The Suns are in Orlando, for now but not for long. The team stands at 26-39, six full games behind the No. 8 seed and trailing four non-playoff teams too. To grab the No. 9 spot and attempt to play spoiler, Phoenix would have to win out in the eight "seeding games," probably, and hope that a handful of other teams slide. Also: Kelly Oubre, a core starter, is expected to skip the bubble as he recovers from knee surgery.
"When it comes to people counting us out, we're just trying to get better and make some noise," star guard Devin Booker told a group of reporters earlier this week. "We're gonna go out and compete at the highest level. Gonna try to win games. There's nothing more to it. We want to be known as a team that plays hard and plays together, and we're building that chemistry."
The Suns are in an unusual position, arriving to the league's very urgent, winner-take-all Orlando appointment with long-term priorities. We got a glimpse of the team's potential way (way, way) back in October, as Phoenix ran out to a 5-2 start. Booker was averaging 26.1 points per game, and newly acquired veterans Ricky Rubio and Aaron Baynes had brought something solid the Suns sorely lacked, especially while Booker's co-star, Deandre Ayton, served a PED suspension.
But by the time Ayton returned Dec. 17, the team had fallen below .500, where it has been ever since.
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We could argue all day whether sending a team 13 games under .500 from Arizona to Florida amid a pandemic is a logical or ethical thing to do or if it is simply the fairest decision for a team still technically in playoff contention, but since the Suns are bubble-bound, let's answer the question: What are we looking for? Well, two things: One, whether the team can return to its early form, when it looked like a sleeper playoff contender on the rise; and two, whether Booker and Ayton can grow into a formidable one-two punch. In a league dominated by superstar pairings, that's the ticket.
"It's a great relationship [that] we're still working on," Booker said. "We're both trying to solidify ourselves, and we know that's gonna come with the success of the team. We're working on everything—the communication, the dialogue is open between us, and seeing the game from different positions is a big part of it. Me trying to understand him, him trying to understand me—it's how you grow as teammates."
Individually, each player has already shown amazing promise. When the NBA went on hold, Booker ranked 10th in the league in scoring and stood just outside the All-NBA third-team backcourt discussion. Ayton battled an ankle injury after returning from suspension but still averaged 19 points and 12 boards per game, blocking shots and shooting well.
When the two stars shared the floor, the Suns performed pretty well, with a plus-4.9 net rating in nearly 800 minutes. (In a similar sample size, the combo of Booker and Baynes posted just a plus-0.7 net rating.)
With that in mind, how do you account for the fact that the team was no better at winning games with Ayton (12-18) than without him (14-21, including the early 5-2 push)?
Well, the most glaring change from the Suns' fast start to their midseason slog occurred on the defensive side. In those opening weeks, playing without Ayton, Phoenix posted a defensive rating of 101.1, good for ninth in the league. Then, during a 30-game stretch in which Ayton played 28 games, the team's defensive rating slid to 110.8; they won just 12 of the 30.
Still, it's not right to simply label Ayton a defensive liability and be done with it. He has carried a poor defensive reputation since college, but the individual numbers look pretty good. He proved to be a stingy shot-challenger so far this year; opponents shot just 40.8 percent against him, a comparable mark to Rudy Gobert and better than most every other counterpart. And his teammates are quick to vouch for him.
"Defensively, it's unbelievable just knowing [that] on ball screens, his coverage [will be there] ... on switches on the perimeter, making it tough for the offense," Mikal Bridges told Forbes' Brendon Kleen earlier this year. "His presence and the mindset that he's been having is unbelievable."
Booker's defense, meanwhile, has never been good—his 112.5 defensive rating this year is poor but slightly better than last year's mark of 115.1. The team's hot start, however, is at least some proof that he can function in a tight backcourt. A bigger problem might be a lack of high-quality defenders among the supporting cast. Rubio, Baynes, Bridges, Dario Saric and others rank around or below average in defensive rating.
And if Phoenix did find the right pieces to build a viable NBA defense around Ayton and Booker, would that be enough to take the Sunsto a new level?
"I think you could surround them with the right talent and make it work," one NBA team analytics director tells B/R, pointing out that Booker and Ayton had a much higher net rating when they played with Rubio. "I think you can surround them with guys like Rubio who know their roles and make a run eventually. But I don't trust Phoenix's front office to do that."
There is also the question of consistentenergy and general cohesion. Watch the tape from those early games—a victory against the Clippers, for instance—and what sticks out is not so much a dominant defensive effort but a charismatic one. Oubre is jumping passing lanes; good looks are created for secondary options like Saric and Baynes (and there's trust that they'll convert); Booker does his thing in the closing moments. The Suns altogether looked like a team taking itself seriously.
Compare that to one of the team's final games before the league's suspension, a home loss to the Warriors. In that one, the Suns started five of their core players—Rubio, Booker, Bridges, Saric and Ayton (Oubre was out with injury; Baynes came off the bench). Golden State started Damion Lee, Andrew Wiggins, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The Suns led by as many as 18 in the second quarter but by the end of the third were trailing by double figures.
What happened? The Suns devolved into the team that we've seen for years now, going back to Steve Nash's exit in 2012. They gave up second-chance threes and left the rim unguarded. The offense flatlined, mustering just 34 second-half points.
This script became all too common for Phoenix after that 5-2 opening.
In this regard, some time off may have been a good thing, giving Booker and Ayton a chance to reset and the team to regain some of its youthful energy and passion.
After not playing for four months, you can hear some of that renewal in Ayton's words.
"I definitely took advantage of taking that break, taking that load off," he recently told reporters. "I think that's why I have so much energy. ...
"We're coming to work. That's about it."
Leo Sepkowitz joined B/R Mag in 2018. Previously, he was a senior writer at SLAM magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @LeoSepkowitz.
Yaron Weitzman contributed to this story.