The Case For & Against the Phoenix Suns Winning the NBA Championship
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Devin Booker #1, Jae Crowder #99, Deandre Ayton #22 and Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns.
The Phoenix Suns have been the best team in the NBA all season. The Suns have the NBA’s best record and have coasted to the 1-seed, crushing the rest of the league all year. The Suns are clear and deserving title favorites.
So what makes the Suns the Suns, and does this team really have the profile of an NBA champion? Is there value betting on the Suns as favorites, or should bettors look for value elsewhere? Let’s check out the case for — and against — the Phoenix Suns as 2022 NBA champions.
Make sure to check out the case for some of the other top teams around the NBA as we continue to add them:
Note: All stats below through Monday, April 4.
The Suns Fit the Historical Profile of an NBA Champion
Entering the final games of the season, the Suns rank third in both Offensive and Defensive Rating. Phoenix has stayed around the top five on both ends pretty much all season.
Teams that are top-five on one end and decent on the other end are typically good enough to make the playoffs and contend for a series or two. Teams that are top-five on both ends are built to win it all.
Phoenix leads the league in Net Rating, Simple Rating System, and any other all-in-one metric worth its salt, and that’s despite basically coasting toward the No. 1 seed since the All-Star break.
There’s a good chance the Suns will finish the season with 65 wins. That would put them in pretty hallowed company historically. Only 21 teams in NBA history have won 65 regular season games or played at a 65-win pace in a shortened season. Would you believe that 15 of those 21 teams won the whole thing?
That’s a 71% championship rate for those capital-G Great teams, and two others nearly joined the list (1973 Celtics before John Havlicek’s ECF injury and 2016 Warriors before Draymond Green’s suspension). Two others missed out in a year with a second 65-win team. A whopping 19 of the 21 teams made at least the Conference Finals. History says that when you win this many games, you absolutely have to be taken seriously as a title contender — and you’re almost certainly a clear title favorite.
It didn’t used to be all that common for a team to lose the NBA Finals, then come back the following season to finish the job. It didn’t happen even once in two decades after 1989. But the Lakers accomplished the feat in 2009, and now three teams have done it in the past decade: 2012 Heat, 2014 Spurs, and 2017 Warriors.
The Suns made last year’s Finals, and this year’s top competition is clearly worse. The West is as weak as it’s been in years, and last year’s top West teams like the Jazz, Clippers, Lakers, and Nuggets are all obviously worse. The Warriors and Grizzlies are the two West teams that are definitely better, but both are missing their best player right now.
Even last year’s title team, the Bucks, don’t look as sharp. The defense hasn’t been as good, and though Brook Lopez is back, he hasn’t been great. Milwaukee is also missing P.J. Tucker, who played the fourth most minutes against Phoenix in the Finals. And don’t forget, Phoenix was up 2-0 in those Finals, on the brink of a championship.
History paints a rosy picture for these Phoenix Suns. When a team is this good two years in a row — and better the second season — history is on its side.
The Suns Might Be Even Better Than Their Profile
The wild thing about this Phoenix season is that it’s not even like everything has gone right for the Suns.
It’s easy to forget, but Phoenix has actually been besieged by injuries and missed games. There hasn’t been one huge catastrophic injury, but other than Mikal Bridges, every other key rotation player has missed meaningful time.
Per Man Games Lost, the Suns actually rank second in the entire NBA in lost VORP to games missed. They’ve been without Chris Paul for 17 games and Devin Booker for 12. They also lost Deandre Ayton for 22 games, Jae Crowder for 13, Cameron Johnson for 16, and Cam Payne for 22. That’s six of the top seven in the rotation that’s missed at least one in every six Suns games!
NBA injury plot. Games missed by injured players and health protocols versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost for games (Lost-ws metric) https://t.co/2NILbvnGUv pic.twitter.com/YJoRxtrdc9
— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) April 1, 2022
Look at the other teams on that chart with the biggest bubbles of VORP lost this year. The Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Denver Nuggets are all struggling just to eke into the postseason. But not the Suns. They’re 8-4 without Booker, 11-4 without CP3, and 18-4 without Ayton.
That’s Phoenix’s best three, and the Suns are an incredible 33-9 this season even when missing at least one of that trio. That’s a 64-win pace. In other words, the team hasn’t seen a noticeable drop off when missing one of its stars — and now they are all healthy and relatively rested for a playoff run.
