Let's take a quick stroll down memory lane.
For the 2020-21 season, Chris Paul joined the Suns and paired with young star-in-the-making Devin Booker to lead the Suns to the second best record in the NBA at 51-21 (COVID-19 shortened season; 70.8% win percentage would translate to 58-win pace). They'd go on to win the Western Conference Finals, and lead the Milwaukee Bucks two games to one before succumbing in the NBA Finals.
In the 2021-22 season, the Suns returned with by-far the best record in the NBA at 64-18 (78.0 win percentage), a full eight games ahead of the second-place Grizzlies. They won the Pacific Division by 11 games over the Golden State Warriors. But, after leading the Western Conference Semifinals two games to none, they were upset by the Mavericks in seven games.
Now, fast forward to this season. The Suns were favored to contend in the West again, with among the shortest odds to win the Pacific Division, the Western Conference and the NBA Championship. But, as things stand entering February of 2023, the Suns would be on the outside of the playoffs and competing in the play-in games if the season ended today.
What happened? Are the problems fixable? And is there any way that the Suns can reclaim their status as one of the best teams in the league and legitimate contenders for the elusive crowns?
How the Suns got here
You can't tell the story of the 2022-23 Suns without mentioning the injuries. In a league where most teams deal with some injury adversity, the Suns have been hit much harder than the average. Here's a chart of games played and missed, for their five starters and sixth man to start the season:
For those keeping track at home, that adds up to 115 games missed and 197 games played from the main crew. Both Booker and Payne are still currently out, so their number increases with each game. Bridges is an iron man, having never missed a game in his NBA career, but four of those six have missed more than 20 games and we haven't even got to the All Star Break yet.
Booker is the most important injury. He is their best player, coming off a season where he finished fourth in the MVP vote. He turned 26 years old during the season, and is still likely building toward his peak. He's currently averaging career highs in points scored, as well as in composite box score stats like PER.
With he and Payne both out, the team lacks the two best perimeter shooter/scoring options on the roster. Earlier in the season, when Booker and Payne were healthier, is when Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson were in the midst of the longest parts of their absences. So, there really hasn't been a point this season where the Suns fielded a healthy roster with any consistency.
Thus, it isn't a stretch to believe that all the Suns need is to get their guys all on the court at the same time, and everything will be set for them to make a late season run. But, it might be a bit more complicated than that.
Issues beyond just the injuries
The absence of Jae Crowder
There are two major differences between the 2022-23 Suns and the two previous iterations that won't be fully addressed with just a return of their top-six players from injury. The first is the absence of former starting forward Jae Crowder, who left the team in the fall during a contract dispute and hasn't played a minute this season.
Back in April 2021, months before their march through the Playoffs, I wrote an article entitled "Don't Sleep on the Suns", in which I detailed all the reasons why the Suns seemed primed for more success than the general public or Las Vegas were predicting at the time.
One of the big but unsung reasons for their success was Crowder, who I highlighted in a section on the team's glue guys that also included Bridges: "Yeah, whatever. I can't even name nobody else on the team."
Well, you should know Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges. The team's glue guys complete the Suns' starting five as the kind of role players who help win championships. Both rank among the top 25 in the NBA in DRPM, joining Ayton and Paul, and giving the Suns one of the stronger defensive units in the league.
A quick perusal of Second Spectrum illustrates how they make their defensive impacts. Crowder is strong defending catch-and-shoots. Bridges is stingy as an off-ball screener defender. These types of specific situations can be difficult to defend, but Crowder and Bridges quietly shutting them down are winning plays even though they don't show up in the stat sheet.
Overall, Crowder and Bridges join their more heralded teammates Paul and Booker among the league leaders in RPM wins, making the Suns the only Western Conference team besides the Utah Jazz with four players in the top 60 in RPM wins. Not coincidentally, the Jazz and Suns sport the two best records in the NBA.
The next season, Crowder would become even more integral to the Suns' success. In 2021-22, Crowder would rank fifth in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus Minus, establishing himself as one of the more impactful defenders in the entire NBA. He, along with Bridges, formed the backbone of the Suns' team defense and Crowder's edge helped define their defensive identity on the court.
Thus, Crowder's absence for the entirety of the season is a major blow to the team, and one that I don't know that they can fully recover from without outside influence. More on that below.
The decline of Chris Paul
The other major issue this season? Paul turned 37 years old. And, in on-court value, it was like a switch flipped. Or, like the clock struck midnight on Cinderella. Paul was 36 years old for the majority of the 2021-22 season, with his birthday on May 6. Over the entire season, Paul led the Suns and was eighth in the entire NBA in Real Plus Minus, sandwiched in the rankings between Trae Young and Luka Doncic.
This tracked, because Paul is the maestro on the court, responsible for putting his team in the right position to succeed and leaving his fingerprints on the game even more than leading scorer Booker. In the playoffs, Paul's box score numbers tell the story of how dramatically his production dropped on May 6, when he turned 37 years old:
As of May 5, the Suns had won their first series and was up two games to zero on the Mavericks in their second. From May 6 on, they lost four of five games to lose the series.
Age does tend to move one's game inexorably in one direction. You don't see too many career renaissances in year 18 or later unless your name is LeBron James. And, thus far this season, Paul has not been an exception to the rule. His Real Plus minus score this season is down almost 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Instead of eighth in the entire NBA in RPM, this season Paul ranks 19th among point guards alone.
So, when you factor in the loss of Crowder and the apparent decline in Paul's production, the Suns weren't going to be the same team even if they were fully healthy... which of course they haven't been.
How to get back up the mountain
The Suns absolutely need to be active before the NBA Trade Deadline if they want to have a chance to truly contend this season. And their most important potential trade asset is Crowder. They simply can't afford to continue to get nothing out of a player that was so vital to their previous success.
In the ESPN "NBA Trades we want to see" article, two of us proposed trades that would send out Crowder to bring the Suns some help. My proposed trade centered around bringing in Patrick Beverley, currently second in the NBA among point guards and fifth among all guards in Defensive RPM and with the infectious attitude that could help the Suns regain their defensive edge.
But, whoever it might be, the Suns need to be buyers and they need to get some value out of Crowder. With veterans like Paul in the fold, the Suns' window to win is not only now, but right now, so standing pat or playing for the future aren't viable options.
According to Caesar's Sportsbook, the Suns have the 11th shortest odds to win the NBA Championship at +2000, making them 20-1 longshots to win. They are +1100 (sixth shortest odds) to win the West, and +380 (fourth out of five teams) to win the Pacific Division.
Interestingly, despite the injuries and issues I laid out above, the Suns are still only one game in the loss column out of Home Court Advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and only 2.5 games out of first place in the Pacific Division. I do believe that they will be healthier for the remainder of the season than they have been to date, and that they are likely to make some sort of moves before the Trade Deadline to shore up the team.
Thus, I think the Suns are strong value to win the Pacific Division at those odds. Plus, since there isn't currently a juggernaut team in the West, I think the Suns are also solid value at 11-1 to win the Conference. I wouldn't make them favorites, but if things break well they have just about as good a chance to win the Conference as anyone else, but at much longer odds.
There are multiple teams in the Eastern Conference that I think are solidly stronger than even the best case scenario for the Suns, so I'm fading them to win the title even at such long odds. But, at 20-1, if you wanted to take a flyer on them even for the biggest crown in the game, I wouldn't be mad.
It wasn't that long ago that the Suns had a legitimate argument as the best team in the NBA. They've got some work to do to return to that level, but with more health, a smart trade or two and a little bit of luck, you just never know. Thus Suns still have a solid chance to rise again this season.