teams with the 3-pointer thanks to an arsenal of marksmen and high-volume shooters, consisting of Payne (46%), Bridges (42%), Paul (39%), Saric (39%), Johnson (38%), Booker (36%), Kaminsky (26/63), Langston Galloway (21/47), and Abdel Nader (15/37). None of those marks actually includes the team-leader in 3-point makes, Jae Crowder (84, 38%).
The explosiveness of Booker and the confidence carrying over from “The Bubble” are reasons why the Suns could be a good offensive team, Paul’s expertise and influence on perimeter players are reasons why the Suns should be a great offensive team, but the weaponry allotted for Monty Williams to work with has made the Suns an elite offensive team ranking 8th in team rating. In the last 12 months, playing more than half a season combined, the team’s heatwave has no end in sight.
Burn Baby Burn
Nash’s splashing Suns while unstoppable on offense were abysmal on defense, and it was one of the main reasons why the team couldn’t advance past the likes of the Spurs and the Lakers. Even when Nash left and the Suns moved in a different direction with coaching, the lapses on defense remained to cause them to finish bottom-10 in opponent-points-per-game every year; on many instances since 2004-05, Nash’s first year, they finished dead last.
Monty Williams in his previous head coaching stint with New Orleans built an above-average defense despite a subpar offense, and Chris Paul was the catalyst for many strong defensive teams, including New Orleans, through his career as a Nine-Time All-Defensive player. The pairing of the two, alongside promising defenders Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton, has resuscitated the doormat Suns defense. Speed of energetic young wings, frames of punishing perimeter players, and shot-blocking prowess of the center are together forming a stout unit, that ranks top-5 in opponent field-goals per-game and opponent 3-point percentage.
As dynamite as they are scoring, they’re even more dominant preventing it, accelerating to 4th in opponent scoring and 6th in team rating. The top teams in the West have had to adjust quickly to a scrappy and flashy new contender, who’s surprisingly 3rd in the league in net rating thanks to a stellar defensive scheme. The heat stemming from the other side of the ball is only making it tougher for teams to come back on them, and Chris Paul loves watching them burn.
Phoenix has the second-longest playoff drought in the NBA; following an entertaining and celebrated late-2000’s run, they collapsed due to stagnant cornerstone development and poor management decisions. In the past few years, however, they’ve made some wise draft picks, brought in younger talent at minimal cost, and were lucky to have a couple of stars fall in their lap.
When “The Bubble” presented straining obstacles meant to continue their misery, the team instead saw an opportunity to push themselves and come together as a unit. They left Orlando with an on-court identity and enormous confidence, which’s since carried over into this next season and grown with each coming challenge.
Chris Paul has been the game-changing playmaker and locker-room fixer Phoenix was desperately missing since Nash left, and he’s morphing Devin Booker into not just an All-Star, but into a consistent winner. It’s almost as if he saw something smoking during his time in Orlando, besides his new teammate’s monstrous play, and when he came to the desert this offseason, he decided to turn the dial on the thermostat way up.
The Suns at 26-12, now 2nd in the Western Conference ahead of the defending-champion Lakers, are lighting up the NBA and bringing a new flame to the table. It’s no longer just a hot, sunny day in Orlando where they’re catching glimpses of heat. No, they’re officially rising up.