Booker and Baynes: Driving force behind Suns' hot start

The Phoenix Suns haven't featured in the NBA post-season for a decade. In that time, they've only finished one season above .500 (2013-14).

To put it simply, the Suns have been mostly unwatchable since Amar'e Stoudemire departed following their Western Conference Finals series loss to end the 2009-10 season.

As the butt of many jokes, and quite literally at the bottom of the league two seasons ago, the Suns and their remarkably faithful fans have had little to cheer about in recent years.

It's no wonder they're losing their minds just eight games into the 2019-20 season. They've won five games! They needed 29 games to earn their fifth win last year.

A lot changed for the Suns over the summer.

A quick recap: T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, Troy Daniels, Richaun Holmes, Jamal Crawford, Jimmer Fredette, De'Anthony Melton and coach Igor Kokoskov all left the building. In their place came Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome, Dario Saric, Ricky Rubio, Frank Kaminsky, Cheick Diallo, Jevon Carter and coach Monty Williams.

Things are going well for the new-look roster and head coach. The fresh faces are having a positive impact, Kelly Obure is thriving with his new responsibilities, and Tyler Johnson and Mikal Bridges are doing their bit off the bench.

But this hot start to the season comes down to Aron Baynes and Devin Booker.

Effectively a salary dump by the Boston Celtics, Baynes was shipped to Phoenix with a 2019 first-round pick on draft day.

Baynes' arrival was made more important after the NBA suspended Deandre Ayton for 25 games. All of a sudden, the 33-year old became a starter playing 24.9 minutes a night. While Ayton almost undoubtedly walks straight back into the starting lineup, the coaching staff will need to have a conversation.

The numbers Baynes is producing at the moment demand it.

His 16 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game don't jump off the page, but Phoenix are playing with a 118.4 offensive rating with Baynes on the floor and scoring 24.4 more points per 100 possessions than when he's off it.

His ability and willingness to move the ball has had an immediate impact on how the Suns play in their offence, and it's something they will need to figure out when Ayton returns.

Ayton averaged 4.3 post-ups per game in 2018-19 while taking possession as the roll man in a pick and roll 3.2 times per game. Through eight games of the 2019-20 season, Baynes hasn't recorded a single post up and averages 3.9 possessions as the roll man per game.

Where an offence can go stale with Ayton in the post and looking to score, Baynes keeps those around him involved.

Ayton averaged 35 passes while handing out 1.8 assists in his 30.7 minutes per game last season. Baynes, on the other hand, makes just 27 passes, for his 3.3 assists in 24.9 minutes. Ayton passes out of trouble while Baynes passes into scoring opportunities.

The numbers Baynes is producing individually mirror those of the Suns as a team.

Their 105.3 offensive rating ranked 28th in the NBA last season. The 108.6 offensive rating to start this season is good for 12th.

They are making fewer passes at 283 per game compared to 306.2 in 2018-19. However, their 27 assists per game is the second-most in the league and up from 23.9 per game. The 57.5 assisted points from last season have risen to 64.7 assisted points per game as a result.

With the focus on shifting the ball, Phoenix have dropped the frequency at which they run isolation plays. As expected, Booker's individual numbers have plenty to do with it.

Booker has been brilliant to start the season.

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Despite playing the fewest minutes since his rookie season and his usage rate dropping, Booker is recording career-highs in win shares per 48 (.192), offensive box plus-minus (4.2), defensive box plus-minus (-0.8) and his Suns are playing with a 113.1 offensive rating while he's on the floor.

He's dropped his isolation frequency slightly from 12.5% to 10.8% while instead choosing to thrive on cuts. Averaging just 0.7 per game for a 2.8% frequency and 1.45 points per possession last season, Booker is scoring on 2.6 cuts per game at a 10.8% frequency for 1.72 points per possession.

Booker has been labelled a ball-hog, a shot chucker, and every other name there is for somebody that throws up 20 shots per game on a terrible team. Consenting to play off the ball a little more and averaging 17.5 field goal attempts per game in eight games this season, Booker has improved the Suns overall.

Now, there is talk of making the playoffs.

The preseason ceiling for the Suns was sneaking into the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Despite the unexpected 5-3 start, that's still the case. Things will get more difficult as opposing teams take them more seriously and begin to adjust schematically. There is the issue of bringing Ayton back and figuring out where he fits while not losing Baynes' production to navigate too.

The ceiling is a lot lower now, though. It's getting closer, and unlike a month ago when some Suns beat writers were predicting another nightmare season, reaching out and touching the playoffs seems achievable.

We saw the Kings rally and remain relevant in the playoff race for much of last season. That could well be the Suns this time around. But with Baynes and Booker playing the way they are, the added experience, and a coach in Williams that the roster clearly enjoys playing for, we might see the Suns go one better than the Kings to play in a first-round series.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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