Devin Booker And The Suns Are Going Turbo Mode
3:26 PM EST on December 1, 2022
The last time we saw the Phoenix Suns before this season began, they were in the midst of one of the most shocking Game 7 collapses in recent basketball memory, disintegrating into a fine orange powder on their home floor as Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks cackled them out of the playoffs. In the ensuing months, the depths of their famously diarrheal owner's toxicity was laid bare for all the world to see, their second-best player—a big man they picked first overall ahead of Doncic a few seasons ago—was being publicly called out for not caring about basketball or playing hard before signing as a restricted free agent with the Pacers, and one of their mission-critical veterans demanded a trade for no clear reason. The Suns also started this season out by losing Chris Paul to a heel injury and Cam Johnson to a torn meniscus. Everything was lining up for them to struggle, at least in the immediate term. Naturally they are playing some of the best basketball in the whole league and sit atop the Western Conference at 15-6.
The numbers suggest the Suns are hooping at an even higher level than their impressive record suggests. They're second in the NBA in offense, sixth in defense, and second in net rating. Four of their six losses have been by either one or two points, while the other two came during the east coast road trip in which Paul hurt his heel. Everything is working, in short, which tends to happen when your franchise player is playing at an MVP level. The thing that has leapt off the screen during Devon Booker's 44- and 51-point nights this week has been the ease with which he has scored, from all over the court, against the full spectrum of coverages.
Without Paul in the lineup, Booker has been handling the rock more. His development as a playmaker has prevented teams from loading up too much on him, though perhaps they should think about doing so, because his one-on-one game is currently uncontainable. (It's especially fun to watch the zeal with which Booker takes his opportunities to play bully-ball, and he seems to turn what should be a contested 17-footer into a chill 11-footer on his terms every time he puts his head down.) The Kings warped their rotations to keep one of their two good defenders on Booker as much as possible, and he got by both of them with ease, hitting 14 shots in the paint on the way to an alarmingly casual 44 points. The Bulls, who have a few more quality defenders, tried Alex Caruso (pesky), Patrick Williams (long), and Ayo Dosunmu (young) on him. He cooked them all, scoring 51 points on 25 shots in 31 minutes through three quarters. He's also done this while playing some killer defense. The full reel is a big-time treat.
Perhaps you may notice that this highlight reel is replete with little dump-off passes to Deandre Ayton. Back in from the cold, Ayton has spent the Suns' current six-game win streak playing some of the most punishing basketball of his career. Early on in Ayton's career, he seemed to be stuck between development trajectories. Was he going to push his game out to the three-point line and become a true stretch big, or was he going to play up to his huge frame and silky athleticism and become a true interior force? The single thing holding Ayton back was his reluctant physicality, and it is still completely bizarre to me that he only takes 2.8 free throws per game. This guy is one of the most athletic seven-footers in the game, someone who is in the paint enough to consistently grab double-digit rebounds in every single game, many of them on the offensive glass, and he can't bang enough to get some freebies?
No, not really, though he has been eating against a versatile array of opposing bigs (Anthony Davis, Domantis Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic). I guess I will have to get over my learned aversion to Ayton's habit of spinning away from the hoop for a seven-foot shot instead of a hook or contested layup, because it is working as hell. He and Booker's two-man chemistry has never looked more polished, and instead of getting hung up on what he is not doing, it's worth squaring how shockingly rangy Ayton is. If you are an adherent of the grand unifying theory Knowing Where To Stand, then I am telling you now that Ayton is one of the finest players we have in the NBA. He's such a smooth athlete, he never ever does too much, and his sauce as a passer is acutely underrated. With shooting around Ayton and Booker, despite the absences, the Suns have hit upon a reliably spectacular offensive formula.
And what of those absences? We're in Year Three of the Cam Payne reclamation extravaganza, and good lord, his maturation has been impressive. Long playing against a well-earned reputation as a manic zipper-arounder without the control to slow down nor the skills to really be useful if he ever did slow down, Payne has calmly helped run the offense and pick the correct spots. He's channeled his speed into the context of the Suns' famously halfcourt-centric offense, beating his man to the spot and sprinting to the corner instead of only being useful in the open court. Torrey Craig has stepped into the Jae Crowder role without missing a beat. I don't want to dedicate more than one sentence to the Jock Landale experience, but he kind of rocks. Damion Lee and Landry Shamet are doing their jobs. That is a lot of guys!
Monty Williams has his group humming at an elite level, and as the majority of aspiring Western Conference teams find themselves unable to escape the rock fight in the middle of the standings, Phoenix has been one of the two teams who have poked their heads up first. You have probably sensed this by now, but I am having much more fun watching them this year without Paul. The ball moves way quicker, and absent Paul's actuarial free throw line hijinks, the games do too. They will have to win multiple playoff series and fully un-Sarver themselves for the stink of last season's demolition to even start to wear off, but I'm still impressed with the way they've kept it moving.