Fresh off a rollicking road victory over what had previously been the hottest team in the NBA, the upstart Phoenix Suns are 43-18 and occupying the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Phoenix has yet to officially clinch a playoff spot, but it’s only a matter of time.
Throughout their terrific season to date, there has been ample spotlight on the team’s All-Stars, Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Paul immediately put his stamp on the team upon arrival, and as per his M.O., has sparked a dramatic increase in his new team’s winning percentage. Booker, meanwhile, overcame a cold start and has been scorching for several months. Since the beginning of February, he has averaged 26.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 33.1 minutes per game while sporting a 49-35-87 shooting line.
The team has relied on Paul and Booker, and that won’t stop in the playoffs. But the Suns’ chances of advancing through the Western Conference may depend just as much on the next two players in the team’s pecking order — center Deandre Ayton and wing Mikal Bridges — as they do on the team’s star backcourt.
Ayton will be tasked with a role not typically assigned to someone his age. Since the advent of the 3-point line, only 31 times has a center in his age-22 season or younger averaged 25-plus minutes per game in the playoffs.1 The track record of those teams is not encouraging, with the group winning a grand total of 16 playoff series. Just nine of the 31 teams advanced beyond the first round — meaning these young centers’ teams were bounced before even winning a single series 71 percent of the time. Only four (13 percent) advanced beyond the second round. Just three (10 percent) made the Finals, and none of them won the title.
Players in recent years have been entering the NBA younger than their 1980s and 1990s counterparts and thus have tended to have a bit more experience by their age-22 season, but the success rates of teams counting on young centers in the playoffs have barely budged. Since the 2010-11 season, an age-22-or-younger center has played 25-plus playoff minutes per game 12 times. Only three of those centers (Steven Adams of the 2015-16 Thunder, Clint Capela of the 2016-17 Rockets and Bam Adebayo of the 2019-20 Heat) won at least one series. Two of them advanced to at least the conference finals, one made the NBA Finals, and, obviously, none won the title.
That’s a lot of history to be working against. For the Suns to overcome the odds, they’ll need Ayton to tap into every ounce of his considerable talent — on both ends of the floor.
It may not seem this way on the surface because he’s averaging a career-low 15 points per game, but Ayton has perhaps been a more effective offensive player this season than he was in either of his first two years. His usage rate is down, but he’s been far more efficient as a scorer. His true shooting percentage last season (56.8 percent) was right around league-average (56.5); this season, he’s been far better (65.2 percent vs. 57.1 percent). He’s boosted that efficiency by taking a greater share of his shots close to the basket — so much so that his average shot distance has dropped a full foot from last year (6.7 feet away from the rim) to this year (5.7 feet). Eschewing deep midrange attempts for those in the paint has allowed him to better capitalize on his size and short-range touch.
As many (including, well, me) predicted, Paul’s arrival has done wonders for Ayton’s pick-and-roll game. The average possession including an Ayton ball screen in his first two seasons yielded 1.062 points per possession for the Suns, per Second Spectrum, a below-average mark. This season, through Monday’s games, Ayton has been the second-most-frequent pick-and-roll screener in the league behind only Rudy Gobert. His ball screens have also been much more profitable than before Paul arrived, generating an average of 1.182 points per possession, the eighth-best mark among 88 players who have set at least 500 on-ball screens.
He’s shown good feel for when to make solid contact on his screens and when to slip, and it’s probably not a coincidence that his strongest pick-and-roll scoring season yet is the one in which he’s making contact on screens (and thus creating more space for Paul and Booker) a career-high 62.4 percent of the time, per Second Spectrum, up from 54.5 percent a year ago. Ayton’s also done well to stay involved all the way through the play regardless of whether he gets the ball on the roll.
He’s done a good but not necessarily great job punishing switches inside, seemingly alternating between strong moves on the block and passive fadeaways over much smaller defenders. Opposing defenses have not switched his screens all that often during the regular season (around 11 percent of the time) but may find that strategy preferable to letting Paul or Booker work their off-the-dribble magic in the midrange once the playoffs roll around. Allowing one of the star guards to draw a big man into open space seems like a poor strategy, but inviting an Ayton post-up and then sending a quick double-team his way might give opponents a better chance to throw the Suns off their rhythm.
