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Everything Suddenly Feels Quite Grim In Phoenix

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JANUARY 06: Cameron Payne #15 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns react on the bench during the final moments of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Footprint Center on January 06, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Heat defeated the Suns 104-96. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

According to a Dec. 1 report from the creature news and cryptocurrency consumer advocacy website Defector, the 15-6 Phoenix Suns were then "going turbo mode" and "humming at an elite level," keeping their head above an internecine Western Conference fray and distinguishing themselves as one of the only inarguable title contenders in the conference. To update that report: In the 20 games since, the Suns have been the worst team in the NBA, riding a 5-15 stretch and an active six-game losing streak into a pair of nationally televised games against two of the best teams in the Western Conference. Everyone in the rotation is hurt and the bottom has suddenly, ominously opened up under this team, just in time for them to hit the road against the West's actual title contenders.

They don't explain the all-consuming nastiness of the Suns' second quarter of the season, but the injuries are the main thing. Cam Johnson still hasn't played since hurting his knee on Nov. 4. Chris Paul missed 14 games with a heel injury. Devin Booker tweaked his groin while dropping 58 against the Pelicans in December, then re-injured it against the Nuggets on Christmas. That injury coincided with Paul's return, so the Suns should have been reasonably insulated. Instead, Paul's return coincided with the first real, concerning decline of his Suns tenure.

Paul wrangled the Suns to the 2021 Finals and the 2022 one-seed largely by taking and making one million midrange jumpers, which are unfashionable yet relatively easy to engineer, especially if you're a little guy. The Suns have started taking more threes this year, but they still never get to the line or the rim. This is the sort of offense that facilitated Phoenix's crunch-time excellence last season, when they were 33-9 in close games. It is also the sort of scheme that has basically zero margin for error. If you don't scrounge for any free points in the paint or at the line, you are going to have a hard time enduring, say, Paul's current shooting swoon. He's averaging career-lows in raw points per game and field goal percentage, and his advanced shooting numbers are his worst since his second season in New Orleans/Oklahoma City. He's making more threes than usual and still shooting above league average in the midrange, yet he's 17 percent worse from 10-16 feet. Numbers aside, Paul just doesn't appear to have that same pop this year. He's less forceful going around screens and sprinting to his spots, and he almost never, ever gets to the rim. Paul is too smart and too great of a passer to ever become a straight-up liability, at least while he can still run, but the long-prophesied decline sure seems to have arrived.

Also, Paul is out again with a completely different injury, joining basically every other good player on the roster besides Mikal Bridges. That list now includes newly minted max player Deandre Ayton, who has still never met a six-foot shot he wouldn't turn into an eight-foot one. Ayton's distaste for playing up to his height or physical gifts has been going on for so long now that I don't think he's suddenly going to morph into anything close to the all-action, do-everything skilled big that he should be. At the very least, it seems unlikely that he'll do that on the Suns. Since the late-November win over the Bulls in which Ayton got to the line nine times, the game that prompted the aforementioned Defector report, Ayton has yet to exceed six free throws in any game. He's still rebounding the crap out of the ball, yet he's taking the fewest shots of his career at the rim. What follows is every Deandre Ayton highlight.

After losing nine of their last 10, Phoenix now finds themselves in quite the rockfight in the Western Conference standings. Only the Nuggets and Grizzlies have distinguished themselves from the pack, while the Zion-less Pelicans have started to slip back towards the fray. Everything else is a bloody churning mess; the sixth-seeded Warriors hold only a two-game lead over the 13th-seeded Thunder. The Suns were once one of the lucky teams to escape this whirlpool of crud, yet their swoon has nudged them down into a three-way tie for eighth. That would be concerning for any would-be Finals contender halfway into any season, let alone one wading through an injury crisis, gearing up for a ridiculous stretch of tough opponents, and being run from the shadows by a racist cheapskate asshole who is in the process of being forcibly bounced out by the NBA.

Sure, maybe the Suns could try to bolster themselves before the trade deadline, though Mat Ishbia won't take over until after the deadline. The ghost of Robert Sarver still haunts this team, and though Sarver will thankfully leave the NBA forever very soon, the timing is poor for the Suns' on-court fortunes. They are going to be missing basically everyone tonight against the Warriors, who will welcome Steph Curry back after he missed a few weeks; it's likely that they'll be just as shorthanded tomorrow against the Nuggets in Denver. At some point, the Western Conference's standings will disentangle themselves, and though Oklahoma City and Utah seem likely to head south and start dreaming of Victor Wembanyama while the weather gets warmer, there still promises to be an incredibly tight, competitive race to avoid the play-in, especially since Sacramento is finally into the easy part of their schedule, Minnesota has seemingly gotten its shit together, and Anthony Davis's return looms. There's no easy way out of this hole for Phoenix without Booker, and no signs that the current group can prevent said hole from opening into a chasm.

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