The Phoenix Suns entered the 2019-20 NBA season in a familiar position: as punch lines. After limping to a 19-63 record last season with as little going for them in the front office as on the floor, Phoenix flipped the no. 6 pick in the draft (Jarrett Culver) to Minnesota for the no. 11 pick (Cameron Johnson) and Dario Saric. A few days later, they splurged in free agency, inking Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million deal, and swapped a 2020 first-round pick to Boston for Aron Baynes.
Most believed Johnson was a reach (The Ringer NBA Draft Guide projected him as a second-rounder), and his relatively advanced age—he’s a few hundred days older than 23-year-old Devin Booker, currently in his fifth season—only encouraged the chorus of jeers. As did the Suns’ seemingly repetitive insistence on building a team supposedly ready to compete in the Western Conference this season. Last year, hoping to build on Booker’s emergence and after drafting Deandre Ayton first overall, Phoenix attempted to slingshot itself into the playoff hunt. The Suns signed Trevor Ariza, whom they later traded for Kelly Oubre Jr., and landed Ryan Anderson, whom they then sent to Miami for Tyler Johnson. The result was a fourth consecutive season with fewer than 25 wins. When the Suns seemingly continued the same losing strategy this offseason and the new year began with Ayton being suspended for 25 games for violating the league’s antidoping policy, the consensus was that the streak would continue. But through seven games, the Suns look like anything but losers.
On Monday, Phoenix got its second statement win of the early season, besting the formerly undefeated Philadelphia 76ers, 114-109. Booker scored 40 points on 15-of-19 shooting while Rubio added 21 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds. Each was perfect from the stripe, hitting a combined 13 free throws as the Suns continued to penetrate the lane while Joel Embiid served his two-game suspension for fighting Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday. And though Al Horford and Tobias Harris did their parts, combining for 56 points, 15 rebounds, and four steals, the Sixers as a whole weren’t able to capitalize on their best shooting night of the season so far (44.8 percent from deep).
At 5-2, the Suns are in second place in the Western Conference, and their plus-8.6 point differential (their two losses to the Jazz and Nuggets were each by one point) is fourth best in the NBA. Along with the 5-1 Miami Heat, Phoenix is one of only two teams in the league in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Over a full season, the Suns’ net rating of 7.8 would’ve ranked second in the NBA last year behind the Bucks.
Watching Phoenix succeed is like attempting to understand a magic trick: You saw it with your own eyes, but you still can’t fully comprehend it. Coming into Monday’s game, in an admittedly small sample size of 59 minutes, the Suns’ best lineup put Booker, Rubio, Oubre, Saric, and Baynes on the floor together. That lineup was used the most in Monday’s game, and it outscored the Sixers by seven in 16 minutes of play.
Baynes’s emergence in Ayton’s absence has given Phoenix new life. His 48.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc is second on the team to Booker, and he opens up lanes for the max-contract guard to crash the rim. And while Baynes may not offer much in the way of Ayton’s rim protection (who could?), his defensive intelligence helped keep the Sixers at bay. Phoenix spent the evening disrespecting Ben Simmons’s jumper, and it paid off. The All-Star wing finished far below his season average of 16.8 points, with just six points—a lower total than his number of steals on the night—on 2-for-8 shooting.
Even without Embiid and with Simmons’s underwhelming offensive performance, Phoenix’s win over the previously undefeated Sixers and the team’s emergence in the early season can’t go overlooked. Last season, the Sacramento Kings went from laughingstock to respectable club, starting the year 6-3 behind a talented young guard and intriguing big man. They sat on the fringes of a playoff spot before sputtering to close their campaign. Phoenix has the skill to emulate that success in a loaded Western Conference this season.
The Suns have already beaten three playoff teams from last season (the Sixers, Clippers, and Warriors), and their two nail-biting losses came against teams that expect to make deep postseason runs this spring. Ayton’s return to the team in mid-December should only boost Phoenix’s chances of making a push for a playoff spot. As good as Baynes has been in his place, Ayton has superstar potential, and his growth alongside Booker is imperative for the future of the franchise.
There is, of course, the chance that Ayton’s return torpedoes Phoenix’s early success. The second-year big man’s ceiling is much higher than Baynes’s, but chemistry and fit have been vital to Phoenix’s overperformance thus far, and you don’t have to look too far into the past to see similar early-season surprises go belly up. Two seasons ago, the Magic got off to a hot start, going 8-4 before losing 20 of their next 23 games and finishing 25-57. For now, though, the Suns haven’t shown reason for pessimism.
Thus far, Booker looks like a potential heir to Kobe Bryant’s long-relinquished Pacific Division high-usage shooting guard throne. His 26.1 points per game ranks 11th in the NBA, and his backcourt partner Rubio is fifth in the league in assists, dishing 8.5 dimes each night. Sustaining this level of play might be difficult for Phoenix, and stumbles are expected along the road to success, but with a game against the similarly surprising Heat in the offing, and winnable games against the Nets, Hawks, Kings, and Pelicans over the next three weeks, there’s a fair chance the Suns can make it to Thanksgiving above .500. Something that, just two weeks ago, would’ve sounded like a joke.