Each Thursday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re diving deep into the Phoenix Suns’ outrageous offense. Plus, Karl-Anthony Towns’s Hall of Fame scoring pedigree, a fake New York Knicks trade, why it’s time to expand NBA All-Star rosters, and more. This is the Kram Session.
Under Review: The Phoenix Suns Are Finally Healthy—and They Look Unguardable
Forgive the easy pun, but the Suns are the hottest team in the NBA. After blowing out the Mavericks in Dallas on Wednesday, the Suns have seven consecutive wins and a 26-18 record, tied for fifth in the West.
Just a week ago, they were in eighth place in the conference, having been parked in play-in position every day since early December. But now the Suns are—forgive another easy pun—on fire, and showing why they ranked among the preseason favorites to win the 2023-24 title.
The Suns’ surge starts, unsurprisingly, with a return to health for their three stars. After battling various injuries earlier this season, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal have all played in the Suns’ past nine games, giving Frank Vogel’s team both much-needed consistency and the highest offensive ceiling in the NBA.
“The three of them on the floor together are head and shoulders the best offense in the league,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said before Phoenix beat Chicago on a Durant game-winner this week.
The numbers support Donovan’s assertion. The Suns trio is up to 535 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass, which comprises a decent enough sample to start to make conclusions—and the results, well, they’ll just about melt your face off.
When Beal, Booker, and Durant share the court, the Suns are scoring 135.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 100th percentile compared to all lineups with at least 100 possessions played. They have a plus-25.1 net rating, also in the 100th percentile. They rarely turn the ball over, generate gobs of free throws, and have a 63 percent effective field goal rate; for reference, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are at 62 percent this season.
The Suns with their Big Three are essentially the best shooters from every spot on the court.
Suns Shooting With Beal, Booker, and Durant On Court
|Above the Break 3
Look at those numbers! 52 percent from the midrange! 45 percent from 3! I’ve seen teams not shoot that well in pregame warm-up sessions.
This was the vision that compelled the Suns to trade for Durant last season and then Beal over the offseason, sacrificing young talent, financial flexibility, and all of their future first-round picks for high-wattage offensive star power. Phoenix has crafted, in relatively quick order upon reaching full health, an unguardable offense that generates open looks for elite shooters almost every trip down the court.
On an individual basis, Durant and Booker both have an argument as the Suns’ best player this season. Durant ranks fifth among qualified players in scoring (29.1 points per game) on 53/45/87 shooting splits, while Booker is eighth in scoring (27.2 per game) and leads the team with 7.5 assists per game. In just the past week, Booker scored 52 points against the Pelicans and 46 (on just 23 shots!) against the Mavericks.
Beal, meanwhile, has sacrificed the most, as is typical for one of three stars in this sort of configuration. The 30-year-old’s usage rate has dropped from 31 percent over his last five seasons in Washington to just 23 percent this season, and he’s averaging only 18 points after twice breaching the 30-points-per-game mark. Yet his efficiency remains high, and he’s knocking down 39 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Opposing defenses have no recourse when the Suns place two or all three of their stars in the same action. Phoenix can, for instance, use a Beal handoff to get Durant the ball on the move, with Booker waiting in the strongside corner. The defense can’t help off of either guard, so Durant can glide to the hoop for an easy 2.
Or the Suns can target the weak side with quick ball movement around the perimeter, leading to a wide-open look.
The eventual shooter in that last clip is Grayson Allen, who might be the greatest beneficiary of the Suns’ star collection. Allen leads all qualified shooters with a 49 percent mark from distance (Durant is fourth), which would be the highest ever for a player with at least five attempts per game.
Allen deserves a lot of credit, as he’s transformed from somewhat of a throw-in to the trade that brought Jusuf Nurkic to Phoenix in exchange for Deandre Ayton into a crucial member of his new team’s core. He’s also taken full advantage of the fact that defenses would rather leave him open—even though he’s one of the league’s most accurate 3-point aces—than his All-Star teammates.
Among all players with at least 100 3-point attempts this season, Durant ranks third from the bottom with a 17 percent wide-open rate, per analysis of tracking data from NBA Advanced Stats. (A shot counts as wide open if the closest defender is at least 6 feet away.) Booker is 10th from the bottom at 25 percent.
