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The Suns Have Given Themselves Almost No Margin for Error

Between an offensive approach that relies heavily on midrange jumpers and a shallow roster that places a massive burden on Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, the Suns face not one but two major math problems

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Phoenix Suns tried something new on Monday night, in Game 2 of their second-round series in Denver. Much of the discourse surrounding the Suns’ Game 1 loss concerned their so-called math problem, as the Denver Nuggets overwhelmed the visitors from the 3-point range. So the Suns adjusted—sort of.

In Game 1, the Suns attempted just five 3-pointers in the entire first half; in Game 2, they reached that number about halfway through the first quarter and finished with 31 tries from deep, their highest total in any game this postseason.

And yet Phoenix fell anyway, 97-87, despite that adjustment and 59 combined points from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. Instead, cold shooting (including 6-for-31 on all those targeted 3s) and a Chris Paul groin injury squashed the Suns’ chance to steal a road win in Denver before returning home for Games 3 and 4.

Now the Western Conference favorites—so deemed by Vegas betting odds before the playoffs, despite their no. 4 seed—are two games away from elimination, and from considerable disappointment following their massive midseason trade for Durant. The Suns’ ongoing, overarching issue is that they face not just one, but two, major math problems.

The first is indeed the Suns’ shot diet. Despite an ostensibly more modern approach in Game 2 as they boosted their 3-point rate, the Suns still largely lived in the midrange, where they took 49 percent of their shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Over the whole postseason, their midrange rate has been a ridiculous 52.9 percent. (For the purposes of this piece, we’re using the broad definition of midrange as all shots between the restricted area and the 3-point line.)

For context, that’s the highest rate for any team in the postseason since 2011-12—a lifetime ago in the evolution of NBA offenses. In the 2022-23 playoffs, the next-highest midrange rate is Sacramento’s, at 38.1 percent.

Phoenix’s outlier status is a game-in, game-out phenomenon. Sorted by number of midrange shots per 100 possessions, the Suns have six of the top seven games this postseason, including both losses to the Nuggets.

Highest Midrange Rates in 2022-23 Postseason

Team Game Midrange Shots Per 100 Possessions
Team Game Midrange Shots Per 100 Possessions
Suns Game 2 vs. Clippers 58.7
76ers Game 4 vs. Nets 58.0
Suns Game 2 vs. Nuggets 53.3
Suns Game 1 vs. Clippers 49.5
Suns Game 5 vs. Clippers 48.0
Suns Game 1 vs. Nuggets 47.9
Suns Game 4 vs. Clippers 45.8
Data from Second Spectrum

That’s not a way to win reliably in the modern NBA. In the past decade, 10 other teams besides these Suns have taken at least 45 percent of their shots from the midrange in the playoffs, per CtG. (Play-in-only teams are excluded in this analysis.) None of those 10 reached the conference finals.

Highest Playoff Midrange Rates in Past Decade

Team Midrange % Outcome
Team Midrange % Outcome
2023 Suns 52.9% ???
2022 Nuggets 48.8% Lost first round
2021 Wizards 45.8% Lost first round
2019 Spurs 48.9% Lost first round
2016 Clippers 47.2% Lost first round
2016 Heat 46.4% Lost second round
2016 Spurs 45.4% Lost second round
2015 Grizzlies 52.4% Lost second round
2014 Mavericks 47.6% Lost first round
2014 Grizzlies 46.8% Lost first round
2014 Wizards 46.2% Lost second round

There’s reason to believe the Suns’ unique strategy is at least viable. Once upon a time, the teams that were fastest to eschew midrange shots for 3s benefited as early adopters. But as the rest of the NBA learned from the Warriors’ titles and Rockets’ valiant challenges, that first-mover advantage disappeared, as I explored last season: On a large-scale, league-wide basis, shot quality doesn’t matter anymore in predicting a team’s offensive success.

In that piece, incidentally, I highlighted the Suns with Booker and Paul plus the Nets with Durant as examples of teams thriving despite their heterodox shot charts. The Suns were so difficult to guard in their run to the 2021 Finals in part because of Booker’s and Paul’s penchants for making the tough shots that defenses gave them, and Durant’s teams—even the Warriors—have always taken more midrange attempts than average because of his singular shotmaking ability.

