When last seen, the Suns were … running the table in the bubble and giving themselves a much-needed jolt of confidence. Their surprising stay in the Orlando restart did not result in a playoff appearance but they departed with good vibes nonetheless. Two individuals in particular saw their status soar in that 8-0 stretch: Devin Booker and coach Monty Williams. Booker played exceptionally well, while the Suns were prepared and motivated to finish strong by their first-year coach. Before the restart, they were 13 games under .500 and dealt with the usual growing pains of a team in transition under new direction and leadership. Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Kelly Oubre were helpful, especially after Deandre Ayton served a suspension for a positive test of performance enhancing substances. In the end, Booker failed to make the playoffs again — he’s never done so in his six-year career — and the Suns went home early.
What’s new? Hello, Chris Paul. The generational point guard will play for this third team in three years and yet in some ways this stop could prove as beneficial or more than those in Houston and Oklahoma City. Paul should be an ideal fit next to Booker, giving the Suns a dangerous backcourt of playmaking, passing and scoring. Paul is 35 but is defying age and had one of his more impactful seasons with the Thunder, taking that franchise to the playoffs and further than expected. The Suns also signed Jae Crowder, who brings decent 3-point shooting and a physical presence on the wing. Those additions will put the Suns in the conversation for a top-eight spot and raise hopes for a franchise that has spent the last decade on a treadmill to nowhere.
What’s missing: The Suns surrendered Oubre and Rubio for Paul, although those subtractions can be overcome. It depends on Cameron Payne’s ability to supply backup minutes to Paul, and also the development of Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges at the forward positions. And then there’s Ayton. The big man may never prove that the Suns made the right decision drafting him over Luka Doncic, but needs to take another step toward being a worthy pick-and-roll option and low-post presence. Phoenix needs to be better on D as it hasn’t been top-10 defensively in 18 years.
POTENTIAL STARTING FIVE
Chris Paul | 17.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 6.7 apg
Still a top-tier point guard at age 35 and capable of uplifting a team, as he showed in OKC.
Devin Booker | 26.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.2 apg
Elite scorer no longer is overloaded with playmaking chores and therefore should soar.
Deandre Ayton | 18.2 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg
A double-double talent looks to refine his game and make more of an impact.
Cam Johnson | 9.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 8.0 apg
An ace shooter should see a minutes increase and a chance to quicken his development.
Dario Saric | 10.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.9 apg
Good utility player who blends well and brings consistency.
Mikal Bridges | 9.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.8 apg
He could be in position to start; nonetheless he’ll see increased playing time and a role.
Jae Crowder | 10.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.5 apg
Durable floor-stretcher who is streaky with the 3-point shot but does defend well.
Cameron Payne | 10.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.0 apg
Will look to squeeze some minutes while competing with Jevon Carter for backup time.
Phoenix Suns, last 5 seasons
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Suns are bringing an elite backcourt with amazing passing and creativity which alone can be the element that, at the very least, puts them in a play-in situation for a playoff spot. And really, the postseason is the next step for a franchise that hasn’t been there since 2010, the second-longest stretch in the NBA. Paul worked wonders for a young OKC team in his only season there and the Suns are hoping for much of the same leadership and impact. Yet it’s not all about him. This is a “next step” team that’s positioned to take one, especially if Booker is ready to be a big star.
Predicted finish: 41-31.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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