Sports

Here Come the Suns

Two years ago, we were talking about goats. Not GOATs; goats. That’s because ESPN published an exposé on the Phoenix Suns that revealed an organization with no direction, an owner with a heavy hand, and one hilarious anecdote: Suns owner Robert Sarver placed goats in the office of former general manager Ryan McDonough to symbolize the team’s desire of finding a GOAT player, only for the goats to defecate all over the office. It was a tidy metaphor for Phoenix’s predicament, as the franchise boasted the NBA’s worst record from 2015-16 through 2018-19. “The organization hasn’t functioned to the level of mine or our fans’ expectations, and that’s on me to change,” Sarver said at the time.

In the time since, Phoenix has cleaned up its act. With a win on Thursday over the Warriors, the Suns would head into the All-Star break with the second-best record in the NBA. They’re also one of two teams that rank in the top eight in both offensive rating and defensive rating. (Utah, owner of the league’s best record, is the other.) A blend of impressive young guys and grizzled veterans now make up one of the NBA’s best teams.

“There’s no secret sauce,” Suns general manager James Jones told me recently.

Sarver hired Jones as a VP of basketball operations in the summer of 2017, hoping to prepare him for a larger role that would allow him to bring his success as a player to the front office. In his 14-year playing career, Jones never played on a team that finished under .500, he missed the playoffs only once, and he won three championships. LeBron James has called Jones his greatest teammate ever. Jones was elevated quickly: He was named co-interim GM when Sarver fired McDonough in the fall of 2018, and in April 2019, he was officially given the position. Change had begun.

“What I took from my career is the way your team plays typically defines how the organization is perceived. But the way your team plays is predicated on the type of character on the team and the behaviors that players exhibit,” Jones said. “It’s not like good organizations take clay and immediately mold it into something spectacular. They build a good foundation, and then grow it from there.”

Weeks after being named general manager, Jones hired his head coach: Monty Williams, a widely respected leader and another former player. In the next two seasons, Jones overhauled the roster to feature players who have winning qualities. “A front office must find high-character, hardworking, and competitive professionals who love the game and want to have team success,” Jones added. “If you have team success, only then you can throw in a selfish individual—or as I call them, a mercenary—into the bunch and be able to withstand it. But if you first build a team full of mercenaries, you’re going to get bad results from a selfish group.”

Jones inherited a roster full of high draft picks, with Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges among them. But in the summer of 2019, he set out to build a stronger foundation. He signed guard Ricky Rubio and traded down from the sixth pick to add Dario Saric and draft North Carolina senior Cameron Johnson. The following offseason, after the Suns’ 8-0 run in the NBA bubble, he flipped Rubio in a trade package for Chris Paul and signed two respected veterans, Jae Crowder and E’Twaun Moore. Bench reserves Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Payne, and Abdel Nader have even excelled when provided opportunities.

There’s now order in Phoenix and a clear hierarchy for respective roles and responsibilities. The pieces fit, and everyone is benefiting from it—particularly the one Suns player who’s waited for this moment the longest.

“I’ve been a fan of the NBA for a very long time, so I understand the process behind it and how hard it is to be a good team,” Booker said this week. “I understand the rebuild phase, going through that. Obviously, it’s hard to understand when you’re in it, when taking a bunch of losses even though you’re a competitor. But I took a head-down mentality every day, and I knew some type of success would come if we kept working. I don’t want to take it for granted.”

Booker was there for the shittiest years in Phoenix. Drafted 13th in 2015, he averaged 22 wins through his first four seasons under four different head coaches. Amid the chaos, he established himself as one of the best young scorers in the league, but he was often derided as an empty-calories player—someone who could put up numbers but not wins.

Perceptions of Booker have flipped in the past year-plus. He just won Player of the Month in February after averaging 27.9 points on 62.2 percent true shooting with 4.5 assists, helping to lead the Suns to a 12-3 stretch. In a game against the Sixers, he went toe-to-toe with Ben Simmons, an All-Defensive team player, and flourished.