But Allen? He has the seventh-highest wide-open rate in the league, with a whopping 84 percent of his 3s coming with acres of space. That’s the highest rate of his career, even though he played next to stars in Milwaukee before arriving in Phoenix.
That rate also makes Allen an outlier this season, because the other shooters that defenses leave open aren’t nearly as accurate. It makes sense that opponents wouldn’t worry about Josh Giddey or Derrick Jones Jr. launching 3s, whereas the whole reason Allen is in the NBA is that he can make shots from the perimeter. But the Suns offense forces defenses to pick their poison, and they’re often choosing to die at Allen’s hand.
Highest Proportion of 3-Pointers That Are Wide Open
|Wide-Open 3-Point Rate
|Wide-Open 3-Point Accuracy
|Wide-Open 3-Point Rate
|Wide-Open 3-Point Accuracy
|Derrick Jones Jr.
|Jaren Jackson Jr.
If the Suns are succeeding just as they might have envisioned when they constructed this top-heavy, offense-first roster, their potential weaknesses remain in place, as well. Phoenix has a tremendously shallow roster: Aside from the five starters and Eric Gordon, no other Sun is averaging more than 5.6 points per game. And although the team is healthy now, health will always be a concern for this group of stars, especially with the depth issues behind them.
On the positive side, though, the defense ranks a perfectly average 16th. While quick guards like Coby White, De’Aaron Fox, and Anfernee Simons have torched the Suns defense even amid the winning streak, presaging potential playoff problems, Phoenix has been more competent than expected on that end of the floor. Last season, the Nuggets ranked 15th on defense, yet won the title anyway because their offense was so unstoppable. The Suns hope to follow the same formula this year.
One major difference between the two teams is that the Nuggets landed the no. 1 seed in the West last season, which helped smooth their playoff path. The Suns, conversely, are still closer to a play-in spot than a top-four seed, let alone the top spot in the West, even after winning seven games in a row. They’ll be hard-pressed to push much higher in the standings, as they’ve benefited from facing the easiest schedule in the league, and thus have the hardest remaining slate of any team.
But after stumbling through 30-plus games, leading to a Christmas report about Durant’s dissatisfaction with his team’s direction, Phoenix has found its groove, and looks every part the offensive juggernaut that could compete for a title this spring. The stars are in sync and making life easier for their teammates, leading to furious fourth-quarter comebacks and emphatic wins over rivals. Now that it’s healthy, Phoenix’s whole looks like—forgive one last, more strained pun—even more than the sun of its parts.
Zacht of the Week: Karl-Anthony Towns, Future Hall of Famer?
Joel Embiid and Towns made history on Monday, becoming the first NBA duo since 1978 to score 60-plus points on the same night. Seerat Sohi wrote about Embiid’s 70-point outburst; I’ll take Towns, whose 62-point night ended in a far more dispiriting fashion, as he was benched down the stretch and the Timberwolves choked against Charlotte.
Still, that game was a worthy showcase for Towns, who is quietly averaging 23 points per game on 51/44/89 shooting splits this season. Anthony Edwards is the Timberwolves’ leading scorer, and Rudy Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year favorite, but Towns has been spectacular in a supporting role, even as his contract makes him the likeliest scapegoat this summer should Minnesota falter in the playoffs.
There are some fluke 50-point games scattered throughout NBA history—Corey Brewer, Tony Delk, Andre Miller—but no fluke 60s. Only three retired players (a) scored 60 points in a game and (b) aren’t in the Hall of Fame:
- Carmelo Anthony, who will be inducted as soon as he’s eligible
- Tom Chambers, the last man in Bill Simmons’s Hall of Fame Pyramid, albeit not the actual Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts
- Gilbert Arenas, whose incandescent prime was cut short by injuries and suspension
And Towns doesn’t have just one 60-point game; he now has two—he also scored 60 against the Spurs in 2022—which places him in an extremely selective club. Only seven players in NBA history have multiple 60-point games, and the other six were named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team:
Players With Multiple Career 60-Point Games
|Number of Games
|Number of Games
|4 (plus 1 playoff)
|3 (plus 1 playoff)
Note that Towns and Wilt Chamberlain are also the only big men on this list—in fact, there have been only five total 60-point games from big men since Chamberlain last accomplished the feat 55 years ago, and Towns has two of them. (The others belong to Embiid, Shaquille O’Neal, and David Robinson.)
