“Joe Louis the greatest boxer who ever lived. He was badder than Cassius Clay, he was better than Sugar Ray, he was badder than – who’s that new boy? Mike Tyson! Look like a bulldog! He was badder than him too!” – Coming to America (1988), barbershop scene
When I’m in the Hoops Lab, I break down the game using numbers. I’m the senior fantasy basketball writer at ESPN. I break down lines and make gambling picks in our Best Bets NBA articles. And I regularly contribute to NBA analysis on the ESPN NBA page.
But if you let the Charles Barkleys and Stephen A. Smiths of the world tell it, analytics just aren’t cool. So I’m bringing the Hoops Lab to the barbershop. Because numbers are neither a dirty word nor a different language. We’re all just talking about hoops. And nobody talks hoops better than your boy.
I’ve heard so many sports arguments in the shop I can picture how they would go on any given subject. Take, for example, this year’s Phoenix Suns.
The Suns, under the guidance of second-year coach Monty Williams, have the second-best record in the NBA with less than a month to go in the season. On first blush you might think they’d get lots of love, right? Nah, bruh.
Despite being the hottest team in the league over the last few months, some still don’t see Phoenix as legit title contenders. Vegas seems to agree. It’s hard to earn respect if a team is coming from the lottery, where the Suns have resided for years. Win first, the argument often goes.
But it’s time to give the Suns their due. They’re on the short list of title contenders. Don’t believe me? Let’s talk.
“Superstars win championships. LeBron. Durant. Steph. Who the Suns got on that level?”
If you’re talking this year’s Suns, you have to start with Chris Paul. Paul is the maestro of his generation. While people know he’s good, many folks don’t realize just how much he controls the game.
ESPN has a stat called real plus-minus (RPM). It’s the closest thing the NBA has to an MVP stat, estimating a player’s impact while he’s on the court. The top names on the list are typically the who’s who of those considered the best in the game. Paul has been among the leaders in the NBA in RPM for the past 15 years, battling a generation of greats from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Stephen Curry for supremacy. Last season, at age 34, Paul finished top-5 in RPM while leading an Oklahoma City Thunder team supposedly in rebuild mode to a surprise playoff appearance.
With this as the backdrop, it’s not surprising that adding Paul to a talented young Suns team that hadn’t yet learned how to win has produced a juggernaut. Paul, who ranks 11th in RPM Wins (combining RPM with minutes played) this season, puts his teammates in positions to win.
Paul is one of the best floor generals the NBA has ever seen. Full stop.
“Look here. Glad they brought in CP3. But, keep it real, CP3 ain’t won in his whole career. How’s he gonna start now?”
If Paul is the old Jedi running the show, he’s got an up-and-coming Skywalker on his hands in Devin Booker. Booker has blossomed into one of the most complete young offensive players in the game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the list of players to average at least 26 points, six assists and two 3-pointers per game over the past three seasons:
LeBron James. James Harden. Damian Lillard. Devin Booker.
That’s it. That’s the list.
Last season, Booker joined James and Oscar Robertson as the only three players in NBA history with multiple seasons averaging at least 26 points and six assists per game through their age-23 seasons.
Booker is an explosive scorer, but it’s his ability to combine dominant scoring from long range with a strong passing ability that takes his game to the next level. It allows him to create team offense, not just shots for himself, as a lieutenant floor general to Paul. This duo forms the heart of an efficient Suns offense.
The Suns are amazing at shots off passes. According to Second Spectrum, a site that catalogs every possession of every NBA game, the key rotation players on the Suns are excelling in catch-and-shoot situations this season.
“Forget what you’ve heard, even today, the best teams control the paint. The Lakers straight beat up on the league last season on their way to the chip. How’s Paul and Book gonna deal with LeBron and AD? Or Jokic? Or Embiid? Answer: They can’t.”
Look, any team will have a hard time matching up with those bigs. But don’t forget that, while the 2018 NBA draft is most known for megastars such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, Deandre Ayton was the top pick and has quietly produced at a consistently high level the past three years. He’s averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.7 rebounds), while shooting 58.6% from the field and 75.4% from the line for his career to date.
Ayton has the size to match up with any center in the NBA, but is also comfortable enough on the perimeter to be effective in today’s extended game. Ayton has been particularly effective in the midrange this season, shooting a career-best 48.8% from 10 to 16 feet. He was already a strong finisher around the rim, and with his improving jumper, he’s now a complete scoring threat in the middle.
Ayton is also top-10 in the league in rebounding and anchors the Suns’ defense at a high level. Remember the RPM measure, the MVP-like stat I mentioned? Well, Ayton ranks eighth in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus (DRPM), with the Suns’ defense an estimated 3.2 points per 100 possessions stingier when he’s on the court.
“Yeah, whatever. I can’t even name nobody else on the team.”
Well, you should know Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges. The team’s glue guys complete the Suns’ starting five as the kind of role players who help win championships. Both rank among the top 25 in the NBA in DRPM, joining Ayton and Paul, and giving the Suns one of the stronger defensive units in the league.
A quick perusal of Second Spectrum illustrates how they make their defensive impacts. Crowder is strong defending catch-and-shoots. Bridges is stingy as an offball screener defender. These types of specific situations can be difficult to defend, but Crowder and Bridges quietly shutting them down are winning plays even though they don’t show up in the stat sheet.
Overall, Crowder and Bridges join their more heralded teammates Paul and Booker among the league leaders in RPM wins, making the Suns the only Western Conference team besides the Utah Jazz with four players in the top 60 in RPM wins. Not coincidentally, the Jazz and Suns sport the two best records in the NBA.
“In the playoffs, you need the biggest dogs to eat. Plus, they ain’t even been there before. You can’t just throw a team together and start winning.”
NBA history is littered with strong all-around teams that came together to challenge for the championship without having high-scoring, face-of-the-NBA-type talent clusters to push the effort. You don’t have to look any further than last season.
The 2020 Miami Heat appear to be a relevant precursor to the 2021 Suns. Peep.
The 2018-19 Heat finished 10th in the Eastern Conference, two games out of the last playoff spot. The following offseason, they added Jimmy Butler, a tough-minded two-way guard who’d just been named to his second All-NBA and fourth All-Defensive teams in 2018.
The 2020 Miami Heat rolled out a balanced squad, full of perimeter shooters, solid defenders and glue guys around Butler’s offensive creation and a talented young big man Bam Adebayo. They finished seventh in the NBA in team offensive rating (111.9 points scored per 100 possessions) and 12th in team defensive rating (109.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) on their way to the 2020 Finals, where they fell 4-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Suns have taken that blueprint and run with it.
The 2020 Suns finished 10th in the Western Conference, and ended the season on fire. They won their last eight games but fell just short, a measly half-game behind the Portland Trail Blazers, who won the play-in game and made the tournament. The Suns added Paul, fresh off his ninth All-NBA and ninth All-Defensive team selections.
This season’s Suns are currently seventh in offensive rating (115.1 points per 100 possessions) and fifth in defensive rating (109.2 points allowed per 100). In almost every way, this Suns team looks like a slightly upgraded model of the 2020 Heat team that we just saw in the Finals.
These Suns are legit.
Will the Suns win the title this season? I have no way to know, and they’ve got many challengers to overcome, including the Jazz and both LA teams. But could they win? Absolutely.