Booker is the type of scorer who can make great defense look average. He can pull up going to his right, step back to his left, or launch from the logo. And he can do it against the best defenders in the league, as he shows in the clips above.

Years and years of reps on the ball have helped Booker develop into the player he is today; it honed his ability to generate shots against elite defenders and seasoned his playmaking senses. But his skills off the ball were wasted, because no one else could reliably create shots for him.

Paul’s arrival has brought balance to Booker’s game. This season, Booker has possessed the ball for only 4.1 minutes per game, which is tied for 53rd in the league and is a new low for him since the 2016-17 season, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Now he is receiving more simple shots off the catch. Paul possesses the ball 46 percent of the time he’s in the game, per BBall-Index. That’s more frequently than all but just four players: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Damian Lillard, and John Wall. Paul runs the show in Phoenix, which allows Booker to pick his spots.

The CP3 Effect on Booker’s Game

Season Spot-ups Off Screens Handoffs Total
Season Spot-ups Off Screens Handoffs Total
2018-19 9% 11% 6% 26%
2019-20 10% 12% 10% 32%
2020-21 15% 13% 11% 39%

Data via Synergy Sports

This season, 39 percent of Booker’s half-court plays are a result of spotting up from 3, coming off a screen, or using a handoff. That’s up from 32 percent last season with Rubio at point guard, and way up from 26 percent in 2018-19, when Booker had only rookie De’Anthony Melton and 38-year-old Jamal Crawford setting him up. Fair or not, Booker earned comparisons to Klay Thompson as a Kentucky freshman; now he’s reminding people why.

The plays above aren’t all easy scoring chances. Some of the makes are heavily contested. But getting him in motion off-ball gives him the sliver of space that he wasn’t getting when he also had to orchestrate the offense himself. With Paul there, there’s less demand on Booker to have to take that job of being the coach on the floor. “He always makes sure all five guys are in the right place at the right time,” Booker said of Paul.

Booker is investing the saved energy into his defense. He’s playing better on that end than ever before, which is most apparent with his effort:

In the clip above, Booker gets stripped but then goes full sprint to capture a chasedown block. These are tone-setting moments. Even throughout the flow of the game, he’s playing far more attentively on defense than he did when the Suns were losing. By hustling on defense, and by sacrificing touches on offense, Booker is becoming the best version of himself.

“The classic Devin Booker would be, ‘My team is down, let me go out and shoot every shot, let me try to make every play and will my team to victory on the scoreboard,’” Jones told me. “Booker’s play this season is the mark of a player that understands when to be a primary player and when to be secondary. I think he’s taken this mentality to heart.”

Four years ago this month, Booker became only the sixth player in NBA history to score 70 points in a game. Phoenix celebrated Booker’s game in the Boston visiting locker room with an homage to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points photo.

Crowder was on the Celtics at the time, and commented on Instagram that he’d never seen so many players happy after a loss. “A lot has changed,” he said with a laugh. It certainly has. No one in the photo besides Booker is still on the team. Only six of those ex-Suns have earned even a minute of floor time this season.

Last offseason, Crowder was fresh off a Finals run with the Heat. Miami reportedly offered him a deal for only $14 million guaranteed with a team option for the second season, to preserve future cap space, while Phoenix was willing to pay $30 million over three years. Crowder said the Suns caught his attention during their undefeated bubble run. Then, once free agency began, his phone started lighting up.

“When Devin first called, I told him, ‘I respect your game but the Suns haven’t made the playoffs for years.’ I was honestly iffy about it,” Crowder said. He asked for time to think. Soon, he fell in love with the idea of breaking a 10-year playoff drought with a reshaped team. Eventually, Booker called back. “It’s a new chapter here,” he continued. “I chose to be part of an organization ready to go for it all after being last in the league for basically 10 years. It’s special to be here now when Devin Booker is ready and deserves to play meaningful basketball.”

Booker and Paul garner most of the attention, but plays like this one are made possible by the players the Suns have put around them, like Crowder. Everywhere you look there’s something special going on: the way the ball whizzes around the court before finding Booker for an open 3; the way Bridges keeps the ball moving and attacks off the dribble to force the defense into rotation; the way Crowder cuts, relocates, and makes a rapid decision with the pass leading to the shot. These are the little things that add up to wins.

