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Why it’s OK to get excited about the Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker are finally leading the Suns out of the darkness.

Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker of the Suns.
Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker lead the new-look Suns.

Over the past five years no team has lost more games than the Phoenix Suns. They made zero playoff appearances, held zero all-stars, paid five head coaches, and, under one culturally pestilent owner, endured constant front office disruption.

They’ve been a categorical embarrassment, rudderless and dysfunctional. A sad Mountain-Time parallel for the New York Knicks, fixed in a smaller market with fewer fans. Pivoting away from that sludgy existence towards a normal NBA life can’t happen overnight, but this year’s Suns have taken enough steps towards competence to legitimize rose-colored glasses going forward. There’s an actual on-court identity being molded around an exciting young core that’s talented enough to walk along a similar path that the Denver Nuggets followed four years ago.

The last couple weeks would suggest otherwise. Phoenix is 2-5 since the NBA All-Star Game break, with humbling losses against the Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, and a depleted Toronto Raptors team that was forced to play Pascal Siakam at center. Kelly Oubre — their third-leading scorer — recently tore his meniscus. After starting strong, with a 48 percent chance to make the playoffs back on Dec. 11, the Suns are once again lottery bound. Long and short-term optimism isn’t hard to find, though. This remains a rebuilding franchise, but they no longer feel hopeless. They rank 15th in net rating, a seismic jump for an organization that had a bottom-three offense and defense in each of the last two seasons. Respectability is right around the corner.

Devin Booker is 23 years old and already one of the league’s 10 most reliable offensive engines. In just his second season, Deandre Ayton looks more like a two-way franchise center every week. Last year, the Suns performed like a 21-win team with Ayton on the court. Today they’re up to 43, per Cleaning the Glass. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Oubre are a complementary young wing trio who will alter the entire franchise’s trajectory if their three-point shooting is real. Ricky Rubio is the stabilizing connective tissue the Suns have desperately needed for years, and when he shares the floor with Ayton and Booker they have the same net rating as the Los Angeles Lakers. This is a pretty big deal.

Five of the six names listed above are under contract through at least 2022. (Oubre can be a free agent next summer.) Remove the 29-year-old Rubio from the equation and all of them are under 25. Before Oubre went down, their starting lineup was +92 in 226 minutes.

They have a lot of work to do to sustain this type of success over 82 games, but signs of progress are inarguable. Moves that were panned over the summer have propelled them in unexpected ways. The decision to trade T.J. Warren for cash was properly criticized. Warren has been sensational for the Indiana Pacers. But even if the Suns didn’t extract proper value for their asset, freeing meaningful minutes up for Bridges, Oubre, and Johnson, while giving Booker and Ayton the touches they need to stay happy has helped in ways we’ll probably never be able to quantify.

Warren’s score-first-second-and-third mentality could’ve also been awkward in Phoenix’s new quick-twitch offensive system that was shaped by Monty William’s time with the San Antonio Spurs. It asks players to shoot, pass, or drive as soon as they touch the ball (ideally within half a second). When stagnant, Williams’ voice will boom from the sideline, imploring his team to move.

It’s a contagious selflessness that forces all five players to read the same sheet of music, a tricky proposition that the Suns have made work. They lead the league in assist rate and distribute 26.81 assists per 100 possessions. In the last 10 years, only nine teams top that number; five of them are the Warriors. They don’t lean into high pick-and-rolls — for the best, since they turn it over a ton when they do — and rank 29th in isolation frequency. Only the Miami Heat average more cuts per game. Sequential plays like this help illustrate why:

Here’s another example that ends in Bridges crashing in from the corner at the exact right time.

In hindsight, their possessions cruise along a checklist. Ayton’s post-up leads to Booker’s cut, which momentarily drags Patrick McCaw a step into the paint and out of position, which lets Rubio beat him off the dribble, which forces Norm Powell to stop the ball and leave Dario Saric open underneath the rim.

The philosophy has been embraced like a breath of fresh air, but wouldn’t be possible without Rubio. When he’s on the court Phoenix moves the ball like Golden State’s 73-win team.

“He’s the catalyst to it all,” Williams said. “We have a 0.5 style of basketball but Ricky’s just been so good at making other guys comfortable on the floor, giving them the ball where they can be efficient ... that stuff is really important and not many guards can do it the way Ricky does.”

