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For better or for worse, Cam Payne may be the barometer for how the Phoenix Suns’ bench unit fares in 2022-23.
After an offseason that took a “run it back” approach outside of a few minor additions, there’s understandable concern about the Suns’ second unit — most of which stems from the backcourt, where Payne’s disappearing act in the playoffs and Landry Shamet’s down shooting year did most of the heavy lifting.
If the Suns get 2020-21 Cam Payne — one of the NBA’s best backup point guards who enjoyed a breakout year, helped them win playoff games and could actually knock down 3s — their bench will be fine. If 2021-22 Cam Payne returns, Phoenix’s lack of alternatives outside of Duane Washington Jr. or Point Shamet could quickly come back to haunt them.
The Kevin Durant trade rumors over the summer never materialized, and Payne admitted at Media Day that his heart dropped when he first heard his name come up. Still being on the roster to start the season reaffirmed his love for the Valley and his desire to have a more consistent year, regardless of how Game 7 ended.
“Whatever happened in the past is the past,” Payne said. “We got a new season, new guys, new mindset. Trying to win a championship, man. That stuff really don’t fuel us. I feel like our culture, the way our culture is now, it says every day is come in and get it in. So if that’s not enough fuel, making it to the Finals, that’s all the fuel I gotta see.”
Payne is under contract for $6 million this season, plus another $6.5 million next year (only $2 million guaranteed). That doesn’t guarantee he’ll be on the roster past the trade deadline or even past an upcoming Jae Crowder deal, but for now, the Suns are placing an inordinate amount of trust in Cam Payne bouncing back. Here are his three biggest keys to doing so.
1. Make open shots
The NBA is a make-or-miss league, so “make more shots” feels like Captain Obvious-caliber insight. However, it’s especially true for Payne, who saw a steep drop-off across the board from his breakout season to last year’s regression:
- Field goal percentage: 40.9 percent (48.4 percent the year prior)
- 3-point percentage: 33.6 percent (44.0 percent the year prior)
- “Open” or “wide open” 3s: 34.1 percent (45.6 percent the year prior)
- Catch-and-shoot 3s: 36 percent (48.9 percent the year prior)
- Pull-up 3s: 29.9 percent (37.3 percent the year prior)
After posting an impressive 60.2 true-shooting percentage in 2020-21, Payne’s 50 percent mark last year ranked dead-last among all Suns players and 51st out of 55 NBA players with a usage percentage of at least 23.5.
There’s not a lot to say about wide-open misses like these, other than “you gotta knock those down.”
The question is which Cam Payne is the real one. Excluding the Suns’ bubble run and his breakout season in 2020-21, Payne is a career 40.2 percent shooter overall and 33.3 percent shooter from long range.
There should be some progression to the mean this season, just from hitting a few more open looks, but expecting him to reach those career-high levels from two seasons ago again might be unrealistic.
2. Use floor-spacers to capitalize on drives
Moving Cam Johnson into the starting lineup deprives the