The Suns Are Quietly Rolling

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The Phoenix Suns were one of the feel-good stories of the 2020-21 NBA season. While Phoenix’s playoff run concluded with a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals, the campaign was an unmitigated success, beginning with a 51-21 regular season record and continuing with a notably impressive run in the postseason. From there, the offseason was relatively quiet in Phoenix, with the exception of former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton not reaching an extension with the team.

Despite that, the Suns brought back the core of a proven winner and expectations were adjusted accordingly. While they began the 2021-22 campaign with three losses in the first four games including a pair of double-digit defeats, Phoenix may have thrown NBA observers off the scent of what remains a very, very good basketball team. Since then, the Suns have won a whopping 13 consecutive games, which is easily the longest streak in the NBA. Phoenix now trails only the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the NBA at 14-3.

For a team that is operating at this high of a level, Phoenix is attracting remarkably little attention. Admittedly, the Suns have not played the most robust schedule in the early going, with opponents posting a combined winning percentage well under the .500 mark. Still, Phoenix has simply taken care of business by beating teams like Atlanta, Portland, Denver, Memphis, and Dallas (twice).

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The Suns currently rank in the top eight of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, posting a top-three defense in the league in allowing only 103.3 points per 100 possessions. During the 13-game winning streak, Phoenix is out-scoring opponents by 11.5 points per 100 possessions, in part because they’re holding the opposition to only 100.1 points per 100 possessions. The Suns are also doing this without any unsustainable individual efforts.

Chris Paul leads the league in assists through 17 games, but the future Hall of Fame guard has seen his scoring and shooting efficiency drop from last season. Devin Booker leads the way as the team’s top scorer while shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range, but his two-point shooting and scoring average are down from last season. Ayton’s numbers are better this season, averaging a double-double, but he has appeared in only 11 of 17 games. Phoenix is certainly receiving solid contributions from the backup center duo of JaVale McGee and the now-injured Frank Kaminsky, but other than that, the bones of this production do not look like a fluke.

Perhaps the underrated linchpin of Phoenix’s success is Mikal Bridges, who won’t blow anyone away with a scoring average of 13.2 points per game. Bridges inked a lucrative extension in the offseason, and he has followed that up with stellar two-way play, carrying over the impact he made a year ago. In 569 minutes with Bridges on the floor, the Suns are bludgeoning opponents to the tune of a +11.3 net rating. When Bridges sits, the Suns have actually been out-scored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, and he is the only player with that level of on-off split in the early going. On some level, that makes sense in that Phoenix doesn’t have another player that can replicate his on-court offerings, but Bridges unlocks so much for the Suns, and he is incredibly valuable.

It makes sense on every level that the red-hot Warriors would attract attention at the top of the West, while other contenders like Utah are still very much in the mix. However, the Suns simply picked up where they left off from a tremendous 2020-21 season and, while they will likely cool off from this 68-win pace, Phoenix is a team that has earned the benefit of the doubt.

Where do the Suns rank this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s move through the list.

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1. Golden State Warriors (15-2, Last week — 1st)

As noted above, the Suns have been awesome this season and, in a different landscape, Phoenix would have a No. 1 profile. This week, it still isn’t close between Golden State and everyone else. Not only do the Warriors have the best record in the league and an active four-game winning streak, but their net rating (+12.9) is more than three points clear of everyone else. At some point, the Warriors will also get Klay Thompson back but, even without him, they’ve been unbelievable.

2. Phoenix Suns (14-3, Last week — 2nd)

The Suns and Warriors will play three times in the next five weeks, capped by a Christmas Day battle. In the meantime, Phoenix has an interesting road back-to-back against the Knicks and Nets later this week that should pose a nice test.

