Phoenix Suns: Is everyone sleeping on the potential of the Suns in 2020-21?

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

Is everyone sleeping on the Phoenix Suns heading into the 2020-21 season?

You probably just read that headline and are thinking what is this guy talking about? How is anyone sleeping on the Phoenix Suns? And ultimately, you’re probably right if you think that. After they acquired guard Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder back on November 16th, the expectations for Phoenix have skyrocketed. But current sportsbook’s are pretty low on the new-look Suns to win the championship this season.

According to the Action Network, the Suns are at +4000 to win the title. I think with the core they have in place now in Ayton, Booker, and Paul, the Suns have a much better chance to win the title than 40:1 odds may indicate.

Phoenix is a young team that will have growing pains this season and will need to learn on the fly how to become a contender. They’ve also done quite a bit of losing recently, compiling a record of 121-280 (30.2%) over the past five seasons. So there will undoubtedly be a learning curve for the Suns, but it’s one that might not be as steep as prognosticators realize.

More from Sir Charles In Charge

They were the hottest team in the NBA bubble, going 8-0, falling just half a game shy of making the playoffs in the West, and Devin Booker hit another notch in his progression of becoming a superstar. He averaged 30.5 points, six assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game on 50.3 percent shooting from the field during that span, but Booker wasn’t the only Suns player to take steps to progress as a player.

If you look at the +/- rankings of the eight games played in the NBA bubble, five of the top 10 players are Phoenix Suns. Most notably forwards Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges, who combined to average 26.1 points per game and both nearly shot 50 percent from the field during the Suns’ hot streak. So I’m not so sure CP3 is coming into a situation where he’s going to have to handhold this core, as much as is expected.

I think Paul is going to nurture Phoenix’s young talent and guide them on the path of greatness and developing winning habits. He should shift the culture with the Suns and they seem to want that, maybe the player who will benefit from playing with Paul the most this season center Deandre Ayton said the following about the “Point God” during his first Zoom interview of the year.

"“I know he gon’ be on my tail. I need that, me and Book need that, this team needs that,” he said. (h/t Arizona Sports 98.7 FM)Ayton continued“Just knowing the type of tradition and the type of dude and the type of career he had and the foundation he laid in this league, it’s tremendous,” Ayton said. “And knowing that I’m gonna be a part of his legacy? Oh yeah. I can’t stop moving. I want to lift more weights. It’s go time. You have a future Hall of Famer coming here to really show us the ropes and help me and Book out as young guys who can really take over this league.”“He’s the leader and he’s the vet,” Ayton said. “If he want me to jump, I got it. That’s our vet and that’s our leader, so whatever he wants, we locked and we buying in on it. No questions asked and I’m just ready.”"

Hearing that kind of enthusiasm from one of the players Paul is likely going to be the hardest on and will need to connect with the most for the Suns to succeed this season, gives me, even more, hope that the young players in Phoenix can develop into a winning core. How Ayton and Paul develop their chemistry and rapport together might be more crucial than how Paul and Booker come together. I don’t think there’s any question that CP3 and D-Book will mesh with one another and become one of the best backcourts in the league.

Having a playmaker like Paul will allow Booker to take on less responsibility in that regard and play more off the ball, which should lead to easier baskets for a player who’s already a deadly scorer. Add in the fact that Paul led the league in clutch pts (150) last season and Booker ranked 11th (106), the potential nightmare for opposing teams is pretty apparent.

But I think Paul can have a similar impact on Ayton this upcoming season. The former No. 1 pick has been a walking double-double so far, averaging 17 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in his two seasons with the Suns. Ayton still has his fair share of detractors though, starting after he was drafted before Luka Doncic back in the 2018 NBA Draft.

It also hasn’t helped that he was suspended 25 games in October of 2019 for testing positive for a banned substance and hasn’t provided a whole lot defensively, evident by his career 111.0 defensive rating so far for Phoenix. However, reading the quotes above from Ayton and now that he’s playing next to a leader like Paul who will demand the most from him, has me optimistic for what year three could like for Phoenix’s starting center.

Outside of forcing Ayton to lock in and communicate more defensively, I think the part of his game that Paul will improve the most is in the pick and roll. Phoenix only ran plays out of the pick and roll 16.1 percent of the time last season, which ranked 24th in the league. Oklahoma City with Paul on the other hand ranked fifth in plays out of the pick and roll at 22.5 percent.

So you’d imagine Phoenix harkens back to their days with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire running defenses silly on pick and rolls, now this season with Ayton and Paul at the foundation of their attack. Ayton was the roll man only 18.5 percent of the time a year ago and only 3.8 of his 18.2 points per game, came out of pick-and-roll situations as the roll man.

That number should dramatically increase with Paul at the helm of Phoenix’s offense and should lead to a lot more efficient touches and easy buckets for Ayton. It’s going to open up his pick and pop game, while also unclogging the lane a little more for Paul and Booker to drive to the rim when they want. Ayton’s only taken 12.8 percent of the total shots for his career so far, from 16 feet to the three-point line, but last season shot 38.6 percent on shots from that distance. With teams probably eager to double or hedge hard on Paul off of high screens, these kinds of shots should be readily open and available to Ayton.

If the next defender crashes on Ayton to help, it now free’s up shooters like Booker, Bridges, and Johnson for wide-open catch and shoot 3’s from the wings or corners. The Ayton-Paul pick and roll combination will be one of the best things to watch about the new look Suns this season and a great new wrinkle for coach Monty Williams to utilize within his system.

