Image Courtesy of Bright Side Of The Sun
Before the season began almost everyone including myself pigeon-holed Phoenix as a lottery team. Another year of rebuilding, another year of experience for the young guys.
But it’s different. Completely different.
Phoenix are a playoff contender.
Having already notched up more than a quarter of each of their 4 previous seasons win total tallies (6 wins at .667%), Phoenix are no joke. They are proving themselves to be a legitimate team who have the potential to make some serious waves this season.
So how have Phoenix gone from a projected 12th-15th placed team in the West to currently being 6th in the West. Let’s take a look at the 5 main reasons Phoenix have so far proven everyone wrong.
#1 – Drastically Improved Offence
To truly appreciate how far Phoenix have come in just a single off-season, we have to appreciate the fact that last season the Bright Future Suns were the 3rd worst offence in the league (105.9 Offensive Rating), 16th in Field Goal % (45.9), 23rd in Points per game (107.5), and absolutely dead last for 3-Point % (32.9). A large majority of the NBA world rated Phoenix as having the worst offensive team in the league.
Skip forward half a year, the Phoenix Suns are now:
- 1st in Field Goal % (47.5) – up 1.6%
- 4th in 3-Point % (38.4) – up 5.5%
- 5th in Points per game (116.8) – up 9.3
- 4th in Offensive Rating (111.0) – up 5.1
- 2nd in Effective Field Goal % (55.0) – up 3.6%
They are a completely different team, and they are giving opposing teams offensive headaches.
#2 – Off-Season Acquisition Improvements
There are 2 main players that Phoenix can thank so far for transcending expectations and beating their odds this season. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Aron Baynes.
By the end of the season, Phoenix’s front office will be hailed for making such spectacular moves at little cost to the organisation. Oubre Jr. was given an extension of 2yrs/$30m, and Aron Baynes was essentially picked up for a Bucks pick that’ll likely end up being a pick around 26-30 in the draft. Absolute BARGAIN deals.
Oubre is finally looking comfortable in a starting role and in a system which has complimented his style of play, evidenced by his shooting improvements which have increased by 3.8% from the field and 6.9% from 3. Overall Oubre is able to influence games in a more positive manner, and it is clearly rubbing off on the team.
Most notably, Aron Baynes has been absolutely killing it in the absence of DeAndre Ayton and is currently a clear frontrunner for Most Improved Player. No bias here, this man is single-handedly influencing and winnings games for Phoenix. Here’s some quick stats to show just how much the big fella has improved over the current season:
- Points: 15.8 this season vs 5.6 last season;
- Rebounds: 5.8 this season vs 4.7 last season;
- Assists: 3.1 this season vs 1.1 last season;
- FG%: 58.9 this season vs 47.1 last season (with an extra 5.6 attempts per game in the current season);
- 3P%: 47.4 this season vs 34.4 last season (with an extra 3 attempts per game in the current season);
- PER: 25.5 this season vs 14.0 last season (Baynes is currently ranked 15th in the NBA);
- Win Share per 48 min: 0.298 this season v 0.139 last season (Baynes is currently ranked 3rd in the NBA); and
- Box +/-: 9.5 this season vs 0.2 last season (Baynes is currently ranked 5th in the NBA).
Aron Baynes is the single biggest reason that Phoenix are as good as they have been so far this season, and the statistical evidence is absurd.
#3 – Ricky Rubio, the Golden Nugget
In my preseason preview for Phoenix, I predicted that Ricky Rubio would be quite the valuable addition to the team, and so far, Rubio has proven me very right (unlike most of my preview). At $51m for 3 years, this is an absolute steal for someone who has always been an underrated point guard in the league. Clearly his fantastic FIBA outing over the offseason positively impacted the Spanish point guard and Rubio hasn’t looked back, assuming the role of floor-general and pseudo-team captain.
The positive impact Rubio has on the team is very noticeable, and with a stat line of 13.6ppg/6.8rpg/8.6apg/1.8stl with fairly good shooting percentages, it’s quite clear that he is very influential in games. Being ranked 4th in the league for assists per game, Rubio has done well to bring the team together, and the sense of team camaraderie and playing for the betterment of the organisation as opposed to individual players is something that is incredibly palpable. On top of this, Phoenix are leading the league in assists per game (28.1), and this is something that the fans and front office can thank Rubio for.
#4 – All-Star Devin Booker
Most people predicted that Booker would leave at the end of this season, but with the way he’s playing and how the team’s going, I don’t think he’s going anywhere too quickly. In fact, Booker is playing so well, that if he continues he will become the 9th member of the elite 50-40-90 club. Scratch that, he would become the 1st officially recognised player ever to go 50-50-90. Booker currently sits at 54.5/53.2/92.9.
On top of his great shooting, Booker is going at 25.8ppg/3.3rpg/5.4apg and has a PER of 21.8. Having been largely considered as an All-Star snub last season, with Phoenix’s current success, Devin Booker looks set to finally garner his first All-Star selection, a feat that has been brewing for quite a few seasons. Most importantly, Booker looks excited and happy to be playing basketball. Booker was seen to be quite fed up with the franchise last season, but with a new assortment of genuinely underrated and improved teammates, Booker looks to be finally content with what’s around him, and he is finally playing to win. You can see the hunger, and that is something the NBA didn’t think they’d see from Booker any time soon.
#5 – Monty Williams
This may truly be Phoenix’s, and possibly the league’s, most underrated signing. The annual preseason GM survey showed that 43% of NBA GM’s believed that Monty Williams would make the biggest impact out of all new Head Coaches, and it looks like they nailed this one. As one of the youngest teams in the league, Phoenix went out and got the most experienced coach when it came to transforming young rosters. Williams is perhaps best known for coaching a young Anthony Davis-led New Orleans team to a playoff berth in the 2014-15 season.
And it is clear that Williams is set to do the same for Phoenix. He has created a style of play that is complimentary to so many of the players on his team, and with the unfortunate news of Ayton, has built belief into his players that they can compete with the best, and it shows. At this current point in the season, and especially if Phoenix keep up their incredible performances, you’d have to place Monty Williams very firmly in Coach of the Year conversations.
What is amazing about the Suns so far is that they are 5-3 since losing Ayton, who is undeniably a MASSIVE loss to the team. But with solid wins against contenders like the Clippers, 76ers and the Nets, it doesn’t look like this has phased Phoenix at all. If anything, each player has really stepped up and improved greatly. With 17 games left on Ayton’s suspension, if Phoenix can remain a +.500 team, they are well on their way to competing for a spot in the Playoffs, and I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say I would really love for Phoenix to sneak in. But who knows, at this rate, they won’t have to sneak in!