With Chris Paul’s arrival, the Phoenix Suns face playoff expectations for the first time in years. Here are their five big questions for the 2020-21 NBA season.
The Phoenix Suns have spent more time aimlessly wandering the desert than most Biblical characters lately. Thanks to Devin Booker‘s tireless efforts, head coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones, the losing culture that comes with a 10-year playoff drought is beginning to wash away.
The Suns’ 8-0 run in the NBA bubble opened the floodgates, restoring Phoenix’s image around the league, but the front office couldn’t be complacent over the summer, lest it all prove to be a mirage. Trading for Chris Paul immediately boosted expectations for the upcoming summer, and that domino effect helped the Suns sign respected veterans like Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore.
Booker has never enjoyed an oasis with so much depth before. CP3 is easily the best player he’s ever played with, and if youngsters like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson make leaps as well, this team could be sneaky good. Here are their five big questions for the upcoming season.
1. Who benefits more from the addition of Chris Paul — Deandre Ayton or Devin Booker?
Ayton. We saw what Booker can do with even a league-average starting point guard last season thanks to Ricky Rubio, as the young phenom put together a career year of 26.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on 61.8 percent true shooting. CP3 is obviously an upgrade from Rubio, which will undoubtedly help Booker in the backcourt.
But while Paul eases Book’s burden on the offensive end, he’ll be challenging and bringing out the best of Ayton in ways that just aren’t as necessary with Booker. We’ve already seen it in preseason: When Ayton had a horrible second game against the Utah Jazz, CP3 could be seen adamantly talking to him on the sidelines, and the big fella responded in a big way the very next game. Paul has also held one-on-one film sessions with Ayton before practice, which the seven-footer says is a first in his NBA career when it comes to a teammate caring enough to sit him down and teach him things from the tape.
Whether those sessions are consensual doesn’t matter; Paul is going to demand the best out of his 22-year-old center on both ends, all while putting him in positions to succeed. If Ayton could put up 18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game without that kind of direction and forceful prodding, just imagine what he’ll be capable of alongside one of the best point guards to ever play the game. It’s gut check time for Ayton, but it should pay off in a big way.
2. Which two wings should start among the Mikal Bridges-Cameron Johnson-Jae Crowder trio?
At least for the start of the season, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. The Suns were such a force in the NBA bubble because Cam Johnson looked like a completely different player and provided an element of spacing that Kelly Oubre Jr. just didn’t with that dual-wing combo, but Phoenix should be in no rush to pigeonhole Cam into the starting role — especially when Crowder is coming off an NBA Finals run and getting paid $10 million a year.
The biggest key here will be Crowder’s streaky 3-point shooting holding up in Phoenix. Last season with the Miami Heat, the 30-year-old swingman shot a blistering 44.5 percent on 6.5 attempts per game. However, his long-range touch disappeared in the Finals, and in the three seasons prior, he shot 34.3 percent, 33.1 percent and 32.3 percent from deep. If last year was just a one-year aberration, Monty will have to consider inserting Johnson into the starting five as the season progresses.
However, in a shortened season where depth and health will matter more than years past, this is a very good problem to have. Bridges’ defense and impending breakout season make him a no-brainer for one starting spot, but for that small-ball 4 spot, the answer is Crowder … for now. Besides, it matters less who starts than who finishes, and a Paul-Booker-Bridges-Cam-Crowder small-ball lineup to close games out is a tantalizing prospect.
3. Where do the Suns wind up in the Western Conference standings?
Somewhere in the 4-6 range of the playoff seeding.
The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers are too stacked to pick against, even in a season where they’ll rest players more often than usual. The Denver Nuggets took a step backward losing Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, but they’re still very good, especially if Jamal Murray finally makes the leap.
That leaves a hodgepodge of playoff-caliber teams that will be jockeying for position. The Utah Jazz are still a good albeit flawed regular in the postseason. The Dallas Mavericks are poised to make the leap. The Houston Rockets are more combustible than anyone given the unstable James Harden situation, but if he stays in Clutch City, they’ll be in the mix. The Portland Trail Blazers added Robert Covington and padded their depth. The Golden State Warriors are getting Stephen Curry and the real Draymond Green back. The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans have enough youth to make exciting, unexpected leaps.
But Booker showed in the bubble what he and the Suns are capable of when he has enough help, and adding Paul, Crowder, Galloway and Moore to this improving, young core should put the Suns smack-dab in the middle of the playoff race. To be exact, we’ll predict the 5-seed, with 41 wins.
4. Is Jalen Smith another Cam Johnson pick or simply an overreach by James Jones?
Like the Cam Johnson pick, taking Jalen Smith 10th overall — about 5-10 spots earlier than he was projected by the vast majority of mock drafts — represents a slight oversight on Jones’ part. There’s nothing wrong with taking the guy you like, trusting your scouting department and not getting caught up in mocks. But in both cases, he could’ve traded down, added another asset to his arsenal and still probably gotten his guy a few picks later.
In 2019, the Suns traded down from No. 6 to No. 11 to take Johnson as high as they did (with Brandon Clarke still on the board). Then they basically followed it up with something eerily similar in 2020, taking Smith much earlier than anticipated (with Tyrese Haliburton and Devin Vassell still on the board).
Cam Johnson worked out beautifully for the Suns, so we’ll give Jones the benefit of the doubt that Smith can be a productive NBA player. He’s got great shooting touch and has not been afraid to make plays in the preseason.
But he also may be best suited as a backup 5 behind Ayton on this team, which feels like an overreach for a top-10 pick. Unless Smith becomes a viable option to share the floor with Ayton, it’s hard to see a scenario where we’re not looking back on that pick and wondering why it wasn’t Haliburton.
5. With Kelly Oubre Jr. gone who takes over as “Keeper of the Vibes”?
Chris Paul. The “Valley Boyz” vibes were delightful and reinvigorated this fanbase, but you know what’s even more fun than Oubre’s youthful exuberance? Winning.
There are serious expectations in Phoenix now, and a serious competitor like Chris Paul is going to help set the tone for the upcoming season. This isn’t the fun answer you were probably looking for, but what can we say? After a decade of lottery appearances, it’s finally winning time for Booker and the Suns.