3. Brooklyn Nets (13-5, Last week — 5th)

One could argue that Brooklyn’s offense has drastically underperformed when accounting for preseason expectations. That may still be true even when factoring in the absence of Kyrie Irving. At the same time, the Nets are overperforming on defense. Only the Suns (13-0) and Warriors (11-2) have comparable marks to Brooklyn’s 11-2 record in the last 13 contests.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (10-8, Last week — 12th)

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Milwaukee is on a four-game winning streak, raising the team’s record to a more normal baseline. That run came against less than impressive competition at home but, in the grand scheme, no one should be worried about the Bucks. For one thing, Milwaukee has a +11.6 net rating with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor this season.

5. Utah Jazz (11-6, Last week — 7th)

Utah lost its last game by one point. The team’s win-loss record took a ding as a result, but the Jazz are No. 2 in the league in net rating behind the Warriors. Utah’s offense has been flying high, scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions to lead the league, and the cohesion helps to believe in the Jazz as a regular season entity.

6. Miami Heat (12-6, Last week — 6th)

The Heat are 5-1 in the last six games. Over that span, Miami has elite marks on both offense and defense and are simply holding serve. There’s nothing wrong with that.

7. Chicago Bulls (12-6, Last week — 4th)

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Chicago gets dinged for a blowout home loss to Indiana on Monday. That was a very strange result, but we can almost throw it out on the second night of a back-to-back. Now, the Bulls hit the road, but they face Houston and Orlando.

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8. Portland Trail Blazers (10-8, Last week — 19th)

All four wins came at home, but the Blazers just ran through a mini-gauntlet of Toronto, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Denver unscathed. This is probably higher than Portland should be, but the Blazers boast a top-four offense and that may not drop with a tilt against Sacramento on Wednesday.

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9. Atlanta Hawks (9-9, Last week — 18th)

Nate McMillan’s team flopped out of the gate, getting blasted on a West Coast trip to fall to 4-9. Since then, they swept a homestand with five consecutive double-digit wins, with the caveat that Atlanta was favored in every game. The Hawks hit the road again on Wednesday, and perhaps this mini-trip will provide additional clarity.

10. Philadelphia 76ers (10-8, Last week — 14th)

No team has been hit harder by COVID-19 this season than the 76ers. They’ve still managed to be 10-8, with Tyrese Maxey taking a step forward and a lot of positive signs. Did I mention that Philadelphia is doing this without Ben Simmons?

11. Dallas Mavericks (10-7, Last week — 9th)

Dallas narrowly saved a winless week with an overtime win over the Clippers on Tuesday. To be fair, the first two losses of the week came in Phoenix and, well, there is no real shame in that. There is concern about the Mavericks’ peripherals, but having Luka Doncic masks a lot of ills.

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12. L.A. Clippers (10-8, Last week — 10th)

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for the Clippers, with a hot start to November before losing three of the last four. Overall, they are staying afloat without Kawhi Leonard, and it is a top-five defense that is carrying the torch.

13. Boston Celtics (10-8, Last week — 17th)

Jayson Tatum has scored 30-plus points in four straight games, and Boston just won three in a row. They do get credit for that uptick, even if the Celtics beat OKC, Houston, and the LeBron-less Lakers.

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14. Charlotte Hornets (11-8, Last week — 15th)

Charlotte slots in behind Atlanta after a head-to-head loss this week, but that was the only blemish for the Hornets. They’ve won six of the last seven games, and Miles Bridges continues to be one of the best stories of the season in averaging 20.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest.

15. Washington Wizards (11-6, Last week — 3rd)

We celebrated the Wizards last week and rightly so. On cue, Washington went 1-3 this week, but the victory did come against a very good Miami team. Not too much has changed, even if the win-loss record isn’t as pretty.

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16. New York Knicks (10-8, Last week — 11th)

The Knicks nearly blew a 25-point lead against the LeBron-less Lakers on Tuesday, but New York held on. It’s going to be difficult for the Knicks to make a run if they remain No. 17 in the NBA in defense, though, and that is at least mildly concerning.

