Thus far in our team over/under previews, we’ve taken a look at teams that have had impeccable recent track records with hitting their over, including the Raptors, who’ve topped their number eight straight times, and the Spurs and Nuggets, each of whom have been successful in 11 of the last 14 years.
Unsurprisingly, even during down years, these franchises display competent ownership, front office leadership, and general organizational competence. The same cannot be said, however, of every NBA team. You may root for one of them. I do. It's rough sometimes. A lot of the time, actually.
The good news is that, if you're betting, there’s a profit to be made from the tire fires every bit as much as there is off of the league’s gold standards.
Enter the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix holds the longest current streak of coming in under their Vegas-projected win total, going on five straight years now. Perhaps even more impressively, they haven’t come close to an over throughout that time, missing by 5, 13.5, 5.5, 7.5, and then 10 games last season.
Before we get to the reasons they’re an excellent bet to make it lukewarm six-pack of Natty Light, let’s go through a few signs of hope:
- While Robert Sarver has been much derided as an NBA owner, the Suns have shown the ability to beat their projections under his reign. This is his 16th year as majority shareholder, and during the first decade he was at the helm, Phoenix hit their over six times. The most recent of those was in 2013-14, when they absolutely demolished their preseason number of 20.5 on their way to 48 wins. So it’s not like it can’t happen.
- They’ve replaced Igor Kkoskov with Monty Williams. No one seems to hold a strong opinion on whether Williams is a good coach or not, but he did win 45 games with the Pels the last time we saw him in charge, so there’s that.
- They have star…ish. Whether or not you think Devin Booker is good, he’s a legitimate threat to lead the league in scoring. There’s still a lot of divisiveness in the NBA community about whether Booker will shine more as his situation improves or if he’s part of the problem. What isn’t in dispute is that he hasn’t played with a real, honest to goodness NBA point guard in two years. He has that now in Ricky Rubio, and for all of Rubio’s imperfections, he’s consistently improved his team’s performance when he’s on the floor. Rubio just spent two years playing alongside another combo guard in Donovan Mitchell (albeit in one of the NBA’s most respected systems) so this year shouldn’t be that much of an adjustment.
· DeAndre Ayton was the number one pick last year, and theoretically, he should be better. The same goes for Mikal Bridges, their other lottery selection from 2018. They also have Kelly Oubre and Tyler Johnson for a full 82 and added Dario Saric and Aron Baynes this summer. By any metric, the roster is considerably better than it was a year ago today.
The question with the Suns ultimately comes down to “how much better?”, and to a greater extent, “do the roster changes even matter?” (we’ll get to that in a bit)
Phoenix’s over/under currently sits at 29.5 games, which is a 10.5 game improvement over their 19-win campaign from a year ago. Put into some context, only the Lakers and Bulls have a bigger gap between last year’s performance and this year’s line. The Lakers, notably, traded for an MVP candidate in Anthony Davis. The Bulls, meanwhile, had what everyone seems to agree was an incredibly competent July. Their pieces now fit, as opposed to a year ago when Jabari Parker at the three sounded like a good idea to all involved.
Phoenix’s summer was about as well received as Chicago’s was last July, but some of that doesn’t impact this wager. Whether Ricky Rubio is vastly overpaid, in either years or dollars (or both), shouldn’t matter. Even the notion that Suns VP of basketball ops Jeff Bower may or may not have traded down to select Cam Johnson – a borderline first-round prospect in the eyes of some – because he once had him in for a college recruiting visit is extraneous.
It’s just that, well…where are 11 more wins coming from? The West is no less stacked than it was a year ago. Phoenix's expected wins last year based on point differential were actually slightly lower than the 19 victories they achieved. The Suns also play in the league’s toughest division, featuring both LA title contenders and the five-time defending conference champion Warriors, not to mention a Kings team that got deeper over the summer and whose entire core should be better than they were a year ago. Will Phoenix go…5-11 against those teams? 3-13? 1-15? Who knows?
The other issue is that even if they do improve considerably, it might not be enough. Last season, Phoenix had a negative 8.9 net rating. The Memphis Grizzlies achieved a mark of negative 2.4 – worlds better in comparison – and yet only won 33 games in a brutal conference. The Hawks, with a mark of negative 5.5, won only 29 in a far weaker East. How large a jump are we really expecting here?
The Suns roster is better, but at some point, you have to ask whether basic upgrades are enough to upend the type of systemic issues that seem to consistently hold down the league’s lesser lights (as I Knicks fan I have asked myself this question approximately 237 times this summer). Phoenix has had talented players in its building over the last half-decade – Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, PJ Tucker, the Morris twins, Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, Derrick Jones Jr., Elfrid Payton, Alex Len – guys who to varying degrees have gone on to help other franchises. TJ Warren, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson – all punch lines at times over the last several years – are the latest to depart. How many of those names will be looked at a lot differently a year or two from now?
Franchise center DeAndre Ayton is talking up the idea of playing power forward, a notion that GM James Jones seems ready to experiment with. It’s a notion that seems…odd, given the construction of the roster. It’s a small thing…or maybe it isn’t.
I know from people who were part of it that the Suns outsourced much of their draft and free agency prep, and then dismissed those folks before the end of the summer. Rather than build the type of organizational continuity that Kevin Arnovitz wrote was M.I.A. in his extensive piece last season, they seem to be going in the opposite direction. Their draft day moves were met with general bewilderment around the league.
Taking all of the above into consideration, and the track record of the last five years, is this really the team you want to wager will make one of the biggest win-total jumps in the entire league this season?
I didn’t think so.
Thanks to Cleaning the Glass for providing stats used in this article.