“We see Jae coming off the bench in some games, sacrificing because he wants to win,” Bridges told me in January. “He talked about it when he first got here, and it’s what you need: a winner and a player who sets an example by making sacrifices. That’s what we’re all trying to do: sacrifice so we can win.”

Crowder, 30, is the veteran of a group of young wings headlined by Bridges and Johnson, two lottery picks acquired by the Suns in draft-night trades in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Bridges and Johnson are built for success in the playoffs: They can defend multiple positions, bring energy, hit 3s, and make smart plays on offense.

Bridges is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. This season, he’s locked horns with the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Ja Morant, Jamal Murray, and Luka Doncic—all shot creators of different shapes and sizes. On offense, he’s often pigeonholed as a shooter, but he’s also one of the league’s best at attacking off the catch and keeping the ball moving. “Aside from Mikal taking pretty much the toughest defensive assignment night in night out, he can hoop, he nice, but then he’s slick, man,” Paul said in January. “He just got a great spirit about him. Been around a lot of guys in this league over the years, and he’s one of the best guys I think I’ve ever been around.”

A strong friendship has formed between Bridges, 24, and Johnson, 25. Bridges said they connected over the fact they were both upperclassmen entering the draft with similar unselfish playing styles. Crowder said they’re like brothers. “They work out together before and after practice. They watch film together. You rarely ever see one without the other in the hotel,” Crowder said. “They love each other, man. That’s big for our group. That’s big for them to grow together.”

Bridges and Johnson often ask Crowder questions about what it takes for a team to thrive in the playoffs. Crowder has missed the playoffs in only the first season of his nine-year career, and he said he shares details about the intensity level, the types of specific adjustments defenses make, and the pure grind of maintaining your body for a deep playoff run. “You have to get that experience and jump in that fire to really understand,” Crowder said. “But I’m trying to prepare them as best as possible so we can be ready when the playoffs are here.”

No matter how high hopes are for the Suns, a draft night decision will always loom over the franchise. Months before Jones took over, Phoenix selected Ayton no. 1, ahead of Luka Doncic. I asked Ayton if he uses the talk that the Suns made the wrong decision as fuel. “No. I love my situation in Phoenix,” Ayton said. “At the end of the day, I only worry about controlling what I can control.”

I asked the 22-year-old what led him to such a mature mindset. Ayton’s answer was simple: his 25-game suspension last season for taking a banned diuretic.

“I let my team down. I got bombarded and destroyed by the internet. And you know what, I deserved that,” Ayton told me. “I thought, ‘Who am I to say I’m a certain way when I didn’t prove it?’ So I felt motivated to go out there and fix my name, to find myself, and show who I really am. That suspension felt like the bottom of the pit. Then professionalism hit me. I knew I wasn’t gonna cheat myself. I worked harder and harder. I didn’t care if I wasn’t playing, I wanted to get better. I was locked in. I was in the pen for 25 games and came out an OG.”

Phoenix’s structure is important for Ayton. He didn’t start playing basketball until he was 12 years old. Growing up in the Bahamas, he played soccer and tuba until he moved to San Diego in seventh grade to get a free education and pursue a basketball career. He lived, at various times, with a coach, a host family, and the school director. The Suns aim to provide a similar kind of support system, with ex-player mentors in Williams and Jones and a roster that helps him through ups and downs.

“DA’s teammates know they can give him the juice. He’s a kid who needs the affirmation; most people do need it since it can help push you, even if we don’t want to admit it,” Williams said. “DA gets a lot of flack from the public. There are narratives around his name because of the guys drafted around him. But when he makes a dynamic play on either end of the floor, to see our bench cheer and go nuts says a lot about the growth of our team chemistry, and also the growth of Deandre to produce in big situations.”

A late February game against the Bulls served as a perfect example for what happens when Ayton activates beast mode.