17. Denver Nuggets (9-9, Last week — 8th)

Can Nikola Jokic singlehandedly make Denver respectable amid injuries? Probably. He’s that good. The problem is that when Jokic is also out of action, Denver has no hope, and the Nuggets have lost five in a row.

18. Memphis Grizzlies (9-8, Last week — 20th)

Memphis is above .500 with a -5.1 net rating. That is pretty tough to accomplish, but the Grizzlies have won three of the last four. That includes an impressive road win in Salt Lake City that outlines the small gains in this space this week.

19. Indiana Pacers (8-11, Last week — 22nd)

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It is difficult to parse what the Pacers are right now, but they did just wallop the Bulls by 30+ points. That is helpful to the overall profile, and Indiana has a chance for another solid win when the Lakers visit on Wednesday.

20. Los Angeles Lakers (9-10, Last week — 16th)

The Lakers aren’t the 20th-best team in the NBA. We all know this. But Los Angeles has dropped four of five and the only victory came against Detroit in a game that took on a different meaning by the end. LeBron James being on the floor on a regular basis should ensure the Lakers don’t stay down here, but it hasn’t been what anyone wanted in Los Angeles so far.

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21. Minnesota Timberwolves (8-9, Last week — 26th)

It’s been a tale of three mini-seasons for Minnesota. They opened 3-1, then gave it all back and more with eight losses in nine games. Now, the Wolves have won four in a row, balancing the scales and providing optimism in an overall sense.

22. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-9, Last week — 13th)

Cleveland’s drop is probably unfair this week. The Cavs have lost four in a row, but injuries to Collin Sexton and Evan Mobley are highly unfortunate and Cleveland has still narrowly outscored opponents for the season. I do think this is closer to what the Cavs will be moving forward for a while, which partly accounts for the move.

23. Toronto Raptors (8-10, Last week — 21st)

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Following a strong start, the Raptors are just 2-7 in their last nine games. It’s been the defense letting Toronto down, which is a little bit baffling given the team’s roster, but it’s the reality right now.

24. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-11, Last week — 25th)

Since last week, OKC beat Houston and kept it single-digits in losses to Milwaukee and Boston on the road. They were mostly blown out in Atlanta without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the Thunder continue to modestly outpace expectations.

25. Detroit Pistons (4-13, Last week — 27th)

Detroit has been more competitive lately. Full stop. The Pistons are on a three-game losing streak, but all three losses were by single digits, and that is the kind of thing we have to parse at No. 25 on the list.

26. Sacramento Kings (6-12, Last week — 23rd)

The Kings are paying the “fired coach tax” in the rankings this week. Luke Walton didn’t do much to save his job, though the Kings are pretty good on offense and the roster isn’t exactly title-caliber. This is still a bottom-five defensive team that has lost eight of nine. That doesn’t feel out of place at No. 26 overall.

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27. San Antonio Spurs (4-12, Last week — 24th)

In evaluating the roster, the coaching and the metrics, it is probably safe to assume San Antonio is better than this. The Spurs have still lost five in a row, however, and the offense is not terribly impressive.

28. New Orleans Pelicans (3-16, Last week — 29th)

At least the Pelicans have an excuse with Zion Williamson out of the lineup, and New Orleans did pick up a nice win over the Clippers this week. That is as positive as I can be right now.

29. Orlando Magic (4-14, Last week — 28th)

Orlando trailed by 41 points at halftime on Monday, marking the franchise’s largest halftime deficit ever and Milwaukee’s largest halftime lead ever at the same time. The Magic trailed by as many as 51 points and, while you could argue they have been better than New Orleans on the whole, we’ll flip the two this week.

30. Houston Rockets (1-16, Last week — 30th)

The Rockets haven’t won a basketball game in more than a month. Houston is actually a top-20 team in defense but, with the worst offensive metrics in the league by a sizable margin and a preposterous 18.2 percent turnover rate, this is an easy decision.

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