Call it an overreaction to the Phoenix Suns' early-season success, but with the way coach Monty Williams has this team playing, Phoenix looks more like contenders than pretenders. To be clear, no, the Suns don't look like title contenders, but they do look like a team that could contend for a playoff spot in the increasingly tough Western Conference, and here's why.
Last season, Phoenix didn't see its second win of the year until Nov. 4, a two-point victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. Nearly a year later, the Suns now have four wins and two losses, including a shocking victory over the title-favorite Los Angeles Clippers, and posses the league's second-best net rating behind the Los Angeles Lakers.
For the uninitiated, a team's net rating is the difference between their offensive rating (points scored on 100 possessions) and defensive rating (points allowed on 100 possessions). The larger the net rating, the better. The Lakers lead the league with a 10.5 net rating, and the Suns are second with 8.5.
This is no fluke; the Suns are playing truly competitive basketball every night. Gone are the days of the one-man show orchestrated by Devin Booker. His usage rate is down so far this season, and Phoenix is seeing valuable contributions from Kelly Oubre Jr., Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio on offense.
Baynes has stepped in to replace Deandre Ayton, who is currently serving a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy, and is flourishing in the Suns offense. He's averaging 15 points to open the season, and his 3-point shooting has improved greatly, knocking them down at a 46.2 percent clip. Right now, he's been left open for majority of the 3s he's taking, but if he continues to hit them at that rate, defenses will have no choice but to respect his shot, which will open up the floor for Booker and Rubio to operate.
The ball movement has also seen major improvements for Phoenix. The Suns' offense doesn't just consist of non-stop plays of "give Booker the ball and get out of the way," and it's resulting in the team ranking second in the league in assists per game (28.3). Adding a player like Rubio, who can make accurate passes to guys while being swarmed by the defense on his way to the rim, has helped Booker and Oubre set up for easier shots. Booker is still averaging All-Star numbers, but he's doing it on a far more efficient team, and a team that's winning games for once.
On defense, the Suns have proven that they are not a team opponents can beat up on anymore. Rubio ranks fifth in the league in steals per game, averaging 2.2 a night, while the Suns are tied with the Miami Heat for third in the league in steals per game (9.2). Mikal Bridges is developing into a stout defender, ranking in the top 20 in steals per game, and Jevon Carter, a player who the Suns traded for during the offseason, is known as a defensive specialist after he spent his entire college career on a West Virginia team that pressed opponents on every trip down the floor.
Last year at this point in the season, the Suns ranked near, or at the bottom of the league, in net rating (-11.6), points per game (105.7) and defensive rating (115.3). Now, almost a year to the date of when the Suns picked up their second win of the season, they rank in the top 10 in each of those categories while boasting a winning record. There's still plenty of basketball to be played this season, but Phoenix has done almost a complete 180 from a year ago, and it looks like it could be fighting for a playoff spot in April and not a lottery pick in June.