LOS ANGELES — Last season, the Suns were the 64-win championship favorite in April, until they weren’t in May.
By the time predictions for this coming season rolled around in October, the Suns were almost an afterthought. Not bad, but barely discussed.
That was a mistake — watching the Suns in person, it quickly becomes clear this team is a title contender. This season. Again.
Just ask the Warriors, who fell to the Suns on Tuesday night, 134-105.
Phoenix has its superstar in Devin Booker, whose numbers from the first week of the season — 32.5 points per game while shooting 48% from 3 — show him taking a step forward from his All-NBA level a year ago. The Suns also have a high-level two-way center in Deandre Ayton, athleticism with shooting and defense on the wing in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, good depth off the bench, plus arguably the highest basketball IQ player in the game at this point in Chris Paul to tie it all together.
This year’s Suns remind anyone who watches them of the 64-win team we saw last season.
So why is every preseason prediction down on them?
Maybe it’s because the historic, embarrassing blowout that ended last season for the Suns is burned into our memory. The team’s 33-point destruction — at home in a conference semifinals Game 7 — at the hands of the Mavericks was even worse than the final score indicated.
The Suns remember that loss, too.
“[Booker] and Chris worked out a lot this summer…” coach Monty Williams said. “But I think we all still feel the pain of the way we went out. And that can drive you. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win it, but it certainly will motivate you to work on things you need to work on and address things you need to address.”
“I think it definitely motivates us,” Paul added.
“We also understand how important but unimportant these [regular-season] games are. You know what I mean? We understand it’s about building — 60-something wins last year don’t mean nothing. So right now we just try not to get too high, not get too low. Keep building.”
That building has started on the defensive end. It’s early, but the Suns have a top-five defense in the league to open the season. This follows the pattern of the past two years, when the Suns had top-10 defenses, and it’s not hard to see why. They have a strong perimeter defender in Bridges, athleticism all over the court, CP3 is still solid at his position and can create some steals, and there is a solid rim protector in Ayton backing him up.
Booker used to be the easy target for his defense, but he put in the work on that end. The best evidence is in his improvement in defensive estimated plus/minus (there is no great, public defensive statistic, but the EPM at Dunks & Threes is the one people in NBA front offices say may be the best of the lot). Booker was a minus defender most of his career by this stat, but steadily improved, and last season was +.03 — basically a neutral defender.
Or, ask Klay Thompson how Booker has improved as a defender — Thompson was 1-of-8 shooting against the Suns on Tuesday — and knew how to get under his skin and get Thompson ejected for the first time in his career.
Klay has been ejected from the game 😬 pic.twitter.com/oqN2WyB7Uq
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) October 26, 2022
Booker remains the spark on offense, putting up monster numbers to open the season.
“I think he’s not just a special player, but he’s an elite competitor,” Williams said of Booker. “I’ve never seen him back down from anyone, any situation. And that’s what impresses me just as much as the scoring and the defensive plays that he makes.”
The Suns’ offense overall is still a work in progress. The halfcourt offense was pedestrian the first couple of games but has improved, and the Suns play at one of the slowest paces in the league (as is traditional with Chris Paul teams). The ball is moving in the half court, the Suns are second in the league in assisted field goals, but they aren’t consistently finishing at a high level. Outside of Booker, the offense feels solid so far but not necessarily elite.
Maybe that’s the other reason we all slept on the Suns.
Every time we heard about Phoenix during the summer, it concerned the indiscretions of owner Robert Sarver (who will now sell the team). While much of the rest of the West upgraded rosters, the Suns stood pat and bet on internal growth. So far, that internal growth is only showing up in moments.
Williams wants his team now to focus on that growth, on building good habits over the course of the season now that will prevent a blowout loss in the playoffs. Williams is comfortable with the work his players put in over the summer, but it’s time for them to move on from last season’s pain.
“You let it go for sure,” Williams said of last year’s playoff exit. “Because once the season starts, it’s a new deal. But the summer is hard. You live in that kind of hurt and whatever that is. It can motivate you to work your tail off even more than you already would have.
“But once the season starts, it’s like, OK, there’s new challenges. But I bet everybody that was in that locker room [who is] in our locker room now dealt with that. Thought about it all summer… Once you start the season, then you have new challenges and different teams that are coming into your head, but it can be a great motivator for some.”
Ayton put it more bluntly.
“I’m not talking about last year, only this year,” he said after his Suns beat the Clippers.
Four games into the season, the Suns sit at 3-1 (their only loss in the last seconds to red-hot Portland). Quietly, this team is motivated to prove last season’s ending was an anomaly. That one bad game is not a symptom of something bigger.
However, the real test can’t happen until the postseason. The Suns understand that and are building toward that moment.
Until then, sleep on the Suns at your own peril.