The 2021 Phoenix Suns: One of the best in the West?

Through 23 games in the 2020-2021 NBA season, the Phoenix Suns sit at 14-9, good for fourth in the Western Conference.  Coming off their undefeated 8-0 record in the bubble, the Suns realized they can compete in the West with a few upgrades.

Acquiring Chris Paul and signing Jae Crowder has given the team improved defense and a true veteran presence. Phoenix looked like one of the best teams in the NBA for the first two weeks of the season when they started 6-2. With quality wins over some of the West’s top contenders in Utah, Dallas, and Denver, the Suns were making some noise. 

After their hot start, the Suns started to fall off a little as they lost six of their next eight games. It started to look similar to last season’s hot start and collapse, where Phoenix started the season 6-3. A month and a half later, they were sitting at 11-20, but keep in mind that was without Deandre Ayton who was serving his 25 game suspension.

This season’s team is a whole new story. Due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, the Suns had three straight games postponed in mid-January and didn’t play for a whole week. But since Phoenix was 8-8, they won six of their next seven games. 

One of the biggest stories of the NBA bubble, the Suns brought their momentum into this season as they are led by one of the league’s best backcourts in Paul and Devin Booker. Even though Booker’s points per game average has dropped a little bit from last season (26.6 to 23.5), he has still been leading Phoenix to wins. Booker is one of the best scorers in the NBA and has been the biggest factor in the Suns’ 14-9 record this season.

Paul, who was acquired by Phoenix back in November, has also been an integral part in Phoenix’s success. Even at 35, “CP3” has been playing great basketball as he gives the team an elite playmaker, plus defender, and clutch player. Although Ricky Rubio was a terrific playmaker and solid defender last season, Paul has been a major upgrade so far. He (Paul) is averaging just over 16 points and eight assists per game (which ranks fifth in the league). 

Player Development 

Another huge reason for the Suns’ success has been the young 3-and-D wing Mikal Bridges. The Kelly Oubre Jr. trade opened up the door for the 24-year-old to be the Suns’ starting small forward. The third-year wing out of Villanova broke out in the bubble with Oubre sidelined and he has definitely carried that momentum into this season. Averaging over 14 points and five rebounds a game, Bridges has been one of the NBA’s most improved players so far.

His offensive game has been very efficient as he shoots just under 50% from the field and with his 38% from beyond the arc, he is a threat from anywhere. While he has been great on the offensive side, Bridges’ most valuable asset is his defense. He has been guarding the opposing team’s top wing game in and game out with exceptional defense. The Suns definitely got a steal when they acquired Mikal Bridges on draft day in 2018. 

One of the most mysterious players on the Suns is Deandre Ayton. The No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft has been solid for Phoenix, yet fans still wonder what they would look like right now if they had drafted Luka Doncic or Trae Young instead. After acquiring Paul, many expected Ayton to make a huge leap to become one of the NBA’s top centers. This season, Ayton is averaging 14 points and 13 rebounds a game on 57% from the field.

His 6’11”, 250-lb frame creates a huge presence in the paint, yet he doesn’t always use it to his advantage. At times when Ayton should back down in the post for a layup or a dunk, he takes a tougher shot and fades away. As the season goes on, many Suns fans will be looking to see an aggressive Ayton and are hoping Paul can unlock his potential. His defense has improved mightily though as he is often switching onto guards and effectively guarding them on the perimeter. 

Veteran Presence + Depth

The last piece in the Suns’ starting lineup is a new change. Jae Crowder started most of the games early in the season, but after their slide, coach Monty Williams moved Cameron Johnson into the starting power forward spot. Johnson, the No. 11 pick the 2019 draft, proved doubters wrong after his rookie year. Looked at as just a three-point specialist, he improved throughout his rookie season offensively as he started to drive towards the hoop more and play more effective defense. Johnson is shooting 36% from behind the arc this season on around six attempts per game, and he is averaging 11 points per game. 

The best teams in the league have depth throughout their whole team, and Phoenix has a very solid bench. When all healthy and active, their second unit can be a problem for opposing teams. Cameron Payne revived his career in the bubble, Jevon Carter can come in and provide great defense, and Langston Galloway can give some solid minutes with his scoring.

Bringing back Frank Kaminsky was a good move as the team really needed some depth behind Ayton, and Dario Saric can bring scoring and playmaking as a big off the bench. Many of these players have been limited this season due to COVID-19 protocols, but once this team is at full strength, they will be a threat come playoff time. 

Closing Time

The end of games has proven tough so far for Phoenix. They have lost too many close games they should have won, yet they are still 14-9. In nine games decided by five points or less, the Suns are 3-6. With Paul and Booker on the team, they should be doing much better in crunch time. Yes, Booker had his phenomenal game-winning three against the Mavericks back on February 1, but they will need to perform better at the end of games to compete with the top teams in the league. 

The Suns are only ranked 23rd in the league in scoring with just under 110 points per game, but they have been winning games due to their defense. Phoenix ranks fourth in the league in points allowed, giving up 107 points per game. With players like Paul, Bridges, Crowder, and Ayton, this Suns defense can be tough to go up against. They are ranked in the top ten in both field goal and three point percentage allowed, and if they can keep up the ferocious defense, this Phoenix team can be even more scary. 

Monty Williams has done a great job of leading this Suns team so far. If they continue this success, he will be a candidate for Coach of the Year. At 14-9, Phoenix has been living up to preseason expectations and more as the “Valley” era is underway. Fans can now see them play in person as of February 8, and all of Arizona is very excited to watch them play. There is a lot of season left, but the Suns are looking like they will make the postseason for the first time since 2010. 

Everyone please give Bobby a warm welcome to the team and be sure to follow him on twitter: @BobbyMurphy2000.

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