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The Cam Payne question compounds Suns’ offseason needs

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 10, 2022

The Phoenix Suns are heading into a pivotal offseason that will reveal quite a bit about the front office’s faith in its current roster. Coming off a 64-win season that ended with the worst playoff loss in franchise history, it’ll take all summer to reconcile the joy of the team’s best regular season ever and its utterly disappointing conclusion.

There’s little time to sit back and reflect, however. Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency looms overhead like a dark cloud. Devin Booker is due for a no-brainer supermax, Cam Johnson has earned an early contract extension, and that’s saying nothing of Phoenix’s other free agents, including JaVale McGee and Aaron Holiday.

With general manager James Jones focused on continuity and internal growth, and the Suns possessing limited means to add talent outside of trades, one thing is clear: This team needs to ease the burden on Chris Paul’s shoulders, preferably with another ball-handler who can create offense.

Unfortunately, when CP3’s body broke down and the Suns melted down in the playoffs, Cam Payne did little to prove he’s still the best understudy to the Point God.

First things first: Payne is still under contract for $6 million this season, plus another $6.5 million for 2023-24 (with only $2 million guaranteed). But after a breakout campaign in 2020-21, Payne regressed heavily this season. He actually increased his points and assists per game, but those numbers came on much higher volume and much lower efficiency:

2020-21: 48.4 FG%, 44.0 3P%, 0.158 win shares per 48 minutes
2021-22: 40.9 FG%, 33.6 3P%, 0.073 win shares per 48 minutes

After posting an impressive 60.2 true-shooting percentage last year, Payne’s 50 percent mark this year was dead-last among all Suns players, and it ranked 51st out of the 55 players in the NBA with a usage percentage of at least 23.5.

For the most part, it was a case of simply not making shots. Payne’s shooting percentages — in categories where he flourished last season — were down across the board:

  • “Open” or “wide open” 3s: 34.1 percent (45.6 percent last year)
  • Catch-and-shoot 3s: 36 percent (48.9 percent last year)
  • Pull-up 3s: 29.9 percent (37.3 percent last year)

There’s not much you can do when a guy is missing shots as wide open as these:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just poor returns on decent looks. The scouting report appears to be out on Payne, who upped his drives from 6.3 a night last year to 9.7 per game this season but had a hellacious time finishing plays whenever he did.

According to NBA.com, Payne’s field-goal percentage on plays where he drove dipped from 51.1 percent last year to 44.2 percent this year. He was able to get to the basket, ranking in the 53rd percentile at his position in percentage of shots taken at the rim, but he only made 52 percent of those looks, which ranked in the 28th percentile.

“I just think the biggest thing for him is just staying aggressive but doing it where it’s not reckless,” associate coach Kevin Young said earlier in the season. “I think it’s toeing that line, and when he does it well, he’s an X-factor for us.”

Payne’s energy is infectious, but his shot selection and overall decision-making tends to suffer for it. Back in December, coach Monty Williams joked about it before a game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I don’t want guys looking over their shoulders after taking shots…except Cam Payne, he’s the one that kind of gets in my craw sometimes,” he said with a laugh.

Williams’ comment was mostly tongue-in-cheek, but throughout the course of the season, he frequently alluded to Payne needing to slow things down and just be “solid” as the backup floor general.

One underlying problem is Payne is unable to punish defenses as a driver. He shies away from contact and isn’t a great finisher near the basket. To make up for his lack of size, the 6-foot-1 guard routinely careens to the basket at full throttle before either trying to sneak a scoop layup past his defender or lob a high-arching prayer off the upper parts of the backboard to get it over rim protectors.

In either case, those attempts require an unrealistic amount of touch in order to drop, especially while attacking at full speed:

His tunnel vision often makes matters worse. Payne went from passing on 41.3 percent of his drives last year to 31 percent this season — a mark that ranked 56th out of 65 players with at least 500 drives. He also turned the ball over 8.7 percent of the time, which was the fourth-highest mark among those 65 players.

“It’s a work in progress, for sure,” Williams said. “We’ve been talking to Cam about letting the play develop. He has the ability to score, which we want him to score, but there are times where you have to let the offense breathe a little bit and let things develop.”

There’s a possibility this is just who Payne is, and the 2021-22 campaign may represent regression to the mean. Excluding the bubble run and his breakout season last year, Payne is a career 40.2 percent shooter overall and 33.3 percent shooter from long range.

In his defense, Payne flashed some signs of progress in the 11 games he played during Paul’s 15-game absence with a fractured thumb. Payne averaged 14.1 points, 9.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game over that stretch, posting a team-best point differential and helping lead the Suns to a 9-2 record without the Point God.

Games like his 16-assist outing against the New York Knicks or his game-winning assist to Deandre Ayton against the Orlando Magic suggested he was close to not only recapturing his 2020-21 form again, but emerging as a truly reliable floor general.

Paul, of course, was coaching Payne up from the sidelines, advising him to slow down as well.

“He was telling me, ‘Man, find the in-between,’” Payne said. “‘It ain’t always gotta be at 100 miles per hour. You can slow it down, you can get to 50 sometimes.’”

Unfortunately, none of those problems got better in the playoffs, where Payne became downright unplayable, averaging 4.2 points per game on .297/.167/.833 shooting splits. While Paul was a shadow of himself thanks to fatigue, a quad injury and possibly COVID-19, the Dallas Mavericks were able to trap Devin Booker with impunity because nobody else was capable of filling the void as a ball-handler or shot creator.

For all the gripes about the Suns’ star backcourt disappearing, or Paul trying to play through a secret quad injury, Payne’s disappearance left Monty Williams with few alternatives. Giving Aaron Holiday a look might have helped, but he wasn’t swinging the outcome of that series. Phoenix eventually had to resort to playing Landry Shamet as the backup 1 in Games 5-7 because Payne couldn’t be trusted.

Which brings the Suns to another pivotal offseason question when they should’ve been competing for a Larry O’Brien trophy instead: Was 2020-21 an unsustainable outlier for Cam Payne? And with all the evidence indicating that it was, how can he possibly flip the script in 2022-23?

Assuming Payne isn’t included as a part of a larger trade this offseason, he’ll need to spend his summer upgrading a few key elements of his game. At 27 years old, his finishing ability may simply be what it is, but finding the right balance of acceleration and deceleration when he gets into the teeth of the defense will be vital. The same goes for developing a dependable floater. From there, it’s a matter of simply knocking down shots, soaking in every remaining second of prime CP3 like a sponge, and spending another season waiting to redeem himself for whatever that 2022 postseason was.

With Payne under contract and $129.2 million already on the books for Phoenix next season, the Suns’ have very limited cap space to go out and sign an upgrade at the backup 1-spot. We’ll cover a few options that might make sense with their mid-level exception next week, but for now, Jones finds himself in an unenviable position, where his trusted, backup point guard on a bargain deal no longer looks trustworthy or like much of a bargain.

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