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The Phoenix Suns Look Like Previous Contenders. So Why Is No One Taking Them Seriously?

When the Phoenix Suns followed up their spectacular 8-0 performance in the NBA bubble with a bold trade for Chris Paul, the goal they had in mind seemed clear: build on that success and solidify themselves as a surefire playoff team, rather than one that had a chance to be left on the outside of the picture, looking in. Halfway through the 2020-21 season, it’s difficult to imagine the Paul trade having worked out better for the Suns than it actually has.

Paul himself was named an All-Star based on his play during the first half of the season, and he has — as is his wont — transformed the Suns in his image. Phoenix plays a decidedly CP3-style brand of basketball, and it works.


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The Suns have a 26-12 record, which ranks second in both the Western Conference and the league overall. It’s backed up by their point differential, as their Pythagorean expectation is also 26-12. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based projection system feels pretty good about Phoenix maintaining that pace, predicting a plus-5.5 point differential — fourth in the league behind only the Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets — and a 48-24 final record, tied for second,1 again behind the Jazz. (Going 48-24 in a 72-game season is the equivalent of winning 55 games in a typical year, by the way.)

A basketball illustration where the lines on the ball are brackets

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Phoenix’s strong win-loss mark is the result of equally strong two-way capabilities. The Suns sit eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency, making them one of only three teams to rank inside the top 10 in both categories. Accordingly, they are third in both net rating and Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts a team’s point differential for strength of opponent.

Their top 10 ratings on each side of the ball would place the Suns in a select group of teams whose offense and defense was at least 2 percent better than the league-average team in a given season.2 There have been 23 such teams in the past decade, and they have seen quite a bit of success: All 23 made the playoffs; 20 advanced beyond the first round; 15 made it to at least the conference finals; nine went to the NBA Finals; and six won the championship.

Teams as strong as the Suns tend to go far

NBA teams whose offense and defense were both at least 2 percent better than the league-average team, since 2010-11, and how their seasons ended

Season Team ORtg+ DRtg+ Result
2016-17 Golden State Warriors 106.25 95.59 Champions 🏆
2012-13 Miami Heat 106.04 97.92 Champions 🏆
2014-15 Golden State Warriors 105.68 96.02 Champions 🏆
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs 103.56 95.97 Champions 🏆
2018-19 Toronto Raptors 102.45 97.01 Champions 🏆
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks 102.24 97.86 Champions 🏆
2015-16 Golden State Warriors 107.61 97.56 Lost Finals
2010-11 Miami Heat 104.10 96.46 Lost Finals
2012-13 San Antonio Spurs 102.27 95.94 Lost Finals
2017-18 Houston Rockets 105.62 97.70 Lost conf. finals
2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder 103.56 97.38 Lost conf. finals
2014-15 Atlanta Hawks 103.13 97.63 Lost conf. finals
2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks 103.08 95.29 Lost conf. finals
2019-20 Boston Celtics 102.44 96.75 Lost conf. finals
2016-17 San Antonio Spurs 102.11 95.13 Lost conf. finals
2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder 106.14 96.88 Lost 2nd round
2017-18 Toronto Raptors 104.79 97.51 Lost 2nd round
2015-16 San Antonio Spurs 103.67 93.05 Lost 2nd round
2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers 103.45 97.20 Lost 2nd round
2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers 102.98 97.29 Lost 2nd round
2012-13 Los Angeles Clippers 104.44 97.83 Lost 1st round
2014-15 San Antonio Spurs 102.75 96.59 Lost 1st round
2011-12 Chicago Bulls 102.68 93.98 Lost 1st round

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

All of this is to say that at the moment, the Suns have the resume of a true contender. And yet … they don’t often seem to get that consideration. If they do, it’s on the fringes, at best. Ask anyone in or around the league to name the top title contenders, and they’re likely to reel off the Lakers and Clippers (and probably the Jazz) before getting to the Suns — and that’s just among teams in Phoenix’s own conference.

Projection models largely agree with that hypothetical assessment: Despite predicting the Suns to finish with the second-best record in the West, FiveThirtyEight’s model gives four conference foes a better shot at winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy (the three previously mentioned teams each have 12 percent odds, while the Nuggets also have a 12 percent chance), while pegging Phoenix’s odds at “only” 5 percent. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has the Suns finishing third in the conference behind the Jazz and Lakers, but Phoenix’s 2.9 percent title odds are dwarfed by those of Utah (15.5 percent) and L.A. (26 percent), and also a decent shout behind those of the Clippers (5.5 percent).

