PHOENIX – At the start of the NBA season, the Phoenix Suns appeared ready to put their disappointing 2022 Western Conference semifinal exit behind them and once again make a run at the league’s best record.
However, after jumping to a 15-6 start to the season, their fortunes turned.
The distraction of controversial owner Robert Sarver’s suspension by the NBA amid a league investigation into his conduct weighed on the entire organization.
Forward Jae Crowder, disgruntled over his role with the team and the lack of a contract extension offer, decided along with the team’s front office that he would not be with the team as the club explored possible trades.
And injuries to key players began to pile up.
All-Star guard Devin Booker, playmaker Chris Paul and sharp-shooting forward Cameron Johnson all suffered significant injuries that caused them to miss big chunks of the season’s first half, testing the team’s roster depth. Two valuable bench pieces, backup point guard Cameron Payne and shooting guard Landry Shamet also have been sidelined for long stretches due to injuries.
But Johnson and Paul have returned to the lineup, and the Suns are showing signs of life, winning six of their last seven games. And Booker is expected to make his return from a hamstring injury soon.
The recent surge has moved the Suns into virtually a three-way tie with Golden State and Dallas, eight games behind the Denver Nuggets, who lead the Western Conference standings through Monday’s games.
Coach Monty Williams credits the preparation the team’s reserve players have done for keeping the Suns afloat through the wave of injuries – preparation that begins long before Williams calls a bench player’s number to check into a game.
Attention to detail – small habits that make a big difference – has allowed the Suns to weather the storm.
“It’s the players committing to the development,” Williams said. “You can come into the gym and just jack up shots and do your job and collect a check. And you can be intentional about it – and our guys have been that way since we’ve been here,” he said.
“It speaks to the kinds of players that we have. You work like that and sit on the bench and you never get your name called, it’s hard. So you got to keep working so that you can be ready when you’re called.”
It hasn’t helped that the Crowder has occupied a roster spot, received a salary but hasn’t contributed. The Suns can add more help by moving Crowder before the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline. Then, the Feb. 17-19 All-Star Weekend will provide much-needed rest before the Suns begin the season’s stretch run.
“There’s not been any person that’s played in the league that said it’s been smooth the whole time, whether they were the No. 1 pick, whether they were last in the draft, or whether they were undrafted,” said Suns reserve guard Damion Lee. “Everyone’s had to fight.”
Lee has been a bright spot, maximizing his opportunity to play a larger role than anticipated at the beginning of the season. Over the past 10 games, he has averaged 12 points and 3.5 rebounds in 25 minutes.
His success is no secret.
“You always see guys getting their work in and you never know when that breakthrough opportunity is going to be there, but when it comes, just make sure you are ready for that moment,” said Lee, who also applauded his teammates for not letting the season slip away.
“I mean, it’s a brotherhood,” he said. “(There’s) a time to be there for your brother, and then you know when it’s time where you don’t want to be overbearing.”
A brotherhood within the locker room can only help the Suns get their season back on track, but a healthy lineup wouldn’t hurt, either.
Among the reserves who have stepped into bigger roles is big man Dario Saric. Over his last 10 games, Saric has averaged just under five more minutes per game while having a noticeable jump in shooting percentage. His 3-point shooting has improved from 36.4% to 41.2% while his overall field goal percentage increased from 46.4% to 50%, and his scoring average jumped from 5.6 to 8.2 points per game.
“(I) work on my game every day, stay positive, wait for my chance,” Saric said. “A couple guys get injured, I get a chance to play and started to play. So, it’s hard to describe. I needed to be positive all the time, kind of forget what’s going on, work hard every day and wait for your chance.”
Center Deandre Ayton noted Bismack Biyombo’s effort off the bench, too. In his last eight games, Biyombo has totaled 14 blocks and 44 rebounds. The Suns will need that kind of effort behind Ayton for a potential postseason run.
“He puts his heart and soul in every play defensively, (which) is his specialty,” Ayton said. “He is fearless when it comes to being an anchor and takes pride in that.”
With the injuries to their stars, Booker and Paul, the Suns have struggled to win on the road this season. A year ago, en route to a franchise-record 64 wins, the Suns won more road games than any other team won at home. Without their closers, the Suns are just 8-17 on the road this season.
But off-the-court issues have also contributed to their struggles.
Trade rumors involving Crowder have swirled throughout the first half of the season after it became apparent that he wasn’t willing to accept a bench role.
And Sarver decided to sell the team in September after the NBA levied a one-year suspension and $10 million fine for racist and inappropriate language during his tenure with the Suns, a penalty that was regarded as too light by many – including Paul and other leaders among the NBA Players Association.
The drama was felt on all levels of the organization, but Sarver’s tenure as the team’s managing partner is coming to an end as billionaire Mat Ishbia is awaiting approval of his offer to buy the club from the NBA Board of Governors.
Despite the rough start, there’s still a sense of hope and optimism in the Valley and, maybe more importantly, in the Suns’ locker room.
“We have (had) a couple of storms, but the sun (is) not going to die,” Lee said.