Everything In Place

By: Trevor Booth

JaVale McGee said before the Suns' 104-96 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 30 that the team doesn't care about its record-breaking 18-game win streak. It just wants to win.

Well, Elfrid Payton shared that McGee is extraordinarily confident in his group's ability to do so.

"JaVale always says that we're the best team in the world," Payton said. "And we try to go out there and hold ourself to that standard."

McGee's experience with the Suns has been smooth, like a river flowing with no obstruction. It is a much different feel than the rocky waters Payton endured in his first stint with the team.

In 2018, Payton played 19 games for a Phoenix group that finished with a league-worst 21-61 record, a microcosm of a frustrating decade in which the Suns finished at the bottom of the Western Conference five times. Times were tough, and it was difficult for Payton to imagine much would change.

Now, his second tenure with the Suns is a lot more fluid. In Payton's words, Phoenix has: guys that buy into their roles; great leadership and coaching; and a standard of excellence. There's "no wasted time" in the Suns' operation, which has combined for 69 victories in the last two seasons, just five wins short of Phoenix's previous three years combined.

It's been a vision that was difficult for Payton to see in his first tenure with the team. Now, it has gone even better than he could have pictured.

"We kind of have a standard now," Payton said. "Coach talks about excellence, not grading yourself on a scale of one to ten, but seven to ten. And I think that's something we all buy into here."

In 2017-18, Payton was part of a very young Suns roster that had 13 other players who were in their fourth season in the league or younger.

This season, Payton is one of seven Suns players who have played at least six seasons in the NBA. It has helped the team rise to a 20-4 record, currently the second-best in the league as it head's into a Friday night matchup against the Boston Celtics at Footprint Center.

"I think this was a deep team, made a great run last year, a lot of talent and some veterans too," Payton said. "I think we have one of the best blends of that in the league."

Payton's experience has been especially enhanced by the presence of Chris Paul, who he has known before he entered the NBA in 2014. Paul said Payton was "like family" when he signed with the team this offseason and admitted he recruited him to join the team.

"The opportunity to play with Chris, I just think it's a good time for that," Payton said. "...I think just seeing him on a day-to-day basis, how he carries the things he does on and off the court. He's one of the busiest guys in the league, he has all kinds of stuff that he does. Whether it be appearances, different things, hosting the HBCU tournament. But still finding time, making sure he gets his work in, make sure he's taking care of his body, what he's eating, things like that."

Payton has also been extremely impressed by the Suns' Verizon 5G Performance Center, which debuted in November and is one of the most dynamic facilities in all of sports. Marked by a 53,000 square-foot practice arena with 150 HD cameras, sensors, nodes and 3D force plates that can track the motion of players and the basketball, the Suns have access to unique data to evaluate their operation.

Payton chuckled as he spoke about the facility's indoor swimming pool, one of several unique features along with a recovery room with a cryo chamber, barber chair and golf simulator, among other things.

"I think it's the best practice facility in the league and you kind of don't think about it as much when you're in other places, but it makes it easier to come in here," Payton said. "Guys want to come in and work out, they want to come and get lifts in and guys kind of want to hang around here. I think it leads to playing well, honestly."

Beyond Phoenix's facilities, Payton has been very impressed with the Suns' operation under coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones. Payton said Williams was "very honest" with him when he signed with the team this offseason, and Jones was able to clearly articulate a role for him despite playing behind Paul and backup point guard Cameron Payne.

"I don't think you can ever have too many Elfrid Payton's on your team," Jones said. "Guys that have played their entire lives and just gym guys. You see him right now, he prepares the same way. He's going to come in here and be tremendously effective for us.

"As you know, the way we play, we need ball handlers to run high pick-and-rolls with Deandre (Ayton) and JaVale. You can't have too many high pick-and-roll players in this game."

Though Payton has only appeared in eight games this season, he has made an impact in his time on the floor. The Suns' defensive points per 100 possessions has improved by 16.9 during his minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass.

He also helped the Suns win the first three of the 18-game win streak from Oct. 10 to Nov. 4, when Payne was out with a hamstring injury.

"I just think we have great players on this team," Payton said. "We have guys that buy into their roles. We really believe that we're one of the deepest teams in the league, and we have great leadership."

Payton's reunion with the Suns is much different than when he was traded to the team for a second-round pick in 2018. For one, Phoenix is coming off an NBA Finals appearance, its first since 1992-93. And it also has much greater depth at his point guard position, with Paul running the show and Payne highlighting the team's second act off the bench.

Even with greater depth, Payton has been very pleased by the Suns' offerings. His experience has shined through the Suns' rise to the top record in the league, and it has been collectively fruitful, with 10 Phoenix players averaging at least eight points per game.

Capped off by Phoenix's management Jones, among other key executive pieces, Payton said everything is tied together well, much like a puzzle with no missing pieces.

"Monty's a great coach and we have a great staff, too," Payton said. "So, we think we have everything in place here."