The Phoenix Suns have reached the potential breaking point of their season. Coming off a 2021 NBA Finals run and a 64-win campaign that ended far sooner than anyone expected, the next few weeks could determine whether this group’s immediate title window remains propped open or is abruptly slammed shut.
Lately, it’s appearing more like the latter. After starting with a 15-6 record that was good for first place in the Western Conference and third-best in the NBA overall, the Suns have gone 5-14, plummeting back down to .500 territory.
Suffice it to say these are uncharted waters for most of the guys on the roster.
“We’re not used to losing so much, so it’s different for us,” Torrey Craig said. “Lotta competitive guys in the locker room, so we obviously want to win games, and especially losing games we should have won or getting blown out, that’s no fun for anyone.”
Since the start of December, Phoenix is tied with the Charlotte Hornets for the worst record in the league, ranking 26th in point differential, 22nd in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating. Whether it’s been snail-paced starts, getting beat up on the offensive glass, or juggling starting lineups, the Suns have plenty of New Year’s resolutions to address, and over the last three games, the offense hit a new rock bottom, scoring 83, 88 and 96 points.
Suns have failed to score at least 100 points in three straight games for the first time since November 2018, per @Stathead.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) January 7, 2023
The worst part is the Suns were in two of those three games. But for all the strides they’ve made on defense recently, they simply couldn’t muster up enough offense to end the current five-game skid.
“I appreciate the fight, but I still think we could have won the game,” Craig said after Friday’s 104-96 loss to the Miami Heat. “With guys out or not, I feel like we still should have won that game. And that’s the most frustrating thing about it.”
Craig isn’t wrong…but the truly frustrating thing is how battered Phoenix has been by injuries. Devin Booker missed two games in December with a hamstring issue, returned for two — one of which was a resounding 58-point effort in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans — and then went down again with a groin injury. He tried to return for Christmas Day, but left four minutes into the game after re-aggravating it.
The Suns were left with a four-week re-evaluation period that’s still two-and-a-half weeks away. That’s bad news for a team that is now 2-10 without Booker if you include his early Christmas exit.
The Suns are 18-10 in 28 games with a healthy Booker, boasting a +5.2 point differential that would rank second in the NBA behind the Boston Celtics. In 12 games without him, their -5.0 point differential would rank 26th, ahead of only certified tankers like the Hornets, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs.
In Booker’s 1,002 minutes on the court, the Suns are a team-best +120 overall. In 933 minutes without him, they’re a team-worst -35.
Losing their best player would be hard enough, but the Suns have been trying to swat away the injury bug for weeks now. Cam Johnson only played eight games before being lost for the last two months with a torn right meniscus, and coach Monty Williams said at practice on Saturday that while he’s “getting closer” in terms of checking the right boxes to return, he still hasn’t participated in contact drills yet.
Monty Williams with an update on Cam Johnson: pic.twitter.com/BoX3b7TNOD
— PHNX Suns (@PHNX_Suns) January 7, 2023
Deandre Ayton has missed time at two different points this season due to ankle injuries. Mikal Bridges has been playing through a hyperextended knee. Cam Payne has already missed 12 games with a foot issue, and after re-aggravating it, his right foot sprain won’t be re-evaluated for another two weeks. Landry Shamet and Jock Landale have both missed games due to concussion protocol, Torrey Craig has dealt with both heel and groin injuries, and Chris Paul already missed an entire month with a sore right heel.
Even worse, Paul tweaked something in Phoenix’s loss to Miami, missing the entire second half with right hip soreness. He is now considered “day-to-day” and listed as questionable for Sunday’s rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It’s not just losing a few games, it’s losing a few guys,” Williams said. “That can emotionally get to you, and I think our guys have done an unreal job of bringing the juice every day.”
Williams had tried to lift the team’s spirits by reminding them that the Golden State Warriors went through a 2-9 stretch last year and still went on to win the title. But at some point, seeing teammate after teammate go down has to be demoralizing.
NBA top 5, impact on teams by players lost to injury (Lost-vorp metric, lost value over replacement player)
— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) January 2, 2023
“It’s definitely tough to go through it,” Williams admitted. “You can’t sugarcoat that. It hurts to play as hard as we play but keep losing guys in the midst of a tough stretch of basketball.
“We felt like the away trip over the Christmas break was gonna be a big-time trip for us to bond and to grow as a team because we were gone so long, and we had to grow a different way. We had to go through adversity and stress and some tough losses. So we can make comparisons to [that Warriors skid], but we gotta get whole at some point so that we can start to get some continuity.”
There’s no rhyme or reason to injuries in the NBA, and that’s made it all the more difficult to establish any sort of rhythm with the Suns’ many, many lineups.
“It’s tough having guys in and out,” Craig said. “Soon as you think about getting your guys back, somebody else get hurt and guys get re-injured. But it’s just part of the game and it’s part of adversity, so we just gotta figure out a way to get through all this.”
Live look at the Suns bench: pic.twitter.com/85eToaWl6x
— PHNX Suns (@PHNX_Suns) January 7, 2023
It certainly doesn’t help that Jae Crowder has been away from the team all season as part of a mutual agreement to help find him a trade.