The Suns aren’t one of the dinosaur teams from the late 2000s that gave a few midrange jumpers a game to role players; rather, they’re concentrating their midrange looks among shooters who excel from that real estate. Over the past five regular seasons, among players with at least 1,000 attempts, Durant ranks first in field goal percentage on midrange jumpers, Paul ranks second, and Booker ranks fourth, per Second Spectrum.

(The identities of the players at the other end of this graph—Russell Westbrook, Jayson Tatum, and Anthony Davis—are just as fascinating, frankly. Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James would both rank at the bottom as well, if they’d taken enough shots to qualify. But I digress.)

This special distinction is borne out by analyzing the two shot quality models provided by Second Spectrum. The first model looks at the physical characteristics—like location and defender distance—of every shot a team attempts and calculates how many points an average group of players would be expected to produce. By this initial model, the Suns have the worst shot quality of any team this postseason.

The second model adds one more variable: the identities of the shooters. According to this shot quality model, the Suns rank fourth in shot quality—zooming up the leaderboard because, again, their shooters are better than anyone else’s.

Suns’ Playoff Shot Quality

Model Type Expected eFG% Rank Among Playoff Teams
Model Type Expected eFG% Rank Among Playoff Teams
Shooter-Agnostic 49.0% 16th
Shooter-Dependent 55.1% 4th
Data from Second Spectrum

Phoenix’s midrange-happy game is both distinct in a sometimes homogeneous league and also aesthetically gorgeous when it works and Paul or Booker or Durant splashes a jumper from 15 feet. And in the Suns’ first-round victory against the Clippers, it worked a lot: Phoenix scored 122.5 points per 100 possessions, the top mark for any team in the first round and better than the Kings’ league-best regular-season figure.

But through two games against Denver, it appears, the Suns’ midrange experiment isn’t working. They’ve scored just 102.1 points per 100 possessions in this series, which is far worse than any team managed in the regular season. That’s a small sample, admittedly. But the Suns are now two games away from elimination; small samples are all they have left.

All those midrange jumpers come at the expense, first, of 3-pointers—thus Phoenix’s “3 > 2” problem. Only 28 percent of the Suns’ shots this postseason have come from beyond the arc, which ranks in last place by a mile—the difference in 3-point rate between the last-place Suns and the 15th-place Knicks is almost as large as the difference between the Knicks and the first-place Warriors.

The only other team in the past four postseasons with a 3-point rate below 30 percent was the 2020-21 Wizards, who were the East’s no. 8 seed and lost in the first round in a gentleman’s sweep.

A second, under-discussed opportunity cost of Phoenix’s midrange binges is that the Suns also rank last in rim rate among playoff teams. Through two games against Denver, the Suns have taken just 19 percent of their shots at the rim, per CtG. For context, the Timberwolves’ rim rate was nearly double that in the first round, at 35 percent, and in the regular season, Denver allowed a 34 percent rim rate.

Getting shots near the basket is especially crucial against a Nuggets defense that allowed opponents to shoot 71 percent at the rim this regular season, which ranked 29th. Rim defense is Nikola Jokic’s greatest (only?) weakness—yet Phoenix has scarcely stressed him through two games.

The Nuggets’ perimeter defenders deserve some credit for this imbalance: Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Bruce Brown have handled their matchups on Durant and Booker with aplomb, and the entire Nuggets defense has done well in shifting and rotating toward Phoenix’s best players and snuffing out the most dangerous looks.

But Phoenix also defaults to lower-efficiency midrange looks too often. En route to the 2020-21 Finals, the Suns also took relatively few layups and 3-pointers, but not to this extreme. More important, they also didn’t face an opponent with the ability to match them basket for basket, as is the case for the explosive Nuggets offense.

Remember that chart above, showing that the Suns have the fourth-best shot quality in the playoffs when shooter identity is accounted for? Denver is one of the teams ahead of them, at second overall, even if Game 2 turned into a more defensive battle than expected because of both teams’ cold spells from the perimeter.