Maybe Towns’s boasts that he’s the “greatest big man shooter of all time” aren’t so hyperbolic. The 28-year-old has 934 career 3-pointers, fourth most among 7-footers, according to Stathead. He and Lauri Markkanen will both pass Channing Frye by early next season, though Dirk Nowitzki—the actual greatest big man shooter of all time—remains half a career away.
Most Career 3-Pointers by 7-Footers
In accuracy, Towns already stands taller than the rest of his sizable competitors. His 39.9 percent career 3-point mark is the best for any 7-footer with at least 10 made 3s; Meyers Leonard is second, at 39 percent, followed by Frye, Chet Holmgren, Wang Zhizhi, Olivier Sarr, and Nowitzki, who are in the 38s.
Fake Trade of the Week: The Knicks Aren’t Done
The Knicks tipped off trade season at the end of December, sending Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and a high second-round pick to Toronto for OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn. The move has paid off in spades in the early going: Since Anunoby’s first game with the team on January 1, the Knicks are 10-2 with a plus-12.9 net rating, the league’s second-best mark. Anunoby has a positive plus-minus in every game of his short Knicks career.
But New York’s roster still isn’t complete; in particular, the bench has struggled without Quickley to helm the offense when Jalen Brunson goes to the bench. So before the deadline, the Knicks should make one more addition to round out their rotation:
To Knicks: Malcolm Brogdon
To Trail Blazers: Evan Fournier, lottery-protected 2024 first-round pick
Brogdon’s playing time has been inconsistent as Portland decides how much to prioritize winning versus developing young guards like Scoot Henderson, but the 31-year-old guard has been as solid as ever. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is averaging 16 points and five assists in 28 minutes per game and shooting 42 percent from distance on good volume.
The Knicks aren’t the only team that could use a reliable secondary playmaker like Brogdon if the cost is one future protected first, as the Heat gave up for Terry Rozier. On the high end, Brogdon would also make sense for the 76ers, filling in behind Tyrese Maxey just as he would for Brunson on the Knicks. On the lower end, he’d be the best point guard on a Magic team that’s slipping in the standings.
But he fits best with the Knicks, whose lineups without both Brunson and Quickley have scored just 108.6 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranks in the 10th percentile leaguewide. Those groups don’t shoot well (6th percentile in effective field goal percentage), generate free throws (6th percentile), or take care of the ball (2nd percentile in turnover rate); they’re ugly all around. And while Deuce McBride has shown individual flashes—and just signed a three-year extension—he isn’t necessarily ready to be a reliable playoff contributor.
Fournier, meanwhile, has played just three games this season and essentially remains on the roster so that his $19 million contract can be used in a trade. The Knicks can afford to lose a pick—especially in a weak 2024 draft—because they will likely have an extra first coming their way this summer, via Dallas. (That pick is top-10 protected; the Knicks also have a top-18-protected pick from Detroit and a top-12-protected pick from Washington, both of which will certainly roll over to next year or beyond.)
Take That for Data: It’s Past Time to Expand the All-Star Rosters
We have entered All-Star season—starters will be announced on Thursday and reserves next week—which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite conversation: Who got snubbed? (And not just in basketball. There are snubs all over the place! Which is a worse call: that Margot Robbie wasn’t nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, Billy Wagner fell short of the baseball Hall of Fame threshold, or the likes of Domantas Sabonis missed the All-Star team?)
But the worthy candidates who will fall short of the 12-man All-Star rosters won’t actually be snubbed in the traditional sense, because that word implies that the player who missed should have made it over players who did make it. Rather, there are too many players with strong All-Star cases, especially as the offensive environment results in even more gaudy stat lines that look deserving of a bid.
This problem would be alleviated somewhat, however, if the NBA expanded its All-Star roster sizes to reflect the league landscape. Consider this graph, which shows the number of All-Stars per team each season. The small year-to-year variations are mainly the result of injury replacements, but the overall trend line is readily apparent: To become an All-Star, modern players need to beat out more of their peers than their predecessors did.
This isn’t to say that the All-Star rate was better in the distant past. The historical peak for All-Stars per team came in 1961-62, when 25 All-Stars came from just nine teams. The equivalent today would be 42 All-Stars from each conference!