Per Pivot Analysis, even without CP or Book on the court, the Suns still sport a +3.4 Net Rating in 751 minutes, thanks in large part to an impressive 107.0 Defensive Rating in those minutes. When at least one of Booker or Paul is on the court, that number leaps to +9.7 Net Rating. But it might be even more impressive how this team has managed shorthanded.
And lately, Booker has been better than ever. He has pushed his way into MVP and firs team All-NBA conversations late in the season — with the way he’s played since the break, he deserves it. Over that span, he’s averaging 30.5 points and 6.3 assists per game on 52/41/87 shooting.
Before the break, the Suns had a 110 Offensive Rating with Book on the court. Since the break, they’re all the way up to 125 ORTG, all the more impressive when you remember that Paul missed most of that stretch. By Box Plus-Minus, Booker has been a top-seven player in the NBA since the All-Star break. He’s made a superstar leap.
And then there are the absurd numbers in the clutch. Even opponents who do manage to stay close despite the Suns’ all-around greatness usually find their hopes choked out over the final minutes. The numbers are staggering.
Per Pivot Analysis, in 92 clutch minutes this season, the Suns have outscored opponents 308 to 206. They’re scoring 1.54 points per possession (!!) with a +51.0 Net Rating (!!), absolutely demolishing the competition in the minutes that matter most. Even the clutch minutes with Booker but no CP3 still see a +38.5 Net Rating, and the minutes with both on the court go up to +61.4 Net.
You don’t just have to beat the Suns — you have to knock them out early and leave them no chance late.
This team is deep, talented, and versatile. They already take and make difficult shots with a half-court offense we know will hold up in the playoffs. The defense is fantastic and keeps them in games even when the shots aren’t falling. And Coach of the Year favorite Monty Williams has proven himself to be as good as anyone at making adjustments both in games and in playoff series.
The Suns look like a champion. And the scary thing is that when it matters most and they’re all out there together, they might be even better than they look.
The Case Against the Suns
It’s tough to make a case against a team with this strong an overall profile.
There’s always the injury concerns for Paul, who just missed a month with a thumb injury. Though he made it through two playoff months last season, he missed games and labored through that shoulder injury. There are too many failed CP3 playoff runs cut short by injuries to list. Can he really get through two healthy playoff months at age 36?
The big man rotation is still a little thin. Ayton has been in and out of the lineup and still lacks that fire some nights. Dario Saric hasn’t played a minute, and Frank Kaminsky is injured. JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo have performed admirably during the regular season, but it would be unwise to expect those performances to hold up at the highest level. The Suns are relying heavily on Ayton in the middle, and that can still be tenuous.
Still, the biggest case against the Suns might still be that they don’t “look” or “feel” like a champion. The Suns routinely lose three of the Four Factors. They don’t dominate the offensive glass or force heavy turnovers. They rank bottom-five in the NBA in both 3-point attempts and free throw rate.
In today’s NBA where those margins are optimized by so many teams, the Suns shrug their collective shoulders and eschew 3s and free throws for mid-range jumpers. Per Pivot Analysis, the Suns take more mid-range shots than any team in the NBA at 37.7% of their field goal attempts.
But they also make more of those mid-range shots than any team at 48.3%, and those are the sort of shots that will continue to be there in the playoffs when competition stiffens, transition opportunities dry up, and there aren’t as many 3s and layups to be had.
While opponents will have to scrap to make up those extra buckets, the Suns are already thriving. They’re crushing opponents in Effective Field Goal Percentage at 55.1% themselves and 50.9% allowed.
The Suns make their tough shots no matter how good you defend them, and their defense makes all of your shots harder. Sometimes it’s just that simple.
Who is the title comp for this team? Even as great as Booker’s been lately, who’s the last NBA champion without a clear top-10 player? The last 13 NBA champions featured at least one of Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi, Durant, Steph, Dirk, or Kobe.
Superstars win championships in the NBA, not great all-around teams.
How many teams since the advent of the 3-point line have won an NBA championship without a clear top-10 player? The 2008 Celtics might be the most recent, depending on how you rate late-career Kevin Garnett. All three Pistons title teams (1989, 1990, 2004) probably make the cut, and the ’04 team definitely does. One or two of those Spurs title teams might be close.
It’s pretty rare, though. NBA teams don’t win championships without superstars, and modern NBA teams don’t often win them without hitting 3s or getting to the line, or winning some of those other key battles.
But just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen this year. None of those things stopped the Suns from dominating the rest of the league all season long, so why should it be any different in the playoffs?
Anything can happen in sports, and it often does. But everything we know about the Phoenix Suns right now tells us they’re clear, deserving favorites worth believing in — and a team worth betting on.
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