His ingenuity helps the machine hum along, but even when things break down he throws passes nobody else would even think about, let alone be bold enough to try:

Rubio raises the floor everywhere he goes. That’s a noble career path, but there’s no evidence of him being the player who can take Phoenix from good to great. Far more integral to Phoenix’s future is Ayton, who is not as good as early-Orlando Magic Shaquille O’Neal, but is putting up numbers that haven’t been seen by a 21-year-old since.

Ayton’s offensive game is a work in progress. He’s not particularly efficient out of the post and isn’t nearly as dominant around the rim as his ripped physique indicates he should be. When he’s not shooting 16 footers as if the ball was smeared with lava, every so often there are glimpses of a confident, deft, game-changing presence. Here he is challenging the best defender at his position without hesitation, changing hands on the backdown before a soft finish over his left shoulder.

Phoenix’s offense has been league average with Ayton on the floor — which is massive considering only two teams were less efficient when he played last season — but it’s the other end where progress is even more consequential. The Suns were a tire fire last year, largely because Ayton (understandably) had no idea what he was doing. Today they’re, again, about league average. Ayton is far from perfect, but his improvements are meaningful enough to alter long-term expectations, particularly when switched onto a wing or smaller forward:

There are positional issues and missteps when roaming on the weak side (on Tuesday, Toronto rarely attacked Ayton in a pick-and-roll, and instead turned him into a help defender who had to worry about three-point shooters), but he’s starting to make better use of his size without fouling.

The path to a title doesn’t exist unless Ayton at least delivers a solid B on defense for 30-plus minutes every night. That didn’t seem possible six months ago. Sooner than later it will be an assumption.

Also important: his on-court relationship with Booker, who still isn’t an average defender by and large but has become a star worth building around. The fact that he and Ayton are two building blocks who play different positions and thrive in different spots on the court is a significant break. (Look at the Philadelphia 76ers: team building, even with multiple lottery picks, isn’t always clean.)

But it wouldn’t hurt if the two developed more pick-and-roll chemistry. They aren’t ineffective as is, but their synergy in that action has the potential to one day break the brain of every coach who gameplans to slow it down. Between Ayton’s room for improvement popping behind the three-point line — while providing more panic on a hard roll than any center in the league — and Booker’s craft, touch, and vision, it’s unclear how this can be stopped.

Rubio’s inability to space the floor prevents Booker and Ayton from running pick-and-rolls as frequently as they eventually will — when they do, defenses typically trap Booker and force Ayton to browse through a 4-on-3 advantage. But not capitalizing on it in a playoff series, when defenses inevitably sniff out their primary actions, would be problematic.

As natural spacers, Johnson and Bridges were particularly hand-crafted to help those two and thrive in this era; each is starting to do more than knock down open threes from the corner. Bridges will pick opposing point guards up full court, then defend their top scorer on the wing, his spindly arms a nuisance on the ball and in passing lanes.

Phoenix’s decision to use the 11th overall pick on Johnson, who turned 24 this week and might’ve been available in the second round, was met with laughter. On draft night, it was funny. But he’s already making 40 percent of his 4.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game. In actual game he’s a functional contributor who’s attacking closeouts and using his gravity in smart ways.

Fully developed, this core can be a cut-glass chandelier, brimming with enough talent to someday resemble a plucky contender. Of course, none of that’s possible without tangible progress, which requires patience, time, and luck. Assuming the momentum gathered this year carries over, and Phoenix is able to dangle Booker, Ayton, and their considerate playing style to prospective free agents we might be looking at a lurking giant.

This summer they may want to add pieces that aren’t on their two franchise players’ timeline, players who can help sustain their momentum and foster development without stunting anybody’s growth If acquired at a reasonable price, best-case scenario signings at power forward could be Paul Millsap, Danilo Gallinari, or Serge Ibaka. Maybe they kick the tires on Kevin Love or Al Horford. Retaining Dario Saric is always an option, but his instinctual passing has yet to overcome the downside on defense. Elsewhere, Marvin Williams, JaMychal Green, and Jae Crowder may be available.

If they instead prioritize a backup point guard: Goran Dragic or D.J. Augustin could work. Kris Dunn would be a fascinating addition. And if they preserve cap space, Phoenix should be able to afford a max player in 2021. Cracking the playoffs next season would make them a sneaky-legitimate free agent suitor the following summer. If their lottery pick in this year’s draft is able to contribute right away, all the better.