I am one of vey few people that have the Phoenix Suns—the team that made it to the NBA finals in 2021, won over 60 games in 2022, and acquired Kevin Durant with the same core in 2023—losing in the quarterfinal to most likely the Denver Nuggets, if both opponents make it there. And it’s not that I don’t trust KD, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. This is a stellar top four, perhaps the best NBA has to offer. However, after that, there is not much to look at. Josh Okogie is starting at small forward, with Cameron Payne running the second unit with Terrence Ross, T.J. Warren and Torey Craig, with Bismack Biyombo in the paint. That final six in a ten man rotation is not good enough to win an NBA championship…but they are according to statistics. However, I am going to use perhaps my favorite stat the game created, net rating (other wise known as Plus/Minus), to exploit the Phoenix Suns bench, and explain why they will have back-to-back years without a conference finals appearance!
The Suns were my preseason pick to win the NBA championship. I loved Devin Booker’s ability to score. I loved Chris Paul’s ability to facilitate. While I have criticized Phoenix’s front office too many times about giving Deandre Ayton the max-contract, I really liked the way he fit as a No. 3 option. And I LOVED Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson as 3 and D wings who help take Phoenix’s play to the next level. And if Jae Crowder came back, he was a solid piece. So I picked Phoenix, with no trades, to win the NBA championship. But then they had a rocky start with injury after injury, and decided to make the bold move of trading for Kevin Durant, and giving up a ton of their depth in the process at the trade deadline. Despite this, the addition of KD was good enough for Phoenix to close their regular season 8-0 in games where the 13x All Star played, and come in as the consensus favorite to come out of the Western Conference. But I beg to differ.
See, many people like to pick the superstars, the top guys in the league. And basically just go off of the starting lineup. But I love depth. I love the teams that have a well rounded squad, and that could run a very solid nine man rotation. If you’re not a super team, a dynasty, my criteria is simple for a championship team. Have a superstar, have a very reliable No. 2, sometimes a very good No. 3, and a ton of depth. The Suns have everything but that last category: depth. And I think some people are overlooking Phoenix’s depth for one, because they have a trio of possibly three future hall of famers, and because the basic statistics don’t say Phoenix’s bench is that bad.
In fact, the basic statistics actually suggest that Phoenix has a very quality bench. I looked at every NBA champions’ bench points per game since 2010, and saw that the average bench points per game for every NBA champion in this time span was 34.0 points. The Suns, despite seemingly not having many offensive options off the bench, have 36.2 points per game on the second unit, way above the standard for the past 13 championships. And that is saying something because some teams haven’t needed a great bench since 2010, as 30.7% of champions in this time span have scored under 30 bench points per game. And some may be thinking ‘these numbers are very relative throughout a season, and their will be a variety of different numbers depending on the season’. And you’re right, but also wrong. Because the average rank in bench points per game since ’10 is 16th-17th, and the Suns rank 11th in bench points per game this season.
So combine a good scoring bench with perhaps the best starting lineup the game has to provide, and you’re probably wondering why I am doubting the Suns. But here is the problem. I said a good scoring bench, not a good bench. One of my favorite stats created for basketball is net rating (commonly known as plus/minus), and that is because it shows value. Instead of having to use the most argumentative metric, otherwise known as the eye test, or basic statistics, you get to use a more advanced but also basic stat to explain how different lineups play or how different players play compared to when they don’t. We used this exact metric to exploit Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid in our latest NBA article about the MVP race, and now we’re going to use it to exploit the Phoenix Suns.
I took the time out of my day to research every NBA champions’ net rating off the bench since 1985, which is when the NBA started calculating bench net rating. That is 38 different NBA champions. And out of those 38, many things stood out, besides just the general argument that I’m proving in this article. Surprisingly, LeBron James has never really had a crazy amount of depth on his championship teams, as his teams have a -3.2 bench net rating on average. The Bulls 1990’s dynasty continued to prove his dominance, by four of its six championships having a positive bench net rating, which included an NBA all time best (for a championship team) 8.4 bench net rating off the bench in 1996, the year they went 72-10. And we found that the average bench net rating for a championship team is 0.3. That doesn’t seem like a crazy amount. However, usually only a handful of teams have a positive bench net rating per season. For example, only four NBA teams had a positive bench net rating this past regular season; only three above 0.3. And one of those teams was not the Phoenix Suns, who had a -4.7 bench net rating during the regular season. That is a 5.0 net rating difference between the standard and the Suns. And the crazy thing about that, is the fact that only two teams in the NBA this season had a net rating of over 5.0!
Some may be saying ‘what about the fact that the Suns have a 1.6 bench net rating in games when Kevin Durant has played this season (which has been 8 games)?’ And I understand why people think about that. Because their bench actually played better with the lack of depth. However, it wasn’t because their bench was talented. It was because of the competition they were facing. SRS is called the ‘Simple Rating System’ for a reason. Because it is a very simple stat. It basically takes your win margin and adds/subtracts it by your SOS (Strength of Schedule). The average SRS for the seven opponents he faced (eight games), was -0.9. In other words, not great. Focusing on the benches more specifically, and you’ll see his opponents had a -7.7 bench net rating on average. So their bench success had nothing to do with them. It had to do with their opponents lack of margin on the second unit.
So this is what I think. Despite all of the talent their starting lineup has to offer, I don’t see them making the conference finals because of their lack of talent if you will on that unit. If they have to go against the Warriors with Jordan Poole or the Lakers with Austin Reaves or the Kings with Malik Monk and other teams benches, it may not be pretty. Because their leading scorer on the second unit is Cameron Payne; not ideal. And for those who think Durant could play close to 48 minutes to solve this problem, my question to you is how? How will a 34 year old, consistently injured, lengthy forward play close to the full game and produce at even a 90% rate and/or not get hurt? There is now way. I definitely wouldn’t count them out because well, they have the best top four the game has, but their bench is not good enough to win an NBA championship, and will shock the world by having another quarterfinal collapse in 2023!
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