With a 51-21 record, the Phoenix Suns were one of the biggest surprises in the NBA last season. So it was even more surprising when All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul helped lead Phoenix to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.
Now, the Suns have an increasingly large target on their back in a tough Western Conference. However, they hold one advantage over their competitors out west, as well as the NBA as a whole, that should promise another successful season in the desert.
Everything went right for the Phoenix Suns
The Suns have been a largely hapless franchise for the better part of a decade. Following Steve Nash‘s departure in 2012, Phoenix missed the playoffs every season and finished above .500 only one time. Their lowest point came when they finished 19-63 two years ago, the second-worst record in franchise history behind their expansion season of 1968-69.
However, everything changed last season. With Paul in the fold and young stars Booker and DeAndre Ayton playing well, the Suns won over 50 games for the first time since 2009-10. They finished the season seventh in points per game, seventh in points allowed, and had the fourth-best point differential in the NBA behind only the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
As a bonus, Phoenix had health on its side. Despite a short offseason and a pandemic affecting players across the league, the big three of Booker, Paul, and Ayton missed a combined 10 games out of a possible 216. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix’s 24-year-old small forward, started all 72 contests, while four additional players played in 60 games each.
The healthy Suns took advantage of injured teams in the postseason. Phoenix dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in round one after LA lost Anthony Davis in the middle of the series. The Suns then overcame MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, who were without Jamal Murray for the entire postseason. Finally, they took down the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers in six games before falling to Milwaukee in the Finals.
The Suns welcome back the majority of last season’s roster
Part of what makes the NBA fascinating is how quickly a team can revamp its roster. The Lakers are a prime example of that, having flipped out nearly their entire team over the course of a single offseason. However, the Suns are the direct antithesis of their rivals from Hollywood.
Phoenix is returning 11 players from last season’s runner-up squad, tied for the fourth-most in the NBA. However, those 11 players make up 87% of Phoenix’s minutes from last season, the most in basketball.
Ayton, Booker, Bridges, and Paul all started at least 67 games last year and averaged over 30 minutes of playing time. Veteran Jae Crowder will also start for Phoenix after averaging 27.5 minutes per game. Cameron Johnson, Cameron Payne, and Frank Kaminsky, three of Phoenix’s most-utilized role players, are also back for the 2021-22 season.
The Atlanta Hawks are the next-highest team behind the Suns in terms of returning minutes, followed by the Nuggets, Jazz, and Philadelphia 76ers. Denver leads the league with 14 players back, but that group only contributed to 84% of its total minutes from last season. At the bottom, the Lakers brought back just three players comprising 23% of last year’s minutes, with the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic as the next-lowest.
Will the Suns win the Western Conference again?
There is no doubt the Suns are in a great spot. With chemistry formed and nearly all of their key players back, they should be able to get off to a better start than a team like LA waiting for its pieces to gel. Additionally, the Nuggets and Clippers, two of their biggest threats, will be without Murray and Leonard respectively for the majority of the season.
But is it a good thing Phoenix is largely identical to last season? With a fully healthy team and an identical starting five to this year, the Suns won 51 games in a tough West. But you can make an argument about how far they would’ve advanced if any of their three playoff opponents ahead of Milwaukee were healthy. If Davis never gets hurt and LA goes on to win in the first round, are the Suns confident bringing back players who made up 87% of their minutes?
Ultimately, it’s a positive when a good team stays intact for another year. Denver and Utah have proven themselves as consistent playoff teams, and it looks like Phoenix can enter that same group this season. Whether it will result in a title remains to be seen, but don’t be shocked if the Suns have a record equal to or better than last season.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.