The presence of DeAndre Ayton, at least on paper, should propel the Phoenix Suns to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
He was the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, putting up strong raw and advanced statistics en route to making First Team All-Rookie. Ayton had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the season-opener and more importantly seemed to have made strides on defense after a summer spent prioritizing that side of the ball. It’s not like Phoenix has replaced him in the middle with All-Stars, either.
But as Ayton returns on Tuesday night from a 25-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, the possibility exists that the Suns will prove better off without him regardless.
Phoenix has cooled off since its hot start to 2019-20, currently sitting ninth in the Western Conference at 11-14. Monty Williams’ team has received a lot of attention for its improvement on defense after ranking second-to-last on that side of the ball a year ago, but it’s offense that’s most driving the Suns’ success.
Phoenix’s 110.7 offensive rating ranks seventh in the NBA. It leads the league in assist percentage and is fifth in turnover rate, and just nine teams take more of their shots from three-point range. The Suns’ standing in each category is in stark contrast to where they were last season. And while there’s no single reason for their large-scale improvement other than the hiring of Williams, Ayton’s effect on those numbers specifically bears monitoring going forward.
Aron Baynes is a gifted passer and has set nets ablaze from deep this season. Frank Kaminsky will never be the player many thought he could be coming out of college, but his shooting range and ability to score on switches in the post makes him a perfect fit for Phoenix’s five-out attack.
Ayton, meanwhile, took just four three-pointers as a rookie. He notched more turnovers than assists and has long had a penchant for holding the ball that allows the defense time to recover.
Ayton is a rare athlete at seven feet, 250 pounds. His footwork and touch are light-years ahead of most big men his age. But he’s still learning how to best function within the team construct, and the ethos that’s pushed Phoenix to a top-10 offense clashes with his identity as a high-usage post option.
Don’t be surprised, basically, if the Suns take a step back offensively once Ayton is fully reintegrated. He’s just not as good a fit for this team as Baynes or Kaminsky.
Still, it’s defense that might be Phoenix’s bigger issue.
The Suns have regressed a bit on that end over the past few weeks and now rank 18th in defensive rating. Quality perimeter defenders like Ricky Rubio, Mikal Bridges, and Kelly Oubre should ensure the Suns, newly engaged defensively, don’t fall too much further than that. The return of a seven-footer with long arms and explosive hops should, at least in theory, make those guys more effective.
But defense has long been Ayton’s chief deficiency despite his enviable physical tools. His 64.9 percent shooting allowed at the rim last season ranked last among high-minute bigs. Phoenix has hardly been an elite rim-protecting team this season but has still made a notable improvement in that regard compared to 2018-19.
Will the Suns be worse defensively with Ayton playing the lion’s share of minutes at center? Given Baynes’ history as a solid defender and clear influence as a back-line quarterback, that seems likely.
If it’s coupled with a drop-off on the other end, Phoenix will soon find itself struggling to stay in the playoff race – and Williams with a tough decision to make on how to handle Ayton’s re-acclimation.