Ayton’s greatest challenge, though, will come on the other end of the floor. While he was sold as a potentially disastrous defender coming into the draft, Ayton has instead been quite solid. His defensive RAPTOR rating is above average, and the Suns are ranked inside the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
Questions remain, though, about how his defense will hold up in the playoffs, which provide more challenging defensive assignments, and whether he’ll be able to handle himself when teams force the Suns to switch. Ayton has switched screens only about 8 percent of the time, per Second Spectrum, compared with a league average just shy of 22 percent. Ayton has often been victimized on those plays, allowing an average of 1.20 points per possession on switches, compared with a league average of 1.11 points. A differential of 0.09 points per possession might not seem enormous, but think of it in terms of offensive efficiency: It’s the difference between 120 (better than the Nets’ league-best offense) and 111 (equivalent to the Spurs’ 19th-ranked scoring unit).
Ayton’s size lends itself better to playing drop coverage,2 but there, too, opponents have scored at better than the league-average rate when running their offense at Ayton. He can occasionally get caught between reacting aggressively or not at all to a ball-handler coming around a screen, and the best guards have been able to manipulate him in different ways.
As much pressure as there will be on Ayton to patrol the back line, it might pale in comparison to the job awaiting Bridges in the postseason. He’s emerged early in his career as one of the premier wing stoppers in all of basketball, and the Suns routinely task him with the most difficult perimeter matchup, regardless of position. According to Bball-Index’s matchup difficulty statistic, Bridges has faced the ninth-most-difficult slate of opponents among the 194 players who have played 1,000 minutes or more so far this season.
If the Suns are to make it through the Western Conference gauntlet, Bridges will have to spend consecutive series likely defending at least three of the following players: Donovan Mitchell, Paul George, LeBron James or Dennis Schröder,3 Luka Dončić, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, Dejounte Murray and Stephen Curry. That’s quite a murderer’s row. Few defenders would be up to the task of putting in six weeks of work against that crew. The Suns need Bridges to be one of them.
Offensively, Bridges has done well to bring along the “three” part of his “three-and-D” game this season. After connecting on 34.5 percent of his triples through his first two NBA seasons, Bridges is up at 40.1 percent this year. He’s a very smart complementary player, and he ably slides his way along the perimeter to create passing lanes for the stars. He’s a heady cutter as well, and he fills his lanes on the break.
What the Suns need from him in the playoffs will depend in large part on how defenses elect to play him. Do opponents want to send help off of Bridges (and/or Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson) to make things more difficult for Booker, Paul and Ayton? Given a choice between getting beaten by Paul and Booker off the dribble or Ayton on the block, and the wing trio shooting threes, teams might opt for the latter. If that’s how opponents play it, the Suns need Bridges to be the 40 percent shooter he’s been this year and not the 35 percent shooter he was previously.
Some teams, though, might want to aggressively run Bridges off the line. That’s where he needs to step his game up. On shots taken either off the catch or after merely one dribble, his effective field-goal percentage this season is 65.9 percent, per Second Spectrum. After two dribbles or more, it plummets to 48.3 percent. Opponents will want to take advantage of that and make him put the ball on the ground — especially since they know he’s not all that willing to do so. Bridges is averaging only 3.5 drives per game this season, per NBA Advanced Stats. Among 78 non-centers playing 30-plus minutes per game this season,4 only seven have attacked the basket off the bounce less often.
Bridges has the size (6-foot-6) and length (7-foot-1 wingspan) to occasionally make opponents pay for switching his screens on or off the ball, but he has yet to show the requisite off-dribble verve to consistently take advantage of big men in space or the strength and bully-ball mentality to get into the post against smaller defenders. If, say, the Grizzlies switch Morant or Jonas Valančiūnas onto him in the playoffs, does Bridges have it in him to capitalize? It remains to be seen.
When the playoffs begin, Booker’s first time on the postseason stage seems likely to receive significant attention. But Bridges and Ayton will also be making their postseason debuts. How they handle the bright lights of playoff basketball will likely set the ceiling for this Suns team.
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