He checked in with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter, down four points, and ended up checking out with 1:02 remaining and the Suns up 13 points. In that seven-minute stretch, Ayton had eight points, three blocks, plus one steal, one assist, and one rebound. He made multiple massive plays on both ends of the floor, throwing down lobs, switching onto guards, and protecting the paint.

But the Suns don’t need that kind of scoring every night from Ayton. Booker and Paul are the offensive engines. Ayton’s responsibilities are simple: anchor the defense, rebound, make smart passes, finish inside, and screen for Paul.

This season, Paul and Ayton have paired up to run a pick-and-roll more than any other combination in the league. It’s a centerpiece of Phoenix’s offense, and it’s led to plenty of buckets for everyone.

But the ball doesn’t usually end up with Ayton. Often, he’ll roll hard down the lane to force defenses to rotate to stop a lob. He’s averaging just 14.6 points on 10.5 shots per game, both career lows.

“The answer to being a good basketball player isn’t always to do it more, to be more committed to it, to do it harder. You can run the risk of turning into someone who’s so obsessive it becomes extreme selfishness. So, you have to be obsessive, but you also have to have a level of awareness,” Jones told me, referring to young players in general. “Not everyone is LeBron or Steph. You should aspire to be those types of guys, but the awareness will allow you to say, ‘OK, I’m not that guy, I’m someone else. My game isn’t on that level now. This is my game, so this is how I fit in and this is what I need to do for the team to be successful and for me to be successful.’ You have to accept that.”

I read Ayton a few lines from the above quote from Jones and he cracked up laughing before I could finish. “That sounds just like James,” Ayton said. “And I know our team. I’m surrounded by shooters, and CP and Book. It’s not gonna be like last year when I have to score. I am learning different ways to eat.”

A new offensive diet has required a ton of sacrifice. Ayton isn’t scoring a lot of points, but he’s posting a career-high 62.7 percent true shooting. He isn’t logging a ton of assists, but he’s setting bone-crushing screens to aid his All-Star backcourt. And most importantly, he’s playing the best defense of his life.

In the past three years, Ayton has become a more consistent and effective defender by progressively improving at reading plays and using strong positioning to alter shots. He blocks only 1.1 shots per game, but the plays above are good examples of why a defender doesn’t need to get a hand on the ball to make an impact. Ayton has become rock solid at being a presence inside with his rim protection, box-outs, and rebounds.

“I just needed more experience,” Ayton said. “College is so much more one-dimensional. There’s a learning curve in the NBA. Especially when there’s rotation on defense, the ball is moving around, and you have to scramble around to figure out where you’re going while thinking about where to send the dude on the drive. And you might be fatigued at the end of a long stretch on the floor. It takes time for young players, for real. But I think I learned it pretty quickly to use my size and length to my advantage.”

Ayton is learning how to use his feet, too. Recently, the Suns have had their centers, Ayton and Saric, play up higher on pick-and-rolls to pressure the ball handler instead of dropping to the paint to invite perimeter jumpers. Saric is as steady as it gets off the bench on both ends of the floor, and he’s performed well defending on the perimeter. But now the Suns also want Ayton, a true big, switching screens just like Bam Adebayo did for the Heat and Anthony Davis did for the Lakers to lead their teams to the NBA Finals.

Ayton has done a consistently good job switching against speedy guards like Bulls guard Coby White. But results have been mixed against herky-jerky playmakers. He’s locked up Luka on multiple occasions, but got smoked late in games by LaMelo Ball and James Harden. Then again, most defenders struggle against that caliber of offensive player. For all the knocks on Ayton’s defense prior to the draft, there was no denying his upside as a switchable big.

Nowadays, though, it’s not just guards who can drain 3s and draw defenders outside. The 284-pound Nikola Jokic plays point guard for the Nuggets. Lately, the Pelicans have had Zion Williamson run a ton of pick-and-roll. Teams like the Nets use a 6-foot-4 guard, Bruce Brown, as a center on offense. All bigs, including Ayton, are being forced to adapt.

