The Phoenix Suns are … the team to beat in the Western Conference?
OK, so I didn’t make much of Phoenix’s opening-night blowout win over the Sacramento Kings, necessarily. But I was impressed with the Suns taking a solid Denver Nuggets team to overtime on the road, and losing by a single point. And it was stunning to see them take down Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers the following night. After that three-game stretch the Suns are tied atop the Pacific Division — yes, the one with the Clippers, L.A. Lakers and Golden State Warriors — and own the NBA’s best point differential heading into Monday night’s games. And the FiveThirtyEight NBA prediction model has Phoenix at 24 percent to make the playoffs, up 4 percentage points from the final preseason predictions.
But arguably even more important than the victories themselves is how Phoenix has played. There are some key differences — some obvious, some not so much — between this team and the previous team, which went just 19-63. The Suns have only played three games, but it’s already clear they are no longer a symbol of the increasingly small group of hapless clubs left in the once-tanktastic NBA.
So how did Phoenix start to turn things around? Some of it was basic roster improvement. The Suns have a desperately needed starting point guard in Ricky Rubio, who has helped improve the team’s ball movement. Case in point: The team, which ranked 17th in assist percentage1 last season, currently leads the NBA in the metric, at nearly 70 percent.
Beyond that, the team’s offense appears to be far more dynamic. Players like the bouncy Kelly Oubre Jr. are hunting back-door cuts more frequently, particularly when star scorer Devin Booker attracts considerable defensive attention that momentarily leaves a teammate open. (Booker is averaging 8.3 assists per game, up from 6.8 dimes a contest last season.) Consider that almost 10 percent of the Suns’ possessions involve a cut, according to Synergy Sports — the second-highest rate in the NBA. That represents a night-and-day difference from last season, when Phoenix was tied for 19th in the same category.
Using an array of screens and cuts makes a ton of sense given the Suns’ roster. Rubio often snakes his way through the paint, sometimes confusing defenders, who become distracted and sometimes lose sight of another player cutting toward the rim. And Aron Baynes, the starting center now that Deandre Ayton is suspended, is one of the NBA’s more rugged screeners, creating space for the likes of Booker and Dario Šarić, who have the jumpers to take full advantage.
Of course several things could unravel the nice start. Ayton’s suspension2 was a blow, as he has far more athleticism and scoring ability down low than the other bigs on the roster. He’d also shown some encouraging signs on defense in the opener, in which he logged four blocks. Rubio’s shooting has long been suspect, so opposing defenses will likely dare him to shoot because of it, hurting the other four players’ spacing. If teams play Rubio off the floor, and the offense becomes less fluid, it potentially asks Booker to do too much on his own.
But after so many years of awful basketball, and goats metaphorically defecating in their offices, the Suns and their fans should enjoy being on top of the Pacific standings for however long the adventure lasts.
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