There have been a few teams that have been clearly identified as winners of the NBA offseason, improving their teams through trades, the draft, and free agency. You have the reigning champs in the Lakers who have taken a swing at beefing up their roster, the Philadelphia 76ers with Daryl Morey swiftly addressing their shooting needs and roster imbalance, and the Portland Trail Blazers adding some much-needed wing and frontcourt depth, headlined by a two-way star in Robert Covington.
Also on that list are the Phoenix Suns, a team that had high hopes for the 2020-21 season coming off of an 8-0 run through the Bubble that saw them fall just shy of qualifying for the play-in round. With Devin Booker continuing to establish himself as an elite guard in the league and a young cast of promising talent featuring Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, Phoenix was a trendy pick to leap into playoff contention this season even if they simply ran it back. However, the Suns pounced at the opportunity to pair Booker with the best backcourt mate of his career when they shuffled Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, and a 2022 first round pick off to the Thunder for future Hall of Famer, Chris Paul (and Abdel Nader).
It was a big swing, and in the week since they’ve added some more depth by signing Langston Galloway — a sneaky good pickup towards the end of the free agency rush — as well as Jae Crowder, E’Twaun Moore, and re-signed Jevon Carter and Dario Saric. The result is the deepest and best Suns roster of the Booker era, with some tremendous lineup versatility at Monty Williams’ disposal as he has some terrific talents on both sides of the ball.
The question is, with a number of teams in the West all looking to contend for the playoffs this season, how high can the Suns rise with Paul now operating as the floor general.
The West is a jumbled mess right now in trying to figure out exactly who should slot in where in the hierarchy of the conference outside of the two L.A. teams. You have teams that have effectively tread water in Denver and Utah, teams on the rise in Phoenix, Portland, New Orleans, Dallas, and Memphis, and a team still with stars that could blow it up at any moment in Houston. That would make for 8 teams vying for the 3-8 seeds (with the play-in tournament at the end of the season offering opportunity to 9 and 10), and doesn’t include the Kings or Spurs who are both competitive but feel like a step below these squads. As such, playoff positioning likely won’t tell the full story of how much better any of these teams have gotten, as we very well could have a year where a couple games separate a team playing at home in the first round from a team sitting out the postseason.
Still, the Suns expect to take the leap into the playoffs and have to feel as good about their roster as anyone in the league. Chris Paul may be 35, but is coming off of his second most efficient offensive season of his career and brings the Suns something they’ve not had since the Steve Nash era. Where Rubio brought the Suns a base level of competence at the point guard spot they’d desperately needed, Paul raises that even further to the point where teams will now have to contend with two elite playmakers and shotmakers in the NBA in he and Booker. We saw last year what having someone capable of taking some of that load off of Booker did for his efficiency last year, as he put forth a career-best 61.8 true shooting percentage, and playing with someone like Paul who will draw even more attention and create some easy looks for him should only further help his rise as not just an elite scorer but one who does so with precision.
It’s not just about what Paul can do for Booker that has Suns fans and the organization excited, but what it means for the rest of the roster. Paul is among the best pick-and-roll ball-handlers in league history and his partnership with the hyper-athletic Deandre Ayton in that area figures to produce some Lob City-esque looks for the young big man rolling to the rim. Around that pick-and-roll threat, the Suns have a bevy of shooters they can deploy in the two wing positions to maximize spacing and open up the floor for their three stars to operate at the rim and in the midrange where Booker and Paul are both lethal.
Bridges figures to slot into the starting lineup in place of Oubre (although it’s possible Crowder will take this place), as he’s coming off a tremendous sophomore campaign. Bridges was in the 90th percentile of wings in effective field percentage a year ago thanks to an uptick in his corner three percentage (41%) and his excellent work as a cutter, two things that should fit in very nicely with Paul’s addition, and his defense is already well above average. Dario Saric returns, as he likewise was an excellent shooter last year as an above the break shooter, hitting 39 percent of his non-corner threes last year creating even more space as a stretch four alongside Ayton. Cam Johnson had a strong rookie season, as his shooting more than translated at the NBA level, and they’re hopeful Jae Crowder will be able to carry his strong shooting from Miami to Phoenix. Moore, Galloway, and Carter were all tremendous corner three point shooters last season as well and all carry some defensive upside, allowing Williams to always pair his two star guards with a strong defensive presence and spacing on the offensive end.
What the Suns have done this offseason isn’t just take a swing on the Paul trade, but built out a strong supporting cast that offers some versatility on both ends of the floor. On top of that, they recognize that the best part of adding Chris Paul to your team is what he does to elevate everyone around him by putting them in the best positions to succeed. Guys like Bridges, Crowder, Moore, Saric, and Ayton are all heavily reliant on having opportunities created for them, and with Paul they should expect some of the best looks of their career.
For a long time there had been a question of whether Paul could be willing to cede the spotlight or some of the ball-handling load to another star, given how heavy-handed his impact had always been on the offense in New Orleans and Los Angeles. However, while they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, in Houston he was willing to let James Harden run the show more often than not, and then when he went to Oklahoma City he was happy to let everyone eat, as the three guard lineups with he, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder were some of the most efficient in the NBA, with all three sharing responsibilities. Those experiences tell you that him coexisting with Booker, who is well regarded for his work ethic on the floor, shouldn’t be a point of contention. Booker happily welcomed Rubio in and was thrilled to share some of the creative responsibilities with him, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to see he and Paul do the same.
Where Harden would stand 35 feet from the basket while Paul operated, Booker will be an active participant in the offense as a threat to catch-and-shoot or to create off the bounce should a closeout come to quickly, and vice versa when Booker is on the ball. The Suns still have to answer some questions on defense, but they certainly have the wing and backcourt talent now to take a step forward there and Ayton continues to take strides as a deterrent in the paint.
We saw last year what Paul’s presence can do for a team, as he lifted the Thunder to the 5-seed and nearly took out the Rockets in a 7-game thriller in the playoffs. This Suns team looks to be more talented than that OKC group, and their success is likely to come down to a few things beyond the obvious of health. For one, their wings have to knock down shots they way they showed they can a year ago, because Paul and Booker will create a number of good, open looks each game. The defense also has to coalesce in a way that sees them put forth consistent league-average output on that end, because the offense should be terrific, but the talent is there and we know how Paul significantly raises the floor of a team simply by being on the floor.
Phoenix has for years wandered aimlessly through the wilderness that is the bottom of the Western Conference, adrift without much of a real plan. Last year saw them lay a foundation to be competitive as they finally found some coaching stability and built a competent roster around their budding star, and this offseason they’ve built upon that. Paul brings instant credibility to the Suns, but it’s more what they’ve done around that move to build a roster that makes sense.For a team that’s lacked an identity for nearly a decade, it’s clear that they’ve decided on one, with Paul setting the tone. There’s a clear player type that they targeted this offseason that fits what Monty Williams wants, which is players that are tough and defensive-minded, without sacrificing offensive spacing, and they’ve filled the roster with guys who fit that description.
The West is extremely crowded this season, even moreso than last year, but a mid-seed, fighting for a top-4 spot is certainly not out of the question for a Suns team that finally knows what it wants to be and has executed an offseason plan about as well as they could’ve hoped.