Friday night represented the kind of get-right opportunity the Phoenix Suns have typically relished over the last three years.

They were coming off a loss, which, in and of itself, was usually a winning recipe for a group of “sore losers” who own the NBA’s best record coming off a loss dating since 2020-21. They were embarrassed in that loss, getting gobsmacked by 27 points at home against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. And that humiliation was the second course after an appetizer of humble pie 48 hours prior, when the team that sent them home in the playoffs in such embarrassing fashion whipped Phoenix by double digits.

But instead of following up those inexplicable efforts against the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics with a statement, bounce-back performance, the Suns got punked yet again by a shorthanded New Orleans Pelicans team, 128-117.

For the third straight game, the Suns lost by double figures against a playoff-caliber opponent.

For the third straight game, Devin Booker (14 points, 5-of-17 shooting) struggled.

And for the third straight game, very real concerns about this group’s title prospects were raised — this, despite Chris Paul looking more like himself (24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists on 6-of-9 shooting from 3) and Phoenix outscoring New Orleans by a staggering 42 points from 3-point range.

This is still a good team, and it’s only December. But after three striking losses, it’s time to address some fundamental truths about this ball club…and reset expectations accordingly.

3. The free-throw disparity is not an officiating problem

Through their first 26 games, the Suns have been out-shot by 120 in free-throw attempts. That’s an average deficit of about 4.6 attempts per game, which doesn’t sound like much, until one remembers that 21 of the league’s 30 teams have a point differential somewhere between +5.0 and -5.0. In other words, 4.6 potential points per night can make a pretty big difference!

The disparity is a bigger in losses. In their 10 defeats, the Suns have been out-attempted by 81 from the free-throw line — an average of 8.1 attempts. On a few occasions, the gap has been immense. In a one-point loss to the Miami Heat, they were out-attempted 25-4. In a one-point loss to the lowly Houston Rockets, it was 43-19. And on Friday, against a Pelicans team missing Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones, it was 35-13.

So once again, Phoenix fell back on that old crutch:


For two years now, their complaints on the free-throw disparity have followed a similar pattern:

  1. Promise not to spend too much time talking about it
  2. Talk about it at length
  3. Mention the possibility of getting a fine to avoid getting a fine
  4. Note that it’s not the main reason behind the loss
  5. Label it as something the team simply has to overcome

It’s a recurring cycle that paints the Suns as the victims of how they’re being officiated.

“Mentally, you just — what else can you do?” Williams vented after the Rockets loss last week. “I can sit here and say something real smart and get a $25,000 fine, but I’m not going to do that. I mean, just look at the stat sheet and you can see. We just gotta keep going to the paint, and hopefully it’ll work. Do I gotta run out on the floor and get a tech to bring attention to it? Like, you shouldn’t have to do all that stuff.”

And then again, after narrowly beating the Los Angeles Lakers after being out-shot 35-5:

“I’m not going there, ’cause I got a lot of kids and Christmas is coming up, so I’m gonna keep my money,” Williams joked. “But our guys noticed it early on. In a physical game like that where that many guys are hitting and you think we’d have a few more, but I don’t know what to say. It’s tough, ’cause we attack the basket. We had more shots, we have a ton of shots in the paint. Like, that’s how we play. So it’s just something we have to overcome.”

And then again, before a win over the Golden State Warriors, when he was asked about potentially teaching his guys to flop or at least embellish contact to help close the gap:

“When you have these close games and you look at some of the stats that don’t go in your favor, it bothers you a bit, but I’m not gonna teach guys to flop,” Williams said. “That’d be time wasted in my opinion. I just think we have to wait and see if we start to get some of these calls to go our way. But we have had some drastic disparities when you look at the free-throw line deal, the number. But again, it’s something that you can’t control.”’

Except, here’s the thing: While the officiating is out of their control, their shot profile is very much in their control. And as much as the Suns get to the paint with their “paint-to-great” philosophy, those drives usually end in a kick-out for 3, a midrange jumper or a floater — none of which are conducive to getting to the foul line.

This is not a new issue either. Last year, the Suns ranked 29th in free-throw attempt rate…and also dead-last in frequency of shots at the rim. This year, they rank 28th in free-throw attempt rate…and 29th in frequency of shots at the rim.

Those numbers being so close is not a coincidence!

The Suns are admittedly difficult to officiate. Devin Booker can force contact and doesn’t often get the benefit of the whistle when he attacks, but thanks to the heavier minutes he’s had to play, he’s been forcing the issue a lot less lately. Deandre Ayton can be physical at times, but it was only until a stretch of games recently that he displayed a penchant for pump-faking around the basket and initiating contact to bait defenders.

Nobody on this team is adept at drawing fouls, and as efficient as they are at finishing around the rim, they don’t get there as often as they need to in order to force the issue. At a certain point, the Suns’ glaring free-throw discrepancy goes beyond officiating and becomes more of a personnel issue. And we’re well past that point by now.

2. The Suns currently don’t have an edge

The word “soft” is wildly overused in this league, but ever since last year’s traumatizing playoff loss, the Phoenix Suns haven’t consistently shown the type of mental toughness that helped them steamroll their way to the 2021 NBA Finals or 64 wins last year.

That’s not to say it’s been completely absent this season; they’ve beaten expected playoff teams like the Mavs, Pels, Golden State Warriors (twice), Minnesota Timberwolves (twice) and the surprising Utah Jazz. Even after three straight losses, they’re still 11-7 against teams with winning records, are tied for the NBA’s fifth-best record and own the league’s fourth-best point differential.