The end of Game 2 also exposed, in the sharpest relief yet, Phoenix’s second math problem: 5 > 4. Or, with Paul’s groin injury potentially hampering him going forward, 5 > 3.

That’s the number of capable offensive players on the Nuggets in crunch time, compared to the number on the Suns. Down the stretch in Game 2, without Paul on the court to help handle the ball, space the floor, and relieve pressure, Denver’s defense keyed in on Durant and Booker, sending copious traps and double-teams at the Suns’ top scorers and daring any other player to create points from scratch. (Even Deandre Ayton, one of the Suns’ core players, is less of a creator than a finisher.)

Look at how the Nuggets completely ignore Josh Okogie and Damion Lee on this play late in the fourth quarter, instead sending two men to blitz a screen for Durant and leaving one each near Booker and Ayton. Even after catching the ball with space in the middle of the floor, Okogie—a Suns starter!—just hot-potatoes it back out for a contested Durant jumper.

Or look how easy it is, on Phoenix’s next possession, for the Nuggets to send a double-team at Durant as he isolates, leading to a block by Brown.

Phoenix’s role players might make Denver pay for this skewed attention at some point, as Torrey Craig did when caught fire against the Clippers, but they haven’t yet: In Game 2, Suns other than Booker, Durant, Ayton, and Paul shot a combined 3-for-19 (0-for-11 from distance), for a measly six points.

That imbalance perpetuates a playoff-long problem. With a shockingly shallow rotation following its midseason trades, Phoenix is overly reliant on its small core.

Booker and Durant in particular shoulder massive burdens, in terms of both points and minutes. The pair has combined for 55 percent of the Suns’ points thus far this postseason. That’s the fourth-highest proportion for the top pair on any team that won at least one playoff series this century, and the highest since the Shaq-Kobe Lakers.

Highest-Scoring Playoff Duos in the 21st Century

Team Players Proportion of Team's Points
Team Players Proportion of Team's Points
2003 Lakers Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal 58.9%
2001 Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant 57.9%
2002 Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant 56.3%
2023 Suns Devin Booker, Kevin Durant 55.1%
2006 Nets Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson 55.0%
2014 Thunder Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook 55.0%
2012 Heat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade 54.6%
Only teams that won at least one playoff series are included.

And in the first round, the Suns starters had to play heavy minutes to survive the undermanned Clippers, who were missing both Paul George and (for the final three games) Kawhi Leonard. Durant led all players in the first round with 43.8 minutes per game; Booker ranked second at 43.1. They became the first teammates since Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum in 2013-14 to both average 43-plus minutes in a first-round series, and Durant and Booker were right back at it with 44 and 45 minutes, respectively, in their Game 2 loss in Denver’s high altitude.

That workload isn’t new for Durant. He averaged 44 minutes in the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Nets last spring, and in 2013-14, he played a record-setting 46.3 minutes per game in Oklahoma City’s seven-game first-round war against the Grizzlies, thanks in large part to four overtime contests.

But for a player with such a spotty injury history, that’s not an ideal start to a potentially long postseason; an injury might have already claimed Paul, who has a lengthy injury track record of his own and must now convalesce during the three-day rest before Game 3 to give Phoenix any chance of coming back in this series. Other teams this postseason—the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Grizzlies without Ja Morant, most recently the 76ers without Joel Embiid—have found ways to win games that their stars missed. Phoenix, though, probably doesn’t have the depth to withstand such an absence.

Both of Phoenix’s math problems reduce to the same fundamental problem: The Suns’ approach, in both offensive style and roster building, creates a very small margin for error for a prospective championship contender. If their jumpers go cold—which happens occasionally to even the best NBA marksmen—they’re in trouble. If a star has an off night, they’re in trouble. If a core player misses games entirely, they’re in deep, disastrous trouble.

That would be the case for any team in the NBA playoffs. But the Suns’ math problems make them more vulnerable, and the Nuggets have exploited that vulnerability to move halfway to the conference finals.