Among the 16 teams entering the NBA playoffs, one stands out: The Phoenix Suns are the best in the league, and their record proves it. Phoenix went 64-18 and finished eight games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies atop the NBA standings.
That is the largest differential between the league’s top two team records in a season since 1999-2000, when the Los Angeles Lakers finished eight games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers. And while much of the media attention followed the dysfunctions of the teetering superteams in New York and Los Angeles, the Suns were busy dominating everyone.
The Suns enter the playoffs as the favorites to win it all. But what exactly makes them so good? Here are the top 10 reasons the Suns are the best team in the NBA right now.
1. The never-ending brilliance of Chris Paul
At 36, Paul is playing some of the finest basketball of his career, and his unprecedented ability to decode and defeat every defensive coverage in the league provides this team with its most important offensive weapon.
Paul has now played the point for almost 40,000 minutes, and all that repetition has only sharpened his ridiculous basketball IQ. He led the league in assists this season for the fifth time in his career, and his penchant for creating clean looks for his teammates is a huge reason the Suns have an elite offense.
Phoenix scored 29.5 points per game off of Paul’s assists alonethe highest mark in the league.
Between Phoenix general manager James Jones’ roster construction and coach Monty Williams’ offensive designs, Paul is in point guard heaven. Not only do the Suns have one of the deepest and most versatile scoring rosters in the league, they had the second-most pick-and-roll actions in the league this season; only the Utah Jazz ran more than Phoenix’s 88.7 per game.
Paul has spent 16 years becoming one of the smartest and most successful pick-and-roll players in the world. The leadership in Phoenix recognized that when it acquired Paul, and it has since designed a perfect offensive ecosystem for him — and it’s going to be hard to stop in these playoffs.
The scary part about these Suns? Paul might not even be their best backcourt player. Booker, 25, is officially in his prime as one of the most complete scorers in the league. A quick look at his shot chart from this season proves it.
Booker’s signature skill is simple to pinpoint: He can score from everywhere.
He is having one of his finest seasons in terms of 3-point shooting, especially off the dribble. But what makes him unique, given his age, is his love for the midrange. Booker is one of the only players 25 or younger who thrives in the land that analytics forgot.
3. Crunch time greatness
The combination of Paul’s cool-handed quarterbacking and Booker’s elite scoring has made the Suns one of the most clutch teams in recent NBA history — and the numbers behind that are wild.
Paul has been his absolute best in clutch time, defined as the score being within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. He has recorded 34 assists and only six turnovers, but he is more than just a distributor down the stretch. Out of 65 players to attempt 40 shots in clutch time this season, Paul ranks second in field goal percentage.
First on that list? You guessed it: Booker.
Overall, the Suns went 33-9 in clutch time games, tops in the NBA this season and the best such record since the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. If the Suns’ late-game execution during the regular season is any indication, it will be hard to beat these guys four times in seven games.
If those absurd clutch time statistics don’t convince you that this is tea late-game playoff squad, maybe this fourth-quarter stat will: The Suns outscored opponents by 221 points in the fourth quarter this season, more than double that of any other team in the NBA.
4. Offensive efficiency
Phoenix ranked fifth in offensive efficiency this season for two reasons: They score the ball effectively, and they don’t turn it over.
The Suns ranked first in the league in field goal percentage and fourth in effective field goal percentage. (Their ability to convert jumpers at high rates in both the midrange and from downtown elevates their overall efficiency metrics.) The Suns also posted the fourth-lowest turnover percentage and ranked third in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio.
In other words, they make their shots, and they don’t beat themselves.
5. Defensive evolution
Before Williams and Paul arrived in Phoenix, the Suns couldn’t stop anyone.
In 2018-19, the Suns ranked 29th in defensive efficiency. In 2019-20, the season the duo joined Phoenix, the Suns ranked 17th. Last season: sixth. This season: third. It didn’t happen overnight, but under Williams, Phoenix has gone from defensive laughingstock to juggernaut.
Everyone in the rotation plays solid defense, but Mikal Bridges is on another level.
The 6-foot-6, 25-year-old wing has become one of the league’s most durable and versatile defenders. He was one of just five players to play all 82 games this season, and his presence on the perimeter is a big reason the Suns are able to stifle opponents on the edges. Bridges held opponents to just 35.3 points per 100 possessions from beyond the arc, the second-best mark in the league.
Bridges has become the NBA’s first 3-and-D player. No one in the league this season has guarded more pick-and-roll actions than Bridges, who covers more ground on defense in an average game than any other player in the league — 1.31 miles — and also ranks in the top five in half-court matches against 2022 All-Stars.
6. One of the NBA’s deepest rosters
Jones has done a marvelous job assembling one of the deepest and most complete rosters in the league. Beyond the stars, this roster is bursting at the seams with role players who will help this team thrive in the postseason.
Cameron Johnson has emerged as one of the most improved shooters in the league, becoming the team’s fifth-leading scorer in large part because he is converting 42.5% of his 5.9 3-point attempts per game. Alongside Johnson, there are Bridges, Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig to help provide the Suns with one of the deepest groups of 3-and-D wings.
The Suns have depth at every position. Guard Cameron Payne provides great scoring off the bench. And in the minutes that center Deandre Ayton isn’t playing, both JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo give the Suns reliable minutes in the frontcourt. Depth is especially vital in the postseason, when matchups and tactics can drastically shift game to game.
7. The rest of the West is questionable
The Suns’ brand of comprehensive greatness isn’t happening in a vacuum; it’s happening in the context of a suddenly shaky Western Conference. Just look at the other top seeds in the West; there are major questions surrounding the health of the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant, the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic.
As of now, the Suns have no major injury concerns. That could change in an instant, and nobody knows that more than Paul; but for now, it’s the other top contenders that are banged up at the wrong time.
8. Monty Williams on the sidelines
The Suns have one of the best coaches in the league, but don’t take my word for it. Earlier this week, Williams was named the recipient of the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award — voted for by Williams’ peers — for the second straight season.
Williams’ cultural impact is a three-year story: Since taking over in Phoenix in 2018-19, Williams has overseen one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent NBA history. Not only did Williams guide Phoenix to its best record ever this season, the Suns also have become the first team in league history to increase their win total by at least 11 games in three consecutive campaigns.
9. Deandre Ayton in the paint
Another big reason the Suns are well-equipped for playoff success is the play of one of the best young big men in the league. Ayton has greatly improved on both ends of the floor, and he scored as efficiently as any volume scorer in last year’s postseason. (In case you think that’s an exaggeration, Ayton converted 66% of his shots during the 2021 playoffs, the highest field goal percentage in a single postseason in NBA history by a player with at least 150 attempts.)
Of course, it helps that most of his shots are dunks and layups, but his abilities to pressure the rim and to thrive as the screener in pick-and-roll plays with both Paul and Booker make him one of Phoenix’s most valuable players.
10. They are the defending West fields
Lastly, don’t forget these guys won the West last year — and the first two games of the 2021 NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, all their key statistical markers suggest they got better this season.
In the playoffs, anything can happen, but if the regular season is a fair indication of things to come, this might just be the year the Phoenix Suns win their first title.