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2021-22 NBA Season Preview Series: Phoenix Suns

Andrew D. Bernstein. Getty Images.

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So far in this series we've covered a wide variety of teams. Young rebuilding rosters, some teams that are looking to prove themselves after a successful 2020 season, teams that are looking to finally break through and become contenders, shit like that. What we haven't really done yet is a group of legit title contenders. The big boys. The ones with fanbases that are entering next season with a legit expectation to win the whole thing. The heavy hitters if you will. I have to admit, I was surprised to see the Suns win this poll, but I'm also relieved. If we're in the trust tree the last thing I wanted to do was talk Nets/Lakers. That sounds miserable and I dread the day one of those win their poll. 

The opposite couldn't be more true when it comes to the Suns. Love the Suns. When I was a kid my first non Celtics jersey was an old school Thunder Dan Majerle Suns jersey. I was at ASU during the prime Nash Suns era and that shit was awesome to watch. By the way, let me just say this for all Suns fans that might be reading this blog. You win that title if David Stern doesn't suspend Amare/Diaw for "coming off the bench" against the Spurs. That's your title and everyone knows it. Oh, and Nash was a deserving MVP. Deal with it. 

Fast forward a decade or so, the Suns are back to contending. It all started with that 8-0 bubble run and ended with an incredible season that put them in the NBA Finals, just 2 wins away from their first ever title. The way this team has been built by James Jones has been incredible to watch. Savvy front office trades, great drafting, internal development, they are the model for what every current rebuilding team should strive for. They do it in a "small" market too. It's not like they are a top free agent choice or anything like that (yet). It's hard to imagine a rebuild going better than what the Suns are currently experiencing.

But this year is different. They aren't surprising anyone anymore. Now there are real expectations. Was last year a fluke? Are they for real? Will they ever get back to a Finals? It's all on the table. Before we get into all that, let's look at their roster as it stands today

Added: Landry Shamet, JaVale McGee

Lost: Jevon Carter

Re-signed: Chris Paul, Cam Payne, Frank Kaminsky, Abdel Nader

As it stands now, with a total cap number of 128,373,354 the Suns currently have the 19th most expensive roster in the league. Of the teams we saw contend last season, that is by far the lowest. To put this in perspective, all other teams mentioned in that initial poll are in the top 6 in terms of expensive rosters. That's getting great value, but it's not slated to stay that way. Guys like Ayton and Bridges could very well get extensions well over 100M. Their owner has historically been cheap as shit, so now that he has a contending team it'll be fascinating to see if he pays everyone and commits to the tax, because as we know to contend in this league you pretty much have to pay the tax. 

In looking at this roster, my main concern isn't all that different from what gave me pause last year. This team still has a glaring hole at the backup 4 spot. Remember, Saric is still coming back from tearing his ACL. I get they signed McGee, but he's limited. We have no idea what Jalen Smith is as a player yet. If you remember the Finals, not having a legit option at that position really hurt them. Nothing against Frank The Tank, but you probably don't want to find yourself relying on him all that much. It's really the only hole on this roster. They have legit guard play, good shooting, the center position is fine, but things get dicey when looking at the 4 spot. I thought someone like Daniel Theis would have been perfect for them, but he's obviously a Rocket. 

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The biggest takeaway when it comes to this team is that Chris Paul is very much not washed. I wouldn't even say his play last year was unsustainable either. That's just who CP3 is.

He changed everything about this team when he got there and I expect nothing to change in that regard. The big thing with him is if he'll stay healthy, and he played 70 of the 72 games last season so odds are he'll be just fine heading into this year. His on/off splits were about what you expect, the Suns were drastically better offensively with him on the floor (118 Ortg vs 109), and their overall net rating was much better as well (+7.2 vs +4.0). He is what makes this team go. You know what you're going to get when it comes to CP3.