Phoenix’s big three won’t be the only thing that makes this team a viable and real title contender this season though. They brought more in than just Chris Paul, also adding another veteran in the form of forward Jae Crowder.

The Suns signed Crowder to a three-year, $29 million deal, pulling him away from Miami who he just helped get to the NBA Finals. He was fantastic for the Heat last season, averaging 15.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44.5 percent from beyond the arc in the 20 games he played with the team.

Crowder like Paul will bring an attitude, toughness, and personality to the Suns, that this young group in Phoenix should soak up like sponges. I believe he can be a mentor of sorts as well to both Bridges and Johnson, which should benefit them and now give Williams three adequate wing defenders at his disposal.

They also signed another veteran in guard E’Twaun Moore to a one-year, $2.3 million deal and add him to the rotation of guards they have. Moore will be another stabilizing force for this Phoenix team, the ultimate glue guy, and is another knockdown shooter, shooting 39 percent from downtown for his career. I expect him to be one of their best role players and overall I think Phoenix’s bench will be one of the most underrated in the league.

Not only will they have Johnson and Moore in their second unit, but they also will have Dario Saric, Jevon Carter, Cameron Payne, Langston Galloway as well as rookies Jalen Smith and Ty-Shon Alexander. There will be a lot of versatility within that grouping for Williams to pick and choose from, the Suns can play small-ball, outrun teams and outshoot them from three with their bench. Every single one of these players that are projected to make up the Suns bench shot at least 36 percent from beyond the arc last season, including Smith and Alexander who both shot plus-36 percent last year at the collegiate level.

The area’s I expect Phoenix to improve the most in during the 2020-21 season will be their perimeter shooting and defense. Only 36.1 percent of the Suns’ field goal attempts last year came from three, which ranked 20th in the league and only 30.1 percent of their points came from beyond the arc which ranked 22nd. As I laid out above with the shooting their bench now has and then you throw in Booker, Paul, Bridges, and Crowder as well and Phoenix should be scoring from beyond the arc at a much higher clip this season. Defensively is where Paul’s impact might be felt the most, however with his leadership and demand for communication specifically.

The Suns were 17th in defensive rating (110.8), 26th in opponent points in the paint (3,634), and 27th in blocks (290), they score effectively off of turnovers and get steals frequently, but Phoenix will have to elevate their defense to become a championship contender. Oklahoma City last year with Paul leading the way ranked seventh in defensive rating (108.1) and that is a similar spot the Suns should aspire to finish in this upcoming season. Plus with other defenders like Carter, Crowder, Bridges, and Alexander in place, Williams should have confidence in his group’s defensive potential in 2021.

They now have the personnel to be a pretty dangerous team on both ends of the hardwood. Phoenix has a great mixture of veterans and young talent combined with players that should be able to fit the specific roles the Suns will need them to fill to compete for a championship. This will also be a Suns team with Paul directing the offense and will have the versatility to be effective in the halfcourt or open floor running teams out of buildings. It’s going to be hard for teams to beat them with pace this upcoming season and you’re going to have to almost pick your poison in that regard with this team.

Pulling it all together for Phoenix though will be their head man in Monty Williams. He spoke recently on the growth both he and Paul have done since they were last together in New Orleans back in 2010.

"“I had him and David West, Willie Green, Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza, Marco (Belinelli), guys like that as a rookie head coach,” Williams said Tuesday. (h/t Arizona Sports 98.7 FM) “And after that year, people thought I could coach. And then Chris and David left and we didn’t re-sign Willie and then all of a sudden the plays I was drawing up didn’t work out as well.”“I think that we both have grown a lot,” he said. “I think we both were really headstrong too back then. I was walking around like a dictator ready to cut somebody’s head off trying to implement my way and my program. I don’t think I was really good at allowing him to do what the great ones do. There were times I felt like I took the paintbrush out of his hand.”“He feels a responsibility to make guys better. You may not like the way he does it sometimes but I think if you look at his heart and his intention, you’ll see a guy who might be one of the most competitive people you will ever, ever be around. I’ve witnessed it for myself, and I’d rather have that than guys who don’t want to win. Guys who are happy about coming out of the game, guys who don’t work. I’d rather have this than the opposite.”"

That self-awareness and growth I think will go a long way in how Williams’s relationship with Paul will be now in Phoenix compared to those seemingly frustrating days in New Orleans. I think taking a step back and letting the grip off the reigns a little from both men, will be enormous for the development of this team and their chemistry. I think their 10-year hiatus from each other and the maturation that the distance has allowed for both, will only allow them to understand one another better in their second marriage in The Valley.

It’s almost poetic that they’ve reunited at this point in their careers and it’s almost like the basketball gods have gifted them a second chance at redemption for a reason. The pairing of Paul and Williams might be a perfect one for the Suns at the perfect time and could be the recipe for ending the franchise’s nearly 50-plus year drought without an NBA championship.

NBA: Predicting a 2021 breakout player for every team in the Western Conference. dark. Next

There’s a special feeling around this current Phoenix Suns roster and it’s not something stats can measure or equate, this just feels like a group that is coming together and doing it at a quite rapid pace. Phoenix is the dark horse in the Western Conference this season and could be the team to invest in if you’re looking for a potential sleeper to win the NBA title in 2021.