Is six games a small sample size? Yes, it is. With that said, the Phoenix Suns look like a well-oiled machine.
Head coach Monty Williams’ squad has won five of its first six games this season. Three of those wins have come against teams that participated in the Western Conference playoffs last season (Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, and Denver Nuggets).
This is a roster now spearheaded by the potent backcourt duo of Devin Booker and Chris Paul, whose arrival seems to have created a new identity for the Suns.
In recent memory, Phoenix has been an offensive-minded team that has struggled defensively. This season, the Suns are shutting down teams with their defense. Phoenix is second behind only the Philadelphia 76ers in defensive rating, per NBA.com. The club is defending the perimeter well and getting crucial late-game stops.
The offense has been pretty good too (11th in offensive rating), with Paul and the Suns running a stellar half-court operation. They’re slowing the game down and running down the shot clock (29th in pace), which works when you have two premier, high-frequency shooters like Booker and Paul, especially in crunch time. You can play in isolation, create separation, and get teams playing at your tempo. Subsequently, opposing teams’ offensive productivity diminishes because they have less possessions and are playing the game at a slower pace, perhaps one they prefer to avoid.
Touches and buckets have been dispersed nicely for Phoenix. It’s not Booker shooting 30 times and Paul serving as a secondary, off-ball option.
Booker is putting up 20.5 points per game, his lowest scoring output since his rookie season (2015-16), but he’s shooting a career-best 49.0 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Paul is averaging 8.7 assists and just 13.2 points per game. Big man Deandre Ayton has also taken a step back offensively with just 12.0 points per game thus far, though he has taken strides on defense as the anchor of the group down low.
Meanwhile, some of this diminished scoring production from the top players has been offset by Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and other role players. Bridges is averaging 15.3 points while shooting an astounding 50.0 percent from beyond the arc. Johnson is off to a strong start in his second NBA season, notching 13.5 points per game off the bench. Jae Crowder rounds out the starting lineup with a veteran 3-and-D presence, while Cameron Payne continues to be a revelation off the bench after his strong play in the bubble.
A young team has to be on the same page and firing on all cylinders if they’re going to climb up the Western Conference, and the Suns are doing just that.
There are some similarities between what the Suns are doing and what select playoff teams in years past have made a living on. For example, the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers have mostly been defensive-minded teams that are inclined to slow the game down and play in the half court offensively.
While these teams have yet to really break through in the playoffs, they’ve at least made it to such play by following their philosophies. Whether it’s time for them to shake things up is a different story. For a team like the Suns, it makes sense to adopt such a philosophy. The funny thing is the Suns could actually be better off with Utah and Indiana’s model than they themselves have been.
They’re not too reliant on one player. They have multiple scoring outlets and capable isolation and post players, therefore possessing offensive versatility. They look like a composed team with direction, and a lot of that is thanks to the acquisition of Paul.
Phoenix traded Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, and a future first-round draft selection for Paul and Abdel Nader. While Oubre and Rubio were productive pieces for the Suns last season, having an elite point guard like Paul to orchestrate the offense and be a team leader is proving to be a difference.
Paul, Booker, Ayton, and friends are playing sound basketball on both ends of the floor. They’re moving the ball and shooting with efficiency while playing at an elite level on defense. Defense travels and this offense can only get better with players becoming more acclimated with each other. Plus, they’re a rather young team outside of CP3 and Crowder, and one could argue that the Suns are ahead of the game with NBA teams having just a couple weeks of training camp and a few preseason games to work with.
Imagine an even more productive Suns offensive attack combined with stellar defensive play.
It’s too early to tell whether the Suns are going to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers and others for the West. Again, it has only been six games.
That said, the Suns have looked as crisp as possible given the current climate in the sport. They’re winning against some of the best the West has to offer and are far from a finished product, so there’s still plenty of room for this team to grow.