The Phoenix Suns aren't sneaking up on anyone anymore.
They aren't favorites to come out of the West, but a 32-10 record since the start of February - including a 4-0 record against the Jazz and Lakers - has forced the league to recognize them as legitimate contenders.
Considering this is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs in nearly a dozen years, this is a remarkably well put together roster. Chris Paul is a lock for an All-NBA spot and Devin Booker may not be far behind him. Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson and (future 3-and-D superstar) Mikal Bridges make up a perfect wing trio. That rotation screams title contender. The questions only arise when examining the final piece.
Deandre Ayton will be the key to Phoenix's title contention and, going a step further, he might be the biggest swing player in the entire Western Conference.
Ayton's perception around the league can vary wildly depending on who you ask. Statistically, he looks like he's regressing. His scoring is down, he's grabbing fewer rebounds and he's blocking fewer shots; but that dip hasn't been commensurate with a decrease in quality.
This is a Chris Paul team now and Chris Paul teams play at Chris Paul's pace. The Suns were the 10th-fastest team in the league a year ago and are now the sixth-slowest. The previous version was never quite seven seconds or less but the half-court nature of this year's team has forced Ayton to become more economical with his offensive game.
He is shooting 62.6 percent from the field this season, up almost eight percent from a year ago. That number is undoubtedly boosted by the handful of easy looks Paul spoon-feeds him every game but it also comes down to him being more decisive.
74.9 percent of Ayton's shots come after zero dribbles, a percentage almost identical to Clint Capela's while he was playing with Paul in Houston. Ayton has more range than Capela but it's still fair to categorize him as a play finisher. When Ayton gets the ball around the rim, he's going up with it immediately and it's going in more often than not.
That sounds like an easy job, but it's all the end result of positioning. You can't finish off a lob or dump-off if you catch the ball ten feet from the rim. Ayton's court awareness is where he has grown the most from his rookie season. Improved positioning is never going to make highlight reels but it has had a huge impact on his efficiency.
Even with that improvement, a lot of Ayton's scoring is matchup-dependent. He shines against slower and/or smaller centers. Against Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and the Bucks on Monday, Ayton scored 20 points on just 11 shots. Milwaukee is a fantastic rim-protecting team but Ayton's was quick and smart enough to consistently be in the right spot to counter what the Bucks like to do.
Where he runs into trouble is against longer, more athletic rim protectors. Ayton can knock down an occasional mid-ranger - he's 39.6 percent on the season - and has improved from floater range but those shots are rarely by design.
So when longer players can impact his looks around the rim, Ayton doesn't always have an effective counter. Rudy Gobert in particular has given him fits. Phoenix won the first matchup in Utah but Ayton shot just 2-for-8 from the field and was held to four points. His stat line improved in their second matchup, but Gobert still impacted almost all of his looks around the rim.
From a team perspective, though, Ayton's scoring is often just gravy for the Suns offense. They need him to be efficient with the shots he takes but his screen-setting and offensive rebounding help keep the offence flowing even when he isn't putting up massive numbers. His scoring is the result of good offense, not the creator of it.
The opposite is true for Phoenix's top-five defense. The Suns have fantastic defenders at every position but Ayton is the catalyst.
While his block numbers may not reflect it, he is having the best rim-protecting season of his career. He has matured as a defensive presence, rarely falling for pump fakes or leaping after unblockable shots.
His sphere of influence around the rim has a real impact on opponents as they shoot 10.0 percent worse from inside six feet when Ayton is on the floor. He is a real deterrent in the paint but, much like on the offensive side of the ball, the problems arise when he is pulled away from the basket.
Like many 6-foot-11 rim protectors, he has trouble in space when switched onto guards. Ayton has the physical tools to be a capable switch defender but the feel just isn't there. Opponents are shooting 2.1 percent better on shots from outside 15 feet when Ayton is on the floor, a number that clearly can't all be put on his shoulders but his struggles defending in the open floor are a contributing factor.
Phoenix's three games against Denver are perfect examples. Nikola Jokic averaged 25.7 points in those games with an eFG% of 54.1 percent. It is hardly an indictment on Ayton to say he struggled to slow down the MVP favorite, but Jokic knew he could space the floor to get a jump shot or driving lane any time he wanted.
A similar trend occurred over their two games against the Timberwolves when, in back-to-back nights, Karl-Anthony Towns scored 65 points and shot 8-for-11 from three.
Town's 41-point performance in the second of the two games was an absolute clinic. Going five of seven from three isn't exactly a replicable strategy for the vast majority of centers in the league but his performance provides a blueprint for countering the Suns defense.
Spacing the floor is far and away the best counter to Ayton's defensive impact. Regardless of if it's as a shooting threat or as a playmaker, we've consistently seen that a big man with perimeter skills is the best way to neutralize his influence around the rim.
That is the challenge Ayton will have to answer in these playoffs. Whether it be Jokic, Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, Kristaps Porzingis or any other number of talented big men, any successful playoff run will inevitably see Ayton defending a center who can push that stress point.
That's a lot to ask of a player in his first playoff run, but Phoenix's title hopes rest on his ability to answer those questions.
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