The Phoenix Suns were 26-39 when the NBA put the season on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but an 8-0 record in the restart gave fans a glimpse of what may be to come.
This season, at 34-39, was the eighth losing record the Suns have recorded in the last 10 years. Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 when it lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Despite the long slump, this team is starting to show signs of life on the court. Off the court on the other hand, frankly, the franchise has been woefully mismanaged. A heavy-handed owner in Robert Sarver and an inexperienced GM in James Jones could bring the Suns back down to earth quickly.
Phoenix’s success hinges primarily on the performance of emerging star Devin Booker. The 23-year-old led the Suns in scoring in 29 of its 34 wins, including seven of eight in the restart. He’s averaged 26.6 points and more than six assists in each of the last two seasons and was third in scoring this year. Of the league’s top-five scorers in 2019-20, only Giannis Antetokuonmpo had a higher field goal percentage (55.3) than Booker (48.9). Antetokuonmpo’s shot chart puts a majority of his action at the rim. Booker’s attempts are spread fairly evenly throughout the halfcourt.
With Booker drawing the eyes of defenders, big man Deandre Ayton is free to roll to the basket and clean up. In his second season in the league, Ayton averaged a double-double with 18.2 points and 11.5 rebounds. Where Ayton becomes invaluable is defensive. He only averages 1.5 ppg but unlike many big men, Ayton doesn’t get forced off the floor in late-game situations. He has room for growth on both ends of the floor but at 22 years old, the former number-one overall pick has a high ceiling.
Kelly Oubre Jr. saw an increase in production since arriving in Phoenix last season. He averaged a career-high 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds in 2019-20. The rangy wing is a competent second option in the clutch when defenses zone in on Booker. Oubre was second on the team in attempts per game in clutch situations and shot 46.3 percent. He led the team in this category hitting 48 percent. Booker shot 20.7 percent.
The biggest addition to Phoenix’s lineup this season was hands down Ricky Rubio. After a resurgence to his career in Utah, Rubio became the veteran leader the Suns needed to push its young cast forward. Rubio averaged 13 points and 8.8 assists and had the second-highest effective field goal percentage of his career (47.6).
Mikal Bridges has emerged as Phoenix’s most important player on defense. He regularly defends the opponent’s best player and does so admirably. He held Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and LeBron James below their average field goal percentages.
Under head coach Monty Williams, the Suns showed significant improvement. In his first year in Phoenix, Williams helped the team more than double its winning percentage. They were top-10 in pace, first in assist ratio, and were no worse than average offensively and defensively. For a team that has struggled for years, the average is a net gain.
Founded in 1968, the Phoenix Suns are still waiting for their first championship despite having an overall winning record.
Phoenix made its first playoff appearance in its second season before losing in the semi-final round to the Los Angeles Lakers. The roster featured Connie Hawkins, Dick Van Arsdale, Gail Goodrich, and Paul Silas.
After a 5-year playoff drought, the Suns made a run to the finals in 1976 and lost to Boston 4-2 in the championship series. Paul Westphal led the team that season with 20.5 ppg. “The Original Sun” Dick Van Arsdale chipped in about 12 ppg in his second to last season.
In 1977, Phoenix drafted Walter Davis out of North Carolina. Davis quickly became the driving force behind the team’s success, averaging 24.2 ppg as a rookie and capturing the Rookie of the Year award. Davis is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer with 15,666 points. Alvan Adams is second with 13,910 points.
The Suns experienced marginal success throughout the 80s before acquiring the first piece of the franchise’s next big run. Phoenix traded for Kevin Johnson, then added Tom Chambers as a free agent. The ex-Seattle Supersonic led the team in scoring the following season with 25.7 ppg, while Johnson averaged a double-double with 20.4 points and 12.2 assists. The group lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers.
In 1992, Phoenix rounded out its top-tier roster by trading for Charles Barkley. Sir Charles immediately pushed the Suns to new heights and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the 1992-93 season. Barkley averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. Phoenix secured a league-best 62-20 record and reached the finals where it lost 4-2 to Chicago.
The Suns failed to match the success of the 1992-93 season and began going in a new direction in 1996 after trading Barkley in 1996. Hall-of-Fame Point Guard Jason Kidd was traded to Phoenix from the Dallas Mavericks that offseason and would go on to become the franchise leader in assists per game (9.7) and triple-doubles (25) during five seasons with the team.
It wasn’t until Phoenix landed another former-Maverick Point Guard in Steve Nash that the franchise would again become a contender. Nash was drafted by Phoenix 15th overall in 1996 and was traded to Dallas in 1998. Nash proved to be a uniquely talented Point Guard in Dallas but became a free agent in 2004. Nash, combined with new coach Mike D’Antoni, a cast of shooters like Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire upfront, became a two-time MVP. He is the Suns’ all-time leader in assists (6,997), threes (1,051), and offensive win shares (71.5).
Nash also elevated the play of Stoudemire, who averaged more than 20 points and 8 rebounds in five seasons paired with Nash. The breakneck style deployed by D’Antoni led Phoenix to two Western Conference Finals appearances between 2005-08. After D’Antoni left Phoenix to coach the New York Knicks in 2008, the Suns wouldn’t reach the conference finals again until 2010 with coach Alvin Gentry at the helm.