“The NBA is a trendy world. The fear of the 3-point shot has changed the way we look at everything on defense. We’re starting to rethink some of the things we want to do to protect the paint,” Williams told me. “The evolution of the game is forcing big men to play more like guards. DA gives us the ability against some people to switch and guard guys. Sometimes he gets a lot of blame when a guard drives right by him, but we feel he has the ability.”

Ayton is still figuring it out, which is unsurprising. Luka was in the professional pipeline before he hit his teenage years. Ayton, on the other hand, didn’t play elite competition until his latter years in high school. Ayton’s level of production today is quite an achievement, and he should keep improving.

“With Deandre’s progression, eventually he will expand his game,” Jones said. “He came into the league as an outside-in player, a guy that predominantly shot elbow jumpers and midrange jumpers, because in college the paint is packed and there aren’t very many opportunities there. But for us, he had to start inside out. We’re spreading the floor, so we want him to feast down low, become an elite paint interior finisher. Then, once he’s demonstrated that, we can expand it. But you have to go slow. What we forget is if he trends the way we hope he trends, he’ll be in this league for 15 years. That’s plenty of time to advance your game to the perimeter. But someone has to be able to be a force down low for us today.”

Jones says he focuses on the present, but it’s clear he has his eyes on the future. Though most of the rotation is younger than 27 years old, the team’s oldest player is arguably their best. Paul will be 36 in May, and he has a player option worth $44.2 million for the 2021-22 season. With Ayton and Bridges set to become restricted free agents in 2022, re-signing all of them would push the Suns into the luxury tax, not to mention require dropping big money for an aging point guard. Paul has proved doubters wrong after his departure from Houston with back-to-back All-Star seasons, but his timeline may not align with the rest of the core’s.

“The succession plan for Chris Paul could be Chris Paul. It could be him for the next X amount of years. You never know to what level great players will respond as they age, but they often find a way to figure it out,” Jones said. “It’s really easy to look past where you currently are and to look so far forward that you forget that you’re in the moment. How our team plays, how we manage his minutes, and how our team manages the load of the season will greatly impact what this team looks like going forward. I’ve just taken the stance that when that moment comes, our team will be ready to withstand whatever changes we have to make.”

Unlike some point guards who struggle to adapt to diminishing athleticism, Paul has a style built to last, using pace, deceptive moves, and his mind to direct the offense. Paul is so great in the 16th season of his career that there’s plenty of space for him to get worse and still be a very good player.

“I was telling the guys in the locker room that I don’t know if I can ever retire because the emotional roller coaster that you go on during a game—like for real, for real—there’s no high like that,” Paul said after he hit Booker for a game-winning 3 against the Mavs.

The Suns hope for more thrilling moments with this core, but not all stories have happy endings, and Phoenix has fallen from great heights before. Under Sarver’s watch, the Suns have gone from the revolutionary Seven Seconds or Less era to one of the worst franchises in the league. Along the way, Sarver has been blamed for selling first-round picks and accused of heckling his own players. Ex-Suns have ripped him publicly. Billboards calling for him to sell the team hung all around downtown Phoenix.

There have been signs of progress, including a new $45 million practice facility privately financed by the Suns that Ayton described as “amazing” because of the amenities and the technology the team uses to gather data. The Suns also took on Paul’s onerous contract, though the organization furloughed about 10 percent of its employees the same week. Clearly, not everything has been perfect in Phoenix. But the changes they’ve made, including hiring Jones and Williams, have the team on the right track again.

“There’s an expectation in this league that players, coaches, and teams should improve. When it happens, we acknowledge it,” Jones said. “But when you have someone like Robert Sarver, who has grown and shown growth, privately and publicly, it’s tough for people to acknowledge because they don’t want to. I find it odd how tough it is for people to acknowledge that a team owner has grown. You could look at the things people say, but if you look at the things he’s done, you can’t draw any other conclusions besides he’s committed to winning and making Phoenix all it can be.”

Right now, the Suns are winning more than they have in a long time. Soon, they will snap a decade-long playoff-less streak. Perception of the franchise has already changed. The goat story seems like ancient history because of the structure Jones has built in the past two years. The challenge now is to keep getting better to set up for an even brighter future.



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