The Phoenix Suns stumbled out of the gates to a 4-6 start, largely due to the absences of two of their three top stars. Bradley Beal has played in three games before returning to the injury report with a back injury, while Devin Booker missed eight games with a foot injury. That left a team that already had serious point guard concerns without their two best backcourt creators, and unsurprisingly, that wasn’t a recipe for success, despite some stellar play from Kevin Durant.
On November 15, Booker returned to the lineup against the Timberwolves and the Suns haven’t lost since. Phoenix is 7-0 with Booker back in the lineup (8-1 with Booker this season), and if he keeps up his current pace, he should find himself in the MVP conversation. Booker has taken full control of the Phoenix offense, putting to rest any question of whether he could thrive in the lead creator role for a top team. He’s averaging 29.4 points, 8.9 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game with just 3.1 turnovers per game on the best shooting efficiency of his career (49.7/43.5/91.8 shooting splits). The scoring comes as little surprise, as he’s long been one of the league’s premier bucket-getters (and, for my money, has the most aesthetically pleasing jumper in the NBA), putting that shot-making on display to beat the Knicks without KD on Sunday night.
What has been most impressive to me has been his development as an on-ball playmaker and the conductor of an offense. Booker has played the point guard role before, but has never done it this well or this efficiently. In the two years before the arrival of Chris Paul, he was often in charge of running the offense and did so solidly, but had issues with turnovers and was often looking to score first and pass second. This season, you can see the improvement from him in terms of his feel for the game, patience, court-vision, understanding when to seek out his own shot, and how to keep everyone else fed too.
During this 7-game streak with Booker back in the lineup, Phoenix has averaged 3.4 more assists per game and 3.7 fewer turnovers per game than in the first 10 games of the season. Having Booker pulling the strings for the offense is the biggest reason for that improvement, as he has become an excellent facilitator. That growth shows up a lot when watching his drives to the paint, as he recognizes when help is coming off of his shooters and rifles passes into the shooting pocket on the outside and finds dropoffs inside to Jusuf Nurkic and his bigs.
Booker also has become quicker in his decision-making when doubles come his way on the perimeter, knowing where the open teammate will be based on where the second defender is coming from, and being decisive with his passes to exploit that space.
When Booker is on the floor, he has his fingerprints on everything and has been efficient at just about everything. His usage rate is 33.9 percent, the highest of his career. His true shooting percentage is 62.8 percent, the highest of his career. His assist percentage is an astronomical 47.7 percent (meaning when he’s playing, nearly half of the made shots by his teammates are coming off of passes from Booker), with a turnover rate of just 11.7 percent, the third lowest of his career (only behind two seasons playing with Chris Paul). What he’s doing is truly outrageous, and what makes the Suns so hard to stop is he’s not alone in taking strides as a playmaker for others.
Kevin Durant is also off to a preposterous start to the season, averaging 31.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on comical 53.3/52.2/89.1 shooting splits. Over the Suns seven-game winning streak, he’s played in five of the games and averaged 34.2 points and 7.2 assists per game, as he’s embraced more of a flowing offensive style with Booker back in the lineup. Durant is as lethal a shooter as there is in the NBA, and he’s looked terrific both creating for himself off the bounce and knocking down catch-and-shoot looks (at least a couple of Booker’s assists each game are tossing it out to a semi-guarded KD who rises, unbothered by a soft contest, for three).
However, Durant is also now showing full trust in the rest of his Suns teammates and the result is Phoenix’s offense operating as an absolute buzzsaw, boasting a 128.4 offensive rating over their winning streak. Durant, like Booker, is embracing the attention defenses are paying him and letting it create easy baskets elsewhere, with some slick feeds off drives and also putting defenses in rotation with quick skip passes when doubles come to him in the high post.
Finding the open man.
EG with ✌️ triples in OT! pic.twitter.com/djQxcrEHmS
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) November 20, 2023
When they play together, the Suns have also leveraged the attention each commands to put opponents in a bind. Their growth in the two-man game has been impressive, and creates some easy assists thanks to how each can knock down shots when given just a little bit of space.
Phoenix’s overall team shooting also opens things up for the two-man game between Booker and Durant, as they are third in the league in three-point percentage, led by Booker and Durant, but also are getting great spacing from Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon, and Yuta Watanabe. Frank Vogel has been able to take advantage of that to create a real conundrum for defenses by putting Booker and Durant on the same side of the floor to work off each other, which naturally tilts defenses towards sending help to that side, which frees up one of those shooters on the weakside. That’s when Durant and Booker’s trust in their teammates comes into play, as they are willing to throw skip passes or drive with the intent of kicking it out when the defense collapses further, trusting that the shot they create will get knocked down.
We often see teams with multiple superstars take turns on offense, and while there are certainly times where the Suns let Durant or Booker go to work, they typically are running some type of actual action or set, even in late game situations. That requires stars who are willing to operate within a structure, and a coaching staff to build a structure and system that puts them in the spots they want to be in. The shotmaking of Durant and Booker always stands out, as they’re two of the best in the league at hitting pullup jumpers, but hat’s making the Suns click right now is those two aren’t simply relying on their ability to hit tough shots. Instead, they’re making the right play constantly, which, when coupled with their teammates knocking down open shots, makes them impossible to defend.