That’s far too many. But the equivalent ratio from the 1980s would give us 16 All-Stars per conference today, and the equivalent ratio from the 1990s would give us 14 per conference. So why not split the difference and go with 15 All-Stars per conference? That optimal solution would also match the active roster size for actual NBA games.
1. Speaking of snubs …
This week, USA Basketball announced a star-studded group of 41 finalists for the team’s 12 roster spots for the 2024 Olympics. Yet as Ringer pal Rodger Sherman noted, back in 2021, USA Basketball announced an astonishing 57 finalists for that year’s Olympic roster and still needed to venture outside it for the team’s eventual 12th man, Keldon Johnson. (COVID interruptions that year contributed to roster weirdness.)
So which current finalist snub is most likely to follow in Johnson’s path and sneak onto this summer’s roster? Most Improved Player favorite Tyrese Maxey is the top candidate, especially given his pick-and-roll chemistry with Team USA commit Embiid. Only the deep pool of American point guards could get in Maxey’s way: Steph Curry is a roster lock if he wants to play; Brunson and Tyrese Haliburton competed for Team USA at the World Cup last summer and have improved this season; James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul are Olympic vets; and that list doesn’t even include other finalists like De’Aaron Fox and Trae Young.
If not Maxey, keep an eye on young wings like Jalen Williams and Trey Murphy III, who could be propelled into contention by a strong playoff run this spring. The pool of American forwards is full of mostly older superstars, so if any one of the 30-somethings like Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, or Jimmy Butler is injured or prefers to rest after a long playoff run, there could be an extra spot available on the wing.
2. The Mavericks’ free agency splash looks like a flop
Last summer, four free agents signed with new teams on deals that were worth at least $50 million. Three deals have worked out so far: Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks have boosted the Rockets toward .500, even if they’ve slumped of late, while Max Strus is filling the precise floor-spacer role the Cavaliers envisioned when they signed him.
But the fourth player in that group has gone in the opposite direction. Grant Williams is no longer starting every game for the Mavericks, his shooting percentages have plummeted, and he hasn’t scored more than 11 points in a game in more than a month. If only Williams—who was ejected with two technical fouls on Wednesday—hadn’t regressed once he left Boston, the Mavericks wouldn’t be in such desperate need of another capable forward before the trade deadline.
3. The under-the-radar most interesting team at the trade deadline
Some sub-.500 teams have been at the forefront of trade rumors for weeks: the Bulls with Zach LaVine, plus maybe DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso; the Hawks with Dejounte Murray; the Wizards with Kyle Kuzma, Daniel Gafford, and Tyus Jones. But one more team near the bottom of the Eastern standings deserves just as much speculation as the days until the deadline tick away.
Last season, the Nets accumulated a heap of 3-and-D wings at the deadline, as they traded Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. A year later, they’re … all still in Brooklyn, toiling away on a 17-26 team that most recently faced an opposing crowd in its own arena. (The Nets were playing the Knicks, much to Mikal Bridges’s chagrin.) The Nets will send the Rockets their unprotected first-round pick this season, so they might not want to tank, but they’re also stuck in 11th place in the East and going nowhere soon.
Royce O’Neale could help a contender. Dorian Finney-Smith could help a contender. Lonnie Walker IV could help a contender. Dennis Smith Jr. could help a contender. Nicolas Claxton—a big man, not a perimeter player, but an impending free agent—could help a contender. Even if the Nets hold on to their best wings—Bridges and Cam Johnson—they could still be the most active team over the next couple of weeks.
4. A trip down official protest memory lane
The Trail Blazers are formally protesting their 111-109 loss against the Thunder after officials missed coach Chauncey Billups’s attempt to call a timeout in the closing seconds. Instead, they let play continue until Brogdon was called for a double dribble, leading Billups to pick up two technical fouls and an ejection as he argued.
The Blazers’ protest is unlikely to succeed, as the NBA hasn’t upheld a protest since 2007, when refs said then-Heat center Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out even though he’d picked up only five fouls. In that instance, the league office ruled that the end of that Hawks-Heat game must be replayed from the moment of Shaq’s improper disqualification—but, hilariously, between the initial game and the replay four months later, Shaq was traded to the Suns. Neither team scored during the replayed 52 seconds.