Since the beginning of December, four teams have taken first place. 1 seed in the Western Conference standings. Three of them still reside atop the West, with the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and New Orleans Pelicans all seeking their first trip to the NBA Finals.
Then there’s the Phoenix Suns, the fourth member of that quartet, who entered December with a 15-6 record and ended it with a free fall. Now with superstar Devin Booker injured and a losing record at 20-21, the Suns are heading into a showing on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors embattled in the middle of the Western standings: up by half a game and in sixth. place, avoiding playing in the tournament; They are down half the game and they are in 11th place, missing the postseason altogether.
Either scenario at this point represents a steep drop from early in the season, and last season, when Phoenix qualified to no. 1 seed with a 64-18 record. Even after a disastrous collapse in the playoffs, the dominance of the regular season suggests the Suns will compete again. As I wrote before this season:
History is on the Suns’ side, after they became the 32nd team in NBA history to lose fewer than 20 games in 82 games — because those previous 31 teams won, on average, 59.3 games the following season.
In fact, not a single one of those teams that went 63-19 or better dropped even to mediocrity the following year, as the worst group ever won 51 games the following season. So if the Suns win 50 games or fewer this season, it will be an unprecedented collapse.
Hello, unprecedented breakdown. Since the beginning of December, the Suns have had a losing streak of five and six (and still counting). Before last month, their longest losing streak since the arrival of Chris Paul in 2020 was just four times, when they dropped games 3-6 of the 2021 Finals.
With Booker and key player Cam Johnson injured, and with Paul himself now injured — he missed the Sun’s loss to the Cavaliers on Sunday and has an unknown return schedule — Phoenix’s downfall may not end either. Consider the challenge of the upcoming schedule, with a four-game road trip to Golden State, Denver, Minnesota, and Memphis, followed immediately by home dates against the Nets, Pacers, and Grizzlies. Booker will miss all of these games and more. The Suns’ hopes of avoiding championship play, or at least their chances of hosting a playoff series again this spring, may end early.
Even when their injured guards return, the Sun rest atop a more wobbly base than they did a season ago. The troubles begin with Paul, still a fine offensive player at 37 — he makes 3s with a 40 percent clip and has an outstanding assist-to-turnover ratio — but far from the player who’s been the deserving of every NBA pick the past two seasons in Phoenix. This freshman (older and older) has already missed 14 games with a heel injury, and more will come as the hip problem persists. When he played, he posted career lows in:
- Points per match (13.1)
- 2-point-to-field-goal ratio (44 percent)
- Free throw percentage (80 percent)
- Adjusted true shooting percentage (4 percent below the league average)
- Player Efficiency Rating (17.4)
- Attack square plus / minus (1.7)
As a team, the Suns dropped from third in effective field goal percentage last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, to 18th now. Most of the Suns are shooting in the same percentages as they did last season, or even better in the case of backups Torrey Craig and Cam Payne. But Paul and Mikal Bridges saw a sharp drop in shot making, or the difference between actual and projected eFG% eFG%, based on spectrophotometers such as shooting position and gun distance.
Making archery for the return of the suns
Based on Spectrum II data
Paul’s poor play has realistic ripple effects for a potential competitor. Even in the Suns’ heyday, their offensive performance was always a little unstable because it relied on an ineffective shot profile and midrange excellence from Booker and Paul. However, after leading the league in average accuracy in each of his first two seasons with Paul, Phoenix has fallen to 20th this season, per CtG.
If the Suns can’t score from midrange at an effective clip – and they still can’t taking mid-range shots at a high rate; They just don’t make them anymore—they won’t score much, period. They still never reach the edge (29th in edge average this season, 30 the last two seasons), and they bleed points at the free throw line every night.
Phoenix ranks 29th in offensive free throw rate and 30th in defense, per CtG, which works out to a net margin of -6.7 free throws per 100 shot attempts, by far the worst in the league. Last season, by comparison, the Suns had just under 1.7 free throws per 100 shot attempts.
To be fair, Suns aren’t actually as bad as they seem lately, for two reasons. The first is bad luck in close games, which is unprecedented for a team led by Paul (at least in the regular season). In every season of his career, to date, the 18-year-old veteran has finished with a clutch game winning record (within five points in the final five minutes). They were often the best in the league. For example, last season the Suns were 33-9 in clutch — marking the fourth-best winning percentage in the past quarter-century, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
But this year the Suns are just 5-11 in clutch games, giving them the 29th-best winning percentage, and they already have more losses than all of last season. It’s even worse, at only 1-8, with urine on the floor. He certainly declined, but not to this extent, and the Suns’ point differential suggests they should be winning more than they already are.
The second issue is the poker injury. In retrospect, with better urine, the Suns could have survived without their leading scorer. Now they are lost. According to CtG, Phoenix scored 122 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the ground (better than the league’s best offense) and 107 per 100 without him (worse than the league’s worst). This split is the second largest of any player in the rotation this season.
Biggest offensive differential
|Kentavius Caldwell Pope||+12.2|
Based on Glass data cleaning, between rotation triggers
There is no shame in struggling without a player of this importance, just as the Nuggets or the Mavericks would struggle if Jokic or Doncic, respectively, wasted too much time. But there’s a difference between the struggle and a full face transplant, and the sun has skewed toward the latter. The Warriors provide a helpful counter-example: They’ve mostly survived Steve Curry’s absence, with a 6-5 record since his shoulder injury, while the Suns are only 2-9 since Booker’s injury (counting his four-minute cameo on Christmas).
The Suns’ supporting cast doesn’t feature anyone able to fill in the gaps between an injured Booker and a mortgage-backed Paul. After a period of ex-discontent no. 1 pick and final maximum contract receiver Deandre Ayton has yet to make any notable steps forward and is still struggling to create an offense of his own. His longtime aversion to contact puts a hard cap on his cap: Of the 22 centers with a utilization rate of at least 20 percent this season, Ayton ranks 21st in free-throw average, and the only two players close to him — Nikola Vucevic and Naz Reid — have least shot at. 3 seconds, which iTunes does not do.
The Suns could re-emerge as a contender if a lot goes between now and April: if they don’t fall further down the pecking order during their grueling schedule; If their intermediate mastery returns; If they find a match worth winning now in a deal for Jae Crowder, who is still holding out. But Paul’s slide, Ayton’s stall and all the recent struggles reveal the harsh truth: That signature thing that graced all of Phoenix for two great seasons, if not a title-winner, is gone.
In the first year with Paul, the Suns made it to the finals; In the second year, they were the best team in the regular season. In the third year, it is not clear if the window is open anymore.
The stats are valid during Sunday’s games.