PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns finished the first half of their 2020-21 season with the NBA’s second-best record, entering the All-Star break with a top-seven rating in offensive and defensive efficiency and overwhelming optimism toward securing their first playoff berth since 2009-10.
It’s been a long-awaited result for the organization and its fans. But you won’t catch Suns coach Monty Williams getting too excited about it.
“We’re not going to get that happy on the farm,” Williams said. “We have a ways to go before we can start talking like that, but it does give you confidence, especially in those moments like when you’re down or when a team is rolling, to just stay the course and be steady with what you do.”
Since their 8-8 start, the Suns have won 16 of 19 games and are arguably the league’s hottest team. They have posted a NBA-best net rating – the net of their offensive and defensive ratings – of 13.3 over their past 15 contests, according to NBA.com, with several key contributors.
Shooting guard Devin Booker, who received his second straight NBA All-Star selection but did not play in the game because of a left knee sprain, was named the Western Conference Player of the Month in February after averaging 27.9 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 52.3%.
Point guard Chris Paul, who was acquired via trade in the offseason, was also named an All-Star and is averaging his best assist percentage (41.8%) since the 2016-17 season, according to Cleaning The Glass. Third-year forward Mikal Bridges ranks among the top-50 players in the NBA in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR – a metrics algorithm – wins above replacement rating, and center Deandre Ayton has the eighth-best defensive rating in the league, according to StatMuse.
Although the Suns have not made the postseason in a decade, Paul said their recent success hasn’t been a surprise to the team.
“We expect it,” he said. “We don’t really ever talk about our expectations but we sort of expected our team to be here. We got a long way to go.”
The second half of the Suns’ schedule, which is the 11th-most difficult remaining according to Tankathon, begins on Thursday, March 11, against the Portland Trail Blazers and includes nine sets of back-to-back games in addition to 21 contests against teams with a record at .500 or better entering the break.
The Suns will continue to look to snap their postseason drought by becoming more consistent while solidifying their rotation and principles. Here are five takeaways from their first half of the season:
After finishing the NBA’s 2019-20 season restart in Orlando with an 8-0 record, Phoenix went all-in for a contending roster by acquiring Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 16 for Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 first-round pick.
Paul, whose teams have made the playoffs in each of his last 10 seasons, was expected to push the Suns into postseason contention but few anticipated the second-best record in the league at the halfway point. Phoenix is off to its best start through 35 games since the 2007-08 season and ranks among the top two teams in the NBA for the first time since 2006-07.
Paul has been recognized for his leadership on and off the court throughout his career, and it has paid dividends for a Suns team that has nine players 26 or younger.
“I’m learning from him every day,” Booker said. “He’s been in every situation that I want to get to, so I have the cheat code of being alongside him, his backcourt mate. From on the court to off the court, just everything he does, I’m a sponge to it.”
“He’s the head of the (National Basketball Players Association), he’s the leader of our team,” Suns forward Abdel Nader said. “He just comes out every night, plays at such a high level. He’s a father, he does so many things especially within the Black community and all that stuff. I mean, I don’t know how he does it. I don’t even know if the dude sleeps.”
Paul’s on-court impact has been stellar. He ranks fifth in the NBA in assists at 8.8 per game and has the best plus/minus differential of Phoenix’s starters at plus-3.4, according to Cleaning The Glass. And the average effective field goal percentage of Suns’ opponents drops 2.1% when he’s on the floor.
Off the court, Paul has been integral for a Suns team that has continued to build a winning culture under Williams, who coached him with the New Orleans Hornets in 2010-11.
“There are times where I’m just like, ‘You go,’” Williams said. “I’ll just wave at him and just say, ‘You run it.’ I think there’s a level of trust between us that we had back then” in New Orleans.
Paul and Suns forward Jae Crowder are the only players on the roster with more than four years of playoff experience. Their impact will be crucial for how far Phoenix goes this season.
Over the first five years of his career, Booker carried an outside perception as a player with empty statistics on a losing team. That narrative has started to change.
Even though his points (24.9) and assists per game (4.4) are down from previous years, Booker is having his most efficient season, a product of playing off the ball more with Paul at his side. His effective field goal percentage (55.1) has been the best of his six-year career, and he continues to carry the Suns offensively when needed.
Over his past 17 games, Booker has averaged 26.6 points, 4.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds on 51.2% shooting and 38.2% from 3-point range. The Suns went 14-3 in that span and have been playing the most competitive basketball of his career.
“I’ve been a fan of the NBA for a very long time, so understanding the process behind it and how hard it actually is to be a good team,” Booker said. “Understanding the rebuild phase, going through that. Obviously, not an easy thing to understand when you’re taking a bunch of losses, being a high competitor.
“But seeing the bigger future and controlling what you can control. So just approaching it with a head-down mentality every day, and I knew some type of success would happen at some point if you keep working.”
Booker was initially snubbed for his second straight All-Star appearance but was named as an injury replacement for Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, the second year in a row he made the team as a replacement. However, he did not play in the game or compete in the 3-point shooting contest due to the knee injury. He’s listed out and day-to-day on the team’s injury report.
Now on a successful team, the next step for Booker will be to find success in the postseason. Even though Paul’s addition has benefited the Suns, Booker’s impact as the season progresses will be paramount.
