Coming into the season, the Phoenix Suns were ready to move on from their embarrassing Game 7 loss to Luka Doncic and the Mavericks in the second round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs. But who could forget this picture that has turned into a viral meme?
There was drama in the off-season as reports revealed that the Suns and big man Deandre Ayton were at odds following last season's second-round exit. But, ultimately (or at least for the time being), the Suns and Ayton worked through their differences as Ayton signed a four-year $133 million extension before the season.
Even with Chris Paul missing 10 games earlier in the season, the Suns managed to win 19 of their first 31 games. It felt like the Suns were in a perfect position in a Western Conference without a dominant team. That was until their All-Star and best player, Devin Booker, went down initially with a groin strain and missed two games vs. the Pelicans on Dec. 11 and Dec. 13 vs. the Rockets.
Booker came back vs. the Clippers and the Pelicans on Dec. 15 and 17. In the Pelicans game, he put up a season-high 58 points in a comeback win, but they would prove costly. Since that game, Booker has only played four minutes which came on Christmas day vs. the Nuggets. Booker is now out for at least four weeks.
INJURY UPDATE: Further evaluation has confirmed that Devin Booker has sustained a left groin strain. He will be re-evaluated in four weeks.— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) December 28, 2022
The Suns are 1-9 in their last 10 games after a fourth quarter where they could only muster 19 points in a loss to the Cavaliers. Does the Sun's recent struggle start and stop with Booker's injury? It is a big reason they have struggled, but it isn't the only reason.
Chris Paul has played well, but it hasn't been enough.
Of course, any team that loses a player like Devin Booker will struggle to maintain the same pace they were performing at, but it goes deeper than that for the Suns. Chris Paul had played in every game Booker recently missed up until last night's loss. Paul had never been the type of player to go out and score 30 points a game, even in his prime, but when needed, he could completely dominate a game in different ways.
That isn't the case this season, and it is more evident now that Booker has been out of the lineup. Let me put this disclaimer out first about CP3. He is not playing poorly for the last ten games without Booker. His overall field goal percentage and three-point percentage have actually gone up during this time, and he is averaging a point more per game at over 14 per game after averaging 13 a game before the last ten games. The issue is that it will not be nearly enough for the Suns to turn it around.
When you lose 27.1 points a game like the Suns did when they lost Booker, you need your second-best player to take up most of that slack, and Paul is at the stage of his career where that will prove to be a difficult task. As I mentioned, Paul has never been known to be a high-volume scorer, especially not in his, which is precisely what they need right now.
The 13.1 points Paul is averaging on the season is currently a career low for the future Hall of Famer. As a result, the Suns need their secondary players to step up because Paul cannot shoulder the load alone.
Some of the role players have stepped up, but more is needed
Players like Ayton and Landry Shamet have stepped up their games in Booker's absence. Ayton went from 17.5 to 18.4 in the last ten games, and his rebounding went up from 9.8 to 10.6, which were his season averages. Again like Paul not bad, but when you make over 30 million a year, more is expected of you.
Shamet has probably had the most significant jump from 9.6 points per game up to 17 and from under 40 percent in the 3-point range to 41.5 percent on over nine attempts per game during this timeframe.
The player who has regressed with Booker out is Mikal Bridges. His scoring is down the last ten games from 15.4 on the season to 12.6, and his three-point shooting dropped from 39.2 to 35.9. Bridges bring you defensive stability no matter who he is on the court with, but in the case of Ayton and Paul, he is not the type of player who can consistently get his own shot and depends on Booker to get them open shots. Coming into last night's game, Bridges was 9-36 from the field but did bounce back last night, going 7 for 10 in the loss.
The Suns, on the season, are averaging 112.7 points a game which is about the middle of the pack. However, in the last ten games, they are dead last in points per game at 103.1, even behind the Houston Rockets.
Therein lies the problem. As a whole, the Suns are still an excellent team. With Booker, they have a dynamic offense and can play with any team in the league. But, without Booker, they struggle to make shots, especially in the fourth quarter. This is strange, considering they were the most clutch regular-season team in the league last year—actually, one of the most clutch regular-season teams of all time.
The Suns will need someone to not just play better with Booker out but take their game to the next level or, in Paul's case, turn back the clock. If not, this season will get a lot worse for the Suns as they wait for the return of Devin Booker.