The Phoenix Suns are going to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. After a decade of disaster, we are finally back. One of my biggest fears is that now that the Suns finally made the playoffs again, it will just be for one fleeting first-round exit. This is certainly possible, but the 2020-21 Suns have the second-best record in the NBA, and they also have the potential to do some real damage in the postseason. Are they legitimate contenders to win the championship, though?
Few people have taken the Suns as seriously as teams beneath them in the standings like the Lakers and Clippers because of their lack of postseason experience. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Jevon Carter have played a combined 0 minutes in the NBA playoffs. Others have poked holes in the Suns’ resume by looking at specific weaknesses the team has. In an attempt to determine which criticisms are valid, I looked at every championship team over the last 20 seasons to find what they have in common. People say things like “defense wins championships”, “no rebounds no rings”, or “Live by the 3, die by the 3.”, but is that actually true? Let’s find out.
Simple Rating System
Of all the metrics I looked at, the one that seems to be the most important for championship teams is Simple Rating System. This is a team stat created by basketball reference which looks at every team’s scoring margin and also its strength of schedule. For most of the metrics I’ve studied, I went back twenty years, since some are limited in how far back they are available.
Simple Rating System, however, can be found for every season in NBA history. Every championship team in the last nine years was in the top four of SRS. In the last twenty years, they were each top eight, and if you go all the way back to the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, there has only been one champion outside of the top ten- the 1994-95 Rockets who were 11th. The Suns rank 3rd in SRS, which is a sign they are among the elite teams and legitimate contenders.
Effective Field Goal Percentage
Another team statistic that has correlated very strongly with title-winning teams is Effective Field Goal Percentage. 18 of the last 20 championship teams had a top-6 EFg% during the regular season, including each of the last 10 champions. The only exceptions were the 2010 Lakers (15th) and the 2004 Pistons (20th). Effective Field Goal Percentage measures how efficient a team scores on shots from the field.
It has a stronger correlation with the teams that have won the title than other offensive metrics like True Shooting Percentage and Offensive Rating, and unlike those, it does not account for the points a team generates from Free Throws. This tells me it is important for a championship team to be able to score efficiently without completely relying on getting to the line.
The 2020-21 Suns rank 3rd in the NBA in Effective Field Goal Percentage. This puts them in the range that nearly every title-winning team has been in. The other teams in the top-6 are the Nets, Bucks, Clippers, Jazz, and Nuggets. Some notable teams that are not in the top-6 this year are the 76ers (14th) and the Lakers (18th). The Lakers can make the excuse that their two superstars have missed significant time. That being said, they still only ranked 8th during the time before the injuries. This doesn’t mean those teams can’t win the championship this year, but they would be breaking one of the most consistent trends I have seen when studying the past 20 champions.
Free Throw Attempt Rate
This year’s Suns are one of the worst teams in the league in terms of getting to the line, which some people have seen as a weakness. That should not, however, be a reason to doubt their ability to compete for a title. The championship teams of the last 20 years varied greatly in Free Throw Attempt Rate. 9 teams of those 20 ranked in the 1-10 range, 6 ranked in the 11-20 range, and 5 ranked in the 21-30 range.
A team does not need to excel at drawing fouls to win the championship. The 2014 Spurs won it while being last in the league in FTA Rate. Based on past champions, we can safely say that there isn’t much correlation between how much a team gets to the line and their chances of winning a title. The fact that the Suns rank 29th in FTA rate is no reason to doubt their contender status.
Another common trope is that “defense wins championships”. That does tend to be true. In the last 20 years, 18 of the championship teams were in the top-10 of Defensive Rating, and 13 of them were in the top-6. The Suns rank 6th in DRtg, which helps on their resume to be true contenders.
The one supposed contender outside of the top-10 this year is the Brooklyn Nets. They rank 22nd in the league in Defensive Rating. If they won the title this year, they would be one of the worst defensive teams ever to win it. In the last 20 years, the worst defenses for a title winner were the 2001 Lakers (22nd) and the 2018 Warriors (11th).
Pat Riley, one of the winningest people in NBA history, coined the phrase, “No rebounds, no rings”. This might be a concern for some Suns fans, given that Phoenix has been a very mediocre rebounding team this year. When measuring rebounding, isolating Offensive and Defensive Rebound Percentage is more effective than overall Rebound Percentage. The Suns rank 11th in the NBA in Defensive and 25th in Offensive. While Riley’s phrase insinuates that the ability to win a championship is dependent on good rebounding, history has not shown that to be true.
The Defensive Rebounding Percentage of the last 20 years’ champions ranges all over the board. In fact, four of the last eight championships ranked in the bottom four in the NBA in defensive rebounding. Offensive rebounding is also not necessary to win a championship, in fact, it might even be detrimental to focus too much on the O-boards. Only six champions of the last twenty years ranked in the top ten of Offensive Rebound Percentage. Six of the last decade’s champions even ranked in the bottom ten. All this is not to say that it is bad to rebound well, but rather that rebounding well is by no means a requirement to winning a title. Suns fans can rest easy in this regard.
Having an All-NBA 1st Team Player
To win a championship, teams don’t just need lots of talent, they need to have a player among the absolute best in the league. In the last twenty years, nineteen of the champions had a player on their roster who made All-NBA 1st team at least once in the 3 seasons prior to the title. On the Suns, Chris Paul has been selected to that elite group 4 times in his career, but not in any of the previous 3 seasons.
His last year making All-NBA 1st Team was the 2013-14 season. The only team to win the championship without an All-NBA 1st team player from the last 3 years, is the 2003-04 Pistons. However, if you go back further, there have been four teams to do this since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. This is certainly a strike against the Suns, but it does not completely disqualify them.
Have won a playoff series in the previous year
Teams generally don’t go from being a first-round exit one year to winning the title the next. It has happened a few times, however. Five teams since 1977 have won the championship without having won a playoff series the year before, but four of those five have been in the last thirteen years.
There is no perfect way to quantify a team’s playoff experience. Winning a playoff series the year before is the simplest criterion I could come up with, but really a more nuanced approach is better. Kellan Olsen of Arizona Sports did just that in an article a few months ago which gives a detailed look at past successful teams with little playoff experience. While it is important to look at each case individually, there is still a correlation between championship teams and my simple question of have they won a playoff series the year before. Unfortunately, the Suns do not meet this standard.
For those keeping track at home, I have confirmed five benchmarks that nearly all championship teams check off, and have debunked two criteria as necessities to win it all. The Suns qualify on three of the five legitimate standards. Your next question may be, “how do the other contenders stack up against these criteria?” Below is a chart with the eight teams that I think could make a legitimate case to be title contenders and how they fare in my five criteria.
Based on these results, the Suns certainly deserve to be listed among the championship contenders, but critics would be right to put Phoenix on the lower end of that list. There are holes in their resume, but those holes are not so gaping as to eliminate the Suns from contention. They are dark horse contenders. They are an underdog, a Cinderella story, and if they can pull off a title run this year, it will be one of the most impressive, memorable runs in NBA history.
Bring it on.
Follow Cody on Twitter: @Co_dhunt