“Devin is building his legacy, as far as the stats, the wins and now, he’s got two All-Star (selections) under his belt,” Williams said. “I’m just grateful to be a part of something like this that’s growing. We’re still in the beginning process of this program and to have this kind of stuff going on for me, I’m a fly on the wall. I really believe that.”
The Suns’ undefeated record in the NBA Bubble put added attention on Williams, his principles and the culture he has created. Phoenix’s first-half success has been one of the biggest stories of the 2020-21 season.
Even though they have eight new players on their roster, the Suns are one of only two teams to rank among the top seven groups in offensive and defensive efficiency. Playing in a “point-five” offense, in which players are asked to make a decision to dribble, pass or shoot within half a second, and a defensive structure that relies on multiple efforts, Williams has made his team competitive on a nightly basis.
“I do believe it’s an indicator of a good team, historically, when you’re able to get in the top 10,” Williams said of the team’s efficiency ratings. “But it gives you a chance to get into the playoffs, which is a goal for us. It’s something that we haven’t done here for a long time and that’s one of our focuses, is to get there.”
Phoenix’s performances have been particularly impressive due to its lack of continuity. The Suns had their full roster available just once in their first 24 games, and Williams and his staff are still tweaking their rotation according to matchups.
Even though playing time has changed for some players, they said Williams’ preparation and structure has made it easy to adjust.
“That competitive edge,” Suns guard Langston Galloway said. “I think we have a lot of younger guys but also, two, we have an older core. And I think that’s what really is fun for me because I’m able to go out every single day.
“You might be competing, I mean, every single drill is a competition for us. You might have a free-throw game, you might have a shooting game, you might have a one-on-one. It’s always something that we’re competing at. So that mindset, that mentality, it really carries over to the game because everybody’s locked in, everybody’s ready.”
Phoenix has played its best basketball of late and is expected to be fully healthy outside of Booker entering the second half of its season. However, it still has a few areas to refine as it makes a playoff push.
The Suns are still looking to solidify their rotation, particularly their starting power forward and backup point guard spots. After bouncing between Crowder, second-year forward Cameron Johnson and 7-footer Frank Kaminsky at power forward earlier in the season, Williams has temporarily switched Crowder or Kaminsky, depending on the height matchup of their opponent.
At point guard, Phoenix has utilized Cameron Payne and E’Twaun Moore of late with Jevon Carter, an intense defensive player, as another option. Payne missed time with a right foot sprain and Moore has played more of a combo-guard role in his career, which has created a lack of continuity at the position.
“Cam played well tonight, but I’m still looking for him to be more solid in moments and facilitate and make sure he gets guys involved and has a level of defense that he’s capable of playing consistently,” Williams said after the Suns’ win over the Warriors last Thursday. “That’s going to be a huge decision in the second half of the season because he and E’Twaun have had that position.
“E’Twaun, I’ve put him in some tough spots. He’s more of an off-guard, combo guard and I’ve asked him to do some things. So yeah, we have to settle on a rotation I think in the second half so we can have some consistency as we move forward in the season.”
Despite looking to tighten his rotation, Williams said he does not want to restrict it and believes in his team’s depth, which has been a strength in the season’s first half.
“Some teams are going to go to an eight-man rotation,” he said. “We don’t have to do that. We can play 10-deep and sometimes 11, and that’s something that I think can be an advantage for us.”
The Suns have also put a focus on in-game adjustments, a product of multiple contests in which they have lost double-digit leads and late advantages. It was apparent during their 128-124 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 16, when they squandered a 24-point first-half lead and struggled to match the Nets’ smaller lineups defensively.
Now two years into his system in Phoenix, Williams and his staff are relying on player input to make adjustments on the court or in timeouts. They said it has helped them become more confident in their calls.
“Sometimes, whether it’s going over a screen, going under a screen, the way we’re executing certain things, matchups we see, what the other team is doing,” Kaminsky said. “It’s been good to be a part of this because I’m learning so much at the same time.”
Coaching adjustments and an established identity are critical components for teams in the postseason. The more the Suns can solidify these areas, the better off they will be.
For the past 10 seasons, the Suns have been a laughingstock of the NBA, finishing last in the Western Conference (three times) more times than they had a record at .500 or better (twice). But with a structure and personnel in place to build a winning franchise, Phoenix is on pace to break its postseason drought, the second-longest active streak in the league.
The Suns now have an All-Star backcourt, a coach who has grabbed the attention of his players and schemes that have been executed at a high level. It’s a byproduct of what Suns general manager James Jones has put in place since he joined the franchise’s front office in July 2017.
“What I took from my career is, the way your team plays typically defines how the organization is perceived,” Jones told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. “But the way your team plays is predicated on the type of character on the team and the behaviors that players exhibit. It’s not like good organizations take clay and immediately mold it into something spectacular. They build a good foundation, and then grow it from there.”
With a relatively young core, the Suns would benefit greatly from a playoff berth to advance their vision. For now, they hope to continue to set a winning tone on a nightly basis.
“I feel like we’re in a good spot right now,” Payne said. “It’s been tough. I wouldn’t say for one second it’s been easy. But we have to be relentless with our habits and our concepts. We come in every day to get better, and that’s one thing that helps us, that we come in and we’re focused on the next team.”