Three games into the NBA season and there has already been an abundance of fun and exciting storylines. Trae Young and Karl Anthony-Towns have played like MVP candidates, while the Golden State Warriors have looked like one of the worst teams in the league and Dwight Howard has contributed to winning basketball.
While exciting, these declarations usually come with a pinch of humor. Most NBA fans know that the statistics coming out of the first few weeks of the season should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, one particularly fun development has come out of Phoenix, where the Suns have started 2-2 with wins over the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers, along with slim one-point losses to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
The unexpected competence has fans in a frenzy as the team finished last season with just 19 wins, tied for the second-worst mark in the league. But now, their play begs the question: Are they for real, or is their play just a goofy hot streak that will have been forgotten come January?
Of course, to answer that question accurately would require precognition, a skill we have yet to develop as human beings. What we can do, however, is dig into some statistics and make an educated guess as to whether this three-game stretch is a fluke or legitimate foreshadowing of a Suns’ resurgence.
The first stat that might shed some light on this hot start could be their and their opponents’ shooting success, specifically on open three-point attempts, which could vary greatly given the very small sample size.
Per NBA.com, Phoenix has knocked down 33.8 percent of its wide-open threes through three games, good for 19th in the NBA thus far. The Suns shot 35.5 percent on those attempts last season, so there isn’t any indication that they have particularly improved in that area (though, considering the improved roster, they could see an improvement there as the season goes along).
Next would be their opponents’ success on those same, wide-open three-point attempts. Opponents have shot 35.9 percent on these attempts, according to NBA.com. As for last season, the Clippers and Kings were two of the best three-point shooting teams in the league and they shot 42.3 and 40.3 percent on their wide-open attempts, respectively. The Nuggets were a tad below-average at 37.2 percent.
Those teams improved this summer, so it would be fair to say that the Suns have gotten a bit lucky with their opponents’ three-point shooting. It’s also likely that, in the future, teams will knock those shots down at a higher clip.
Nonetheless, it’s an encouraging sign that the Suns have allowed only 13 of those wide-open three-point attempts per game thus far, sixth-fewest in the league, per NBA.com. It’s a sign that their defense has been sound on their rotations and has closed out well on shooters.
Where they have had issues on the defensive end, however, is in the foul department. Per Cleaning the Glass, the team has allowed an opponent free throw rate of 28.1 percent through three games.
Despite this, their defense has been stout, as they have posted a defensive rating of just 99.3 points per 100 possessions to start the season, good for sixth in the NBA.
While their offense hasn’t been nearly as impressive as their defense, it has also been a pleasant surprise and has shown signs of sustainability. For starters, the Suns are second in the league in assists with 27.8 per game; that kind of ball movement will almost always lead to a healthy, efficient offense.
They have also found success at the rim so far this season, as they have finished 69.6 percent of their shots at the basket per Cleaning the Glass.
If it had been revealed before the season that Suns would start 2-1, most would guess that Devin Booker went bonkers for three games to carry the team to a couple of tough wins. While Booker has played well, this has not been the work of one man. The Suns have played terrific team basketball and hard defense, resulting in convincing wins.
So, while they may have been a tad serendipitous thus far, most signs point to this Suns team being a much-improved ball club. The logical next question would be how did this team go from one of the league’s worst to one of the leaders in net rating through a tough first three games?
The first place to look would be the roster, which is much improved with a solid mix of young talent and reliable veterans. What Booker has brought to the table is evident, while Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio have immediately looked like smart additions that instilled a new, defensive-minded presence to the roster. Kelly Oubre Jr. has brought toughness and much-needed shooting on the wing; Jevon Carter has a defensive edge as a reserve guard; Dario Saric has proven a smart buy-low option and Tyler Johnson has provided ball-movement and competent shooting.
Still, those pieces needed a central force to bring them together. Enter Monty Williams, a proven head coach that has a knack for tapping into his players’ potential and pushing them to exert energy on both ends of the court.
In the Western Conference, the Suns may have difficulty stringing together wins as they have. But, assuming health, these pieces could carry the Suns into the feisty middle-class, a place where no team should be taken lightly.
Will they continue to lead the league in net rating and contend for a title? To be frank, probably not. Eventually, the supreme talent of the conference should win out and the Suns will come back to Earth. Fortunately for Suns fans, that could mean anywhere in the vicinity of 34-36 wins — which would be the franchise’s highest tally since the 2014-15 season.
Of course, that would also depend on the core of the roster staying together for most of the season. The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, the first of the Brett Brown-Sam Hinkie era, started 3-0, shocking the NBA before they finished 19-63 and stripped the roster of the little talent it had.
Given the dysfunctional culture that has existed in Phoneix for years, this Suns team could just as easily spiral out of control.
Still, given the reduced lottery odds and with how much the fans seem to be enjoying this team, the best guess here would be that they keep this team together through all 82 games. In that case, while they may not go toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the NBA, the new and improved Suns are clearly not a fluke.
And, in that case, it may be time for the league to start taking them seriously.