We're also at the point where I think the same can be said about Devin Booker. Guy is a stud. He's someone who has improved every season, is way more than just a shooter in my opinion, and he's banging Kendall Jenner. That matters. If the bubble was his breakout performance, his season last year is the backup he needed to prove he is one bad motherfucker

Here's the thing about Booker that I really like. It's not just the fact that he's a guaranteed 24-27 points a night, it's the fact that he's really developed as a passer. He's not one dimensional. His AST% pre-Chris Paul was 34% and 30% and even once he got there he still finished around 20%. That's damn good for an off ball guard. The one area we still need to see Booker take the leap is on the defensive end, but I imagine that's coming. You forget he's only 24. The good news is on the offensive end, Booker is becoming about as unguardable as you can get. He's a three level scorer, is solid at getting at the line, and there isn't a zone he can't score from. I can say with confidence that he can absolutely be a #1 option on a title team. He's proven that in my opinion.

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So if Booker and Paul's production is sustainable, what does that mean for the team success? The Suns were a team that ranked 7th offensively and 6th defensively. If you really want to pin their sudden rise on something, it has to be their improvement on the defensive end. That's why I think you can buy the Suns being for real. To go from a 17th ranked defense to a top 10 defense the next year made all the difference in the world. You look at the contenders and they all were among the best defensive teams in the league. That shit matters. Once things got to the playoffs, the Suns had the 3rd best defense. Only the Bucks (they won the title maybe you heard), and the Sixers (offense is their issue) were better. Not surprising that the #1 and #3 playoff defenses met in the Finals. 

What makes the Suns so fun to watch isn't just CP3/Booker though. All of their young guys look to be draft hits. Deande Ayton EXPLODED onto the scene last year and looks like he can be your franchise center. Mikal Bridges is like a super role player. He's not going to be the first, second, or even third option, but he's really fucking good and the type of player every championship team seems to have. It's probably why he's going to get close to 100M. He's someone you don't need to run plays for but finds a way to be effective whether it be off ball spot up shooting, cutting to the basket, in transition, he's a perfect piece of their puzzle. Then there's Cam Johnson. Remember when pundits said the Suns reached when they took him 10th? I dunno, shooting 44.6% from three in 21 playoff games seems pretty important. He ranked in the 70th percentile as a spot up shooter. It's not often that a team can rely so heavily on their young talent and be this successful. That's what makes the Suns unique. Now that they all have more experience under their belt, why shouldn't they be better? 

Here's the other part of why this team is so good. The last thing you want to do is find yourself in a clutch time situation against the Suns. They are lethal when things get tight. Their 25-12 record in clutch games was the 2nd highest winning percentage in the league. Chris Paul is one of the best clutch time players the league has. Booker has gigantic balls and isn't afraid of the moment. Shit, even Mikal Bridges shot 45/40% in clutch time last season. That's what makes them so tough in those situations, they have a bunch of guys that you can't sleep on or they bury you.

In terms of their style, I imagine we won't see too much change since they basically ran back the same squad we just watched. They won't run a ton of isolation (13th in frequency), but when they do they'll be effective (70th percentile). You're going to see a ton of P&R with both Paul/Booker where they were basically elite (89th percentile), but don't sleep on using Ayton as the roll guy. When the Suns utilize that guy in P&R, they ranked in the 80th percentile. Surprisingly the Suns don't really play at a fast pace, just 24th last year but that's OK. They have the Point God. I'm pretty sure he knows how to be effective in the half court. You're going to see a ton of pull ups on offense because the Suns are basically the best pull up shooting team in the league (49.9% eFG%). The biggest thing to remember is nothing the Suns do is unsustainable. As long as they have health, they are going to be a problem.

Does this mean they get back to the Finals or even better, win the whole thing? They have as good a shot as any in the West in my opinion. But like a lot of teams we're going to see next year, we don't know how this team handles raised expectations. Last year they were a feel good story and a bit of a surprise. Now, they're the hunted. That's what makes their season so intriguing to me, we get to see how they respond to that shift.

Official Greenie Prediction: 53 wins