So, what gives? Why would a team with seemingly impeccable credentials not quite measure up to its peers? In both cases, the answer lies in the likelihood that the version of the Suns we see on the floor right now is largely the same as the one we will see in the playoffs, while the same is not necessarily true of other contenders.

Phoenix is fully healthy at the moment and has been for most of the season. The Suns’ top six rotation players (Paul, Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson) have combined to miss just 12 games, meaning they’ve had their full complement of key players available around 95 percent of the time. That availability has played a key role in the Suns’ success, and the lack of consistent availability has dragged down the record of some other would-be contenders.

various NBA players in bubbles against an orange graph chart

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A look at our projections page shows that the Suns’ current roster rating is fourth-best in the NBA, but their full-strength rating is just seventh. That will happen when the Nets are playing without Kevin Durant, the Clippers without Patrick Beverley, the Nuggets without Gary Harris and Monte Morris and the Lakers without Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol.

The bigger differentiator, though, is in the teams’ playoff roster ratings. The Suns get a 16-point bump because we expect more minutes for Paul, Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Crowder in the postseason, but that’s not nearly as large as the bump received by other teams. The RAPTOR-based system gives 11 teams at least a 1 percent chance of winning the Finals, and the differential between the Suns’ playoff roster rating and their full-strength roster rating for the regular season is smallest among that group of teams. They have the fourth-smallest difference between their regular-season and postseason BPI ratings.

The Suns look now how they’ll look in the playoffs

NBA teams with title odds of at least 1 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s model by difference between full-strength and playoff ratings in RAPTOR-based Elo, and between current and playoff ratings in the Basketball Power Index

RAPTOR-based BPI
Team Full Playoff Diff. Current Playoff Diff.
Lakers 1653 1716 +63 5.8 8.8 +3.0
Clippers 1656 1714 +58 4.1 5.4 +1.3
Celtics 1594 1648 +54 3.4 4.3 +0.9
Nuggets 1666 1716 +50 3.4 4.6 +1.2
Bucks 1648 1697 +49 5.6 6.4 +0.8
Nets 1685 1732 +47 5.7 7.4 +1.7
Heat 1568 1615 +47 3.7 4.7 +1.0
76ers 1638 1674 +36 2.9 6.0 +3.1
Jazz 1680 1698 +18 6.3 7.5 +1.2
Raptors 1606 1623 +17 3.4 4.7 +1.3
Suns 1644 1660 +16 3.7 4.8 +1.1

Through games of March 17, 2021.

Source: ESPN

Essentially, the projection systems aren’t sure that the Suns have another gear they can hit when the playoffs roll around. It’s a fair question to ask — especially because, as brilliant as he’s been in the playoffs on an individual level, Paul’s teams have not tended to level up in May and June.

Still, even a 5 percent chance at the title is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s the exact cutoff once identified by Sixers president Daryl Morey as the point at which a team should be all-in.3 “If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” Morey told Zach Lowe.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban echoed Morey’s sentiment: “One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes,” he said. “You don’t want to miss that opportunity. You should always put the best team you can on the floor within the parameters you have set for yourself.”

The Suns made every effort to put the best team they could on the floor. They traded for Paul, signed Crowder, brought back key reserves like Dario Šarić and added quality depth pieces that have helped them find the type of regular-season success they knew they’d need to solidify their postseason standing. Now, they’re in that small group of teams potentially within a sprained toe or two of finding themselves with a real shot to bring home the big prize. Considering the franchise has never won a championship in its 53-year history (and has not even been to the playoffs since 2010), crashing the title picture is an accomplishment in itself — even if, at the moment, the Suns are only on the edges of the frame. 

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Footnotes

  1. With the Brooklyn Nets.

  2. Scaling a unit against league average works like this: The average defensive rating is given a score of 100, while a team whose defense is 10 percent worse than average receives a DRtg+ score of 110 (because higher numbers are bad for a defense), and a team whose defensive rating is 10 percent better than league average receives a DRtg+ score of 90.

  3. Morey was the general manager of the Rockets at the time.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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