When Chris Paul made the NBA Finals, the world hoped that he could finally win his first championship. In the end, he fell short after reaching that stage for the first time in his career. Looking forward, making it back to the title match could be very difficult.
You have to wonder how much of the Suns' run was luck against skill. After all, this squad faced a Lakers team without Anthony Davis, a Nuggets team without Jamal Murray, and a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard. In the offseason, Paul took less money to stay with the team the next four years, but that doesn’t mean they improved. Can this team make it back to the NBA Finals in a healthy Western Conference?
Point Guard - Chris Paul
Last year, was a bounce back time for Paul in a way. It was his best assist per game mark since 2016-2017. With Paul leading the offense, the team ranked seventh in points per game. The better eye-popping stat was that the Suns ranked third in assists per game, trailing only the Warriors and Pacers.
Paul wasn’t the only reason the Suns jumped from No. 9 seed to NBA Finals contestant last season, but he played a huge part. He commands the locker room. He might be the best overall leader we have seen in the modern era. He appears to remain in great shape and should look to lead the team once again into a deep playoff run.
Shooting Guard - Devin Booker
Booker shot 86.7% from the free-throw line last year, which helped lead the Suns to the second-best free throw percentage in the league. The team (83.4%) trailed the Clippers (83.9%) by just 0.5% to lead the league. Last year, it was the third straight year Booker averaged at least 25.0 points per game. The line was a key contributor to that.
Altogether, Booker needs to improve his outside shooting. He shot 34.0% last year and has steadily decreased since shooting around 38% three years ago. Even with Booker’s sub-par outside shooting, the Suns were seventh as a team in three-point field goal percentage. If he improves, imagine the ceiling for this team.
Small Forward - Mikal Bridges
Call this a bold prediction, but Mikal Bridges is going to make the All-Defensive Team this season. Entering his fourth year, Bridges is an underrated defender in the league. He will spend his second season with Chris Paul, who is one of the greatest defenders in league history. Surely, some of his expertise will wear off on Bridges, who is already a solid defender.
The Suns thrived off their defensive style last year. Bridges was the pioneer behind that on the wing. Not to mention, his offense improved, averaging double digits for the first time in his career, as well as shooting 42% from three. It’s a contract year for Bridges. He’s eligible to receive a five-year, $173 million extension. Let’s see if he is worth that?
Power Forward - Jae Crowder
It feels like Jae Crowder has been in the league forever, but he is just 31 years old. The veteran, who has been in the league since 2012, has reinvented his game as a defensive powerhouse in the paint and legit outside shooter. In 2020, Crowder shot 44.5% from three. Last year, he shot 38.9%.
Crowder doesn’t have to score in big bunches but just needs to be consistent. There were times that Crowder was cold from the field. Double digits and defense should be the name of his game. If he does that again, the Suns will be in good shape.
Center - Deandre Ayton
Having Paul added to the team was huge for Deandre Ayton. He averaged 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, which might have been a dip offensively from the previous year. However, his overall defensive ranking improved tremendously. The Suns need Ayton to average double-double nightly and continue to be one of the league’s best rim protectors.
Many believed that Booker and Ayton could grow into the next Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal tandem. That might have been a reach as Ayton’s overall offensive game is nowhere near that of Shaq. With that said, Ayton is just 23 years old. Like Bridges, Ayton is playing in a contract year and is eligible for the same five-year extension. This could be the year that we see him at his best.
Cameron Payne, Elfrid Payton, Landry Shamet, Cameron Johnson, Abdel Nader, Jalen Smith, Dario Saric, JaVale McGee, Frank Kaminsky
Cam Payne went from nearly being retired to a true backup point guard in the league. Last year, it was the first time that Payne played at least 60 games or more in a season. He gave the Suns 8.4 points and 3.6 assists per outing. He even started in the playoff when Chris Paul was hurt. With the addition of Elfrid Payton, a starter for the Knicks last year, the team has legitimate depth at the point guard position.
Landry Shamet brings intrigue to the team. The third-year shooting guard averaged 9.3 points and shot 38.7% from the three-point range. Could he provide points off the bench in a way Bryn Forbes or Pat Connaughton does for the Bucks? Cameron Johnson is in a similar position as he backs up Bridges. Johnson showed flashes of being a high-flying athlete. His progression will be highly anticipated.
Jalen Smith had a very productive Summer League. His second year could be productive, but the team still added JaVale McGee for added depth. Both Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky were essential role players last year and should continue to see significant playing time. Altogether, this bench is very well constructed.
Can This Lineup Keep Up With A Healthy Western Conference?
As noted from the beginning, the Suns fell into a bit of luck when they played the Lakers, Nuggets, and Clippers without being at full strength. With that said, the team did secure the No. 2 overall seed in the regular season. While Anthony Davis was hurt during the regular season, Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard both played significant time during that stretch.
Both Murray and Leonard will miss significant time this season as both recovers from ACL injuries. The jury is out on if Davis is truly healed up. Even without those players, the Western Conference is loaded with talent on the Lakers, Mavericks, and Jazz.
Despite not making any major additions this offseason, the Suns have a team that works well together. It was good enough to make the NBA Finals and finish as a top seed in the conference. There is no reason that the Suns can’t make it back to the NBA Finals even with the entire league owning healthy teams.
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