“Jae hasn’t been with us all year, so we’re down a roster spot,” Duane Washington Jr. observed. “You can make stuff up, injuries, and guys aren’t playing together and stuff like that, but one thing I appreciate from coach and the staff is they believe that we’re all here for a reason and next man up.”
That “next man up” adage is a common one around the NBA. But apart from the obvious aspect of losing games, some of the Suns’ frustration stems from their belief that they should be winning still, regardless of who’s in or out.
“The only thing we can do is just keep solid, and I know this group can do it no matter who’s out there on the floor,” Ayton said. “That’s why we tend to get frustrated, because we believe so much in our group and we know the culture and the things we have to go by to contribute to the team. So when we do that and we don’t get the dub, you can see it on our shoulders a little bit.”
Unfortunately, that frustration may be difficult to overcome considering the brutal upcoming stretch in Phoenix’s schedule:
The Suns are now .500
Next 8 games
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) January 7, 2023
For his part, Williams has done everything in his power prevent a gloomy situation from bubbling over.
“The natural tendency is to think, like, ‘Dang it,’ you know? But frustration, that’s totally different,” Williams said. “I just know how it affects our team, and for me, as a leader and caretaker of the program, to try to make sure our guys are in a good place mentally.”
It’s only natural for frustration and doubt to creep in for the players, however. Bridges, a usual source of joy on the court, hasn’t been this down during postgame interviews since the organization’s dog days a half-decade ago.
While expectations for Bridges continue to fluctuate, the Suns wing said he knows joy is still on the other side. It’s just incredibly difficult to see it right now for a guy who’s shot 38.2 percent overall since December.
“It’s tough, especially as competitors, you want to win,” Bridges said. “But you just gotta stay level-headed. It’s good to be frustrated. That means you care.”
The Suns seem to be on the same page about that. Landry Shamet, for example, admitted after Saturday’s practice that he’s never been a part of a losing streak like this, but noted how this group has chosen to channel the frustration into their work ethic. The wins haven’t followed, but nobody’s checked out and everyone in the gym is keeping the faith they’ll get back on track.
“We don’t like losing — food doesn’t taste as good, it’s harder to get to sleep at night,” Shamet said. “But ultimately, that energy is being directed towards the right things. Guys are pissed off, that’s expected, but it’s not impacting our focus when we come in here on days like today where we need to get some work done and lock in on a few things.”
This is where the Suns’ “never too high, never too low” Montyism will be put to the ultimate test. Talking positivity is one thing; keeping dwindling title hopes — and even playoff hopes — alive without two starters is another entirely.
On the surface, at least, the Suns aren’t deterred yet. Ayton and Williams praised the group for being active in the huddle on Friday despite shots not falling and Paul going down in the first half. Craig asserted the vibes hadn’t changed in the gym, Ish Wainright said he knows Phoenix is still a playoff team, and Washington even said he’s tried to emulate “never too high, never too low” in his life off the court too.
How is team morale with the Suns in a 5-13 slump?
“It’s the same, man. The vibes don’t change.” – Torrey Craig pic.twitter.com/Gpc47XWwUT
— PHNX Suns (@PHNX_Suns) January 6, 2023
Amidst this period of struggle on the court, the Suns can’t be faulted for a lack of effort. And despite Bridges’ obvious struggles stepping up as a scorer and Ayton’s trouble handling more defensive attention, Phoenix is still approaching this trial by fire hoping that it’ll pay dividends later.
“You have this lighthouse in mind ahead of you that you’re trying to reach,” Williams explained. “I think all of these environments and situations that Mikal and DA have been in, they’re stressful, but those are the kinds of situations that help you grow. And so I think it’s probably going to make them even better. Because no one anticipated this, but it just cannot be an excuse for not growing.”
Booker will miss at least another nine games if his re-evaluation period reaches the full four weeks, and even at that point, there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to return yet. If their current trajectory holds, the Suns could be well below .500 by that point, even with Johnson hopefully returning soon.
Facing a loaded 2023 NBA Draft class, a general manager who’s either refusing to make moves or is unable to do so without the former owner’s approval, and pretty much everything else conspiring against Phoenix, it’s hard to blame the fanbase for wondering whether the season might be lost. Depending on how the next few weeks shake out, the Suns could be a sneaky tank candidate.
The extent to which I wanted the Suns to be willing to trade an unprotected pick has changed dramatically in the last few weeks. https://t.co/TVvFgKFXe5
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) January 7, 2023
For now, and until their season is officially over, the Suns don’t want to hear any part of it. Williams learned from coaches like Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan how important it is to ignore what the rest of the basketball world has to say about his team.
To drive that point home to his players, Williams has quoted from “The Man In The Arena,” a passage from Teddy Roosevelt’s Citizen in a Republic speech. It encourages those directly involved in situations requiring courage and tenacity to drown out the noise from critics and spectators on the outside.
“No matter how people think, the outside looking [in], the people who’s in the gym or on the team, we know how much work we’re putting in it,” Ayton said. “We trying our best, and I believe in these guys. So it’s really still fun just going out there competing with them, and it’s worth something.”
Falling to .500, losing 14 of 19 games and this litany of injuries was never part of the plan. But for better or worse, it will reveal what the Phoenix Suns are truly made of.
“It just makes us stay together even more,” Bridges said. “That’s what we gotta do. It’s easy when you win to stay together. So our true selves are gonna show when we’re losing.”