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Phoenix Suns

Are the Phoenix Suns a playoff sleeper in the Western Conference?

Remember before the season started and there were eight supposed "locks" to make the playoffs in the Western Conference with a few challengers to break that mould?

The teams that the majority considered to be "on the fringe" were consistent - the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. You even had some believers in the Oklahoma City Thunder or Minnesota Timberwolves, too.

The category "a few years away" was a lonely one and consisted of just two teams: the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.

How far the Suns ultimately go years down the line hinges on the progress of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. But what about the here and the now?

In their first offseason under general manager James Jones, the Suns quietly added veterans and quality role players to fast track this team's progression. Also new to the mix? Monty Williams, a well-respected voice around the league with previous head coaching experience.

Those additions have resulted in a team that's wildly overperforming to start the season to such a degree that it's reasonable to wonder if the time to compete is now?

They've already passed two tough challenges with wins over the LA Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers and nearly knocked off the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz - all teams expected to be contending for a title come late May.

Tonight they get a crack at yet another Western Conference contender, the Los Angeles Lakers. How they perform in that test will be illuminating, but in the meantime, here are several reasons to consider the Suns as more than a flash in the pan.

A completely different look from last year

It's best that this disclaimer comes in as soon as possible - yes, I know that these sample sizes are small. This team hasn't even played 10 games yet, but if you've watched them compete, you can see that there's something different going on here.

Head coach Monty Williams has this team playing hard.

The Suns have been one of the hardest playing teams and their roster is a bit deeper than you might think. Defence is a priority and their effort on that end of the floor is night-and-day compared to last season. They get out in transition and run the floor well, they move the ball to find the best shot possible and they get consistent production from a number of guys, not just Devin Booker.

The numbers back all of that up, too.

According to NBA stats, Phoenix's 7.2 net rating is the fourth-best in the NBA. The other four teams in the top-five? In order, the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors - all of which are considered perennial playoff teams.

The Suns have the third-best offensive rating and 10th-best defensive rating in the league, joining the Celtics and Bucks as the only teams in the NBA to rank within the top 10 in both categories.

They're first in field goal percentage and assists while ranking fifth in points per game. This is all in stark contrast to the team we saw take the floor last season.

In 2018-19, the Suns' net rating of -8.9 was second-worst in the NBA. They ranked 28th and 29th in offensive and defensive rating, respectively, while ranking in the bottom 10 in points and assists per game.

This team went from forcing bad shots on the offensive end to moving the ball like a well-oiled machine. They've gone from allowing teams to score whenever they want - at 114.2 points per 100 possessions - to only allowing 103.7 points on the same scale.

And if you're more into wins and losses than all the deep-dive numbers, they stand in at 6-3. The Suns did not win their sixth game until December 15th last season.

They've already proved their toughness against four really good teams, and if the Lakers don't come to play, they're in for a rude awakening.

Booker's efficiency

The biggest knock on rising star Devin Booker through the first four years of his career has been his efficiency. He's improved his field goal percentage every year of his career thus far, but his 3-point percentage and free throw percentage took a dip last season.

Through nine games this season, Booker has been one of the most efficient players in the entire NBA.

The 23-year-old guard leads his team, averaging 25.8 points, 5.4 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game with impressive shooting splits of 54.5% from the field, 53.2% from 3-point range and 92.9% from the free throw line.

Now obviously, Booker isn't going to shoot 50-50-90 over the course of an entire 82-game season, but even seeing a hot start like this is extremely encouraging.

Booker's 25.8 points per game ranks him 12th-best in the NBA. Of all the players that rank in the top-20 in scoring so far, only Booker and Giannis Antetokounmpo are shooting over 50.0% from the field. As for players in that same criteria that are shooting over 50.0% from beyond the arc? Booker's on an island of his own.

When looking for reasons as to why Booker's been so efficient to start the season - aside from general year-to-year improvement and better shot selection - a few things stick out.

His usage rate is down from 32.9% last season to 28.0% this season - the lowest its been since his rookie year. Overall, there's less pressure on him on the offensive end, and that's because there's more talent around him. He doesn't have to operate with the ball in his hands as much, as he now has Ricky Rubio to set him up for open looks.

His assist numbers are down because of that and he's also taking fewer field goal attempts per game, but the looks he's getting are less forced and more in the flow of the game.

Last season, only 36.0% of Booker's buckets were assisted. This season, 54.8% of his field goals have been assisted. Booker's increase in efficiency isn't just from an offseason's hard work and improved shot selection, it's also a product of playing with better players in a completely different offence.

According to NBA stats, Booker's 9.2 pick-and-roll possessions per game were eighth-most in the league last year. This season that number is down to 5.3 possessions per game, and he's added a new dimension to his offensive game, being used as an off-ball cutter much more often.

The pure sharpshooter is still doing the majority of his damage on pull-up jumpers but with Rubio and a pleasantly surprising quality passer like Aron Baynes, Booker is getting better and easier looks than ever before.

New additions stepping up

General Manager James Jones did an incredible job of bringing in the right role players to make this team click.

Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio's value and presence have already been stated in lessening Devin Booker's load on the offensive end as he's posting a team-high 8.6 assists per game - the fourth-best average in the NBA. On top of that, he gives them a gifted defender to check the opposing team's best scoring guard and he's carried his success on the offensive end as this summer's FIBA World Cup MVP, shooting a career-best 37.5% from 3-point range en route to 13.6 points per game.

Trading for Aron Baynes has been a blessing, especially with the 25-game suspension handed to 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton. In eight games as the team's starting centre, Baynes is averaging career-highs across the board with 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.0 blocks per game. He's been their third-best playmaker on the offensive end behind Rubio and Booker and he's provided the team with a veteran defensive anchor to give them an identity on that end of the floor.

When Ayton does return to action and re-assumes his role as the team's starting centre, Baynes will be one of the best backup bigs in the league. leading their second unit on both offence and defence.

Lastly, Jevon Carter - a scrappy, defensive-minded, on-ball pest - has been the perfect backup point guard, who makes the right plays on offence and has the attitude to check any guard in the league with a similar demeanour to that of a Patrick Beverly or Marcus Smart.

These three additions have perfectly complimented guys like Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Mikal Bridges and Tyler Johnson, as the Suns are clicking early on in the season, getting out to a very successful start.

These bright flashes from a young team are exciting, and they'll be challenged again to prove how good they can be, as they face off against the top team in the West in the Lakers.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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