But Game 7 undoubtedly opened the door to a type of inner doubt that’s hard to shake, even after turning the page to a new season. It showed up in their season opener, when Phoenix had to overcome a 22-point deficit just to beat an average Mavs team. It showed up to start the week, when they got throttled by that same Dallas squad. It reappeared when the Celtics loss snowballed into the type of beating that can’t just be flushed.

And on Friday, it showed up in the game’s waning seconds, when the Suns and their fanbase took more exception to an unnecessary dunk than they did to getting punked for the third game in a row:

Any bucket scored in the final seconds of a game that’s already in hand is going to feel like salt in the wound, but instead of focusing on the salt, how about addressing the wound itself? Instead of griping about a meaningless bucket that was “disrespectful,” why not prevent that bucket from happening, or at least focus on the regret for the 33 points that Zion Williamson had before that point?

Regardless about how one feels about the “unwritten rules” of the sport (which, newsflash, is everything that’s wrong with baseball and should in no way prevent basketball from being fun), the Suns didn’t show the fight they needed to from the start of the game until it was over.

They now have bulletin board material for Sunday, which is the real reason Zion’s teammates and the Pelicans announcers were advising against it. But rather than take issue with an objectively fun, 360 windmill dunk in front of a player’s home crowd, how about matching the Pelicans’ intensity and physicality from the start?

Thanks to all their complaints about officiating, gripes about which players/coaches are being snubbed for awards, the Game 7 loss and these last three performances, the secret is out around the NBA: The Phoenix Suns are no longer a team to be afraid of.

Not too long ago, the Suns were the young upstart that talked a ton of shit, had zero reverence for the Western Conference powers they were displacing, and figuratively smacked opponents in the mouth with their play. Now they have targets on their backs, getting outworked and outplayed by hungrier teams that are on a mission (Boston), have bragging rights (Dallas) or are out for vengeance (New Orleans).

Jae Crowder and JaVale McGee might not have blown anyone away on the stat sheet, but they provided an undeniable edge and swagger that Phoenix is sorely lacking right now. For three straight games, the Suns have withered in the face of adversity. These are the exact types of games they used to get up for, boasting the NBA’s best record against winning teams in each of the last two seasons, but they’ve gone from being the hunters to being the hunted.

That’s alarming for a team that still hasn’t won anything in the playoffs. Until they shake off those Game 7 demons and rediscover the mental and physical toughness that made them contenders in the first place, they’ll continue being the butt of jokes around the league.

1. The Suns are not contenders as constructed

All this talk about mental toughness and physicality is fine, but at this point, a lot of it just comes down to personnel. And that speaks to a more fundamental issue that everyone knew coming into the season but ignored more easily as Phoenix rattled off shorthanded wins: As currently constructed, the Suns aren’t a legitimate title threat.

They’re not frauds, they’re not last year’s Utah Jazz, and they’re honestly not far off from being a serious title threat. But as of right now? There are three things holding Phoenix back from a roster construction standpoint.

First of all, the Suns need Chris Paul to be the Point God. He’s averaging a career-low 10.4 points and 8.8 assists per game this season, all while shooting a career-worst 38.5 percent from the floor and 34.1 percent from 3.

Fortunately, Friday was an encouraging sign CP3 can get there again. Notching 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists on 6-of-9 shooting from long range, Paul proved he’s still got something left in the tank. In just his second game back after missing 14 games due to right heel soreness, that’s huge.

On a less promising front is the Suns’ second big issue: Cam Johnson’s health. We’re four weeks past his surgery on his torn right meniscus, with the timetable for his return originally projected to be in the one- or two-month range. Phoenix’s preferred starting lineup of Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Johnson and Ayton boasted a +33.1 Net Rating before injuries started piling up, so there’s no question they have the firepower to legitimately contend.

But there’s no guarantee Johnson will be the same coming off a knee surgery like that, and even if their preferred starting lineup is intact and as potent as ever, Phoenix will still be relying on unreliable bench pieces like Cam Payne and Landry Shamet — or non-shooters like the recently impressive Josh Okogie — come playoff time.

Which speaks to the final, fundamental issue of this roster: The Suns won’t know what their true ceiling is until general manager James Jones makes the long-awaited Jae Crowder trade. So many options have floated into the ether by now, but nothing has materialized.

That means Phoenix’s two starting-caliber 4s are currently giving them zeroes on the stat sheet. It also means the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-highest paid players on the team (Crowder, Shamet and Dario Saric) are basically doing the same. Torrey Craig has filled in admirably, but the Suns’ needs — ball-handling, offensive creation, playmaking, size at the 4 — are abundantly clear.

At this point, it’s highly unlikely a Crowder trade fixes Phoenix’s problems. In fact, dumping Crowder may not even yield a top-six or top-seven player in the rotation, which the Suns desperately need. With Dec. 15 approaching and dozens of players becoming trade-eligible, it’ll soon be time for James to start addressing his roster’s many shortcomings.

Because as great as continuity and internal growth are, the last three games have proven when Booker has an off-night, Ayton and Bridges aren’t consistent enough to be the go-to “second guy.” A fully healthy Suns squad is still dangerous, but if the goal is a championship, the margin for error is razor-thin until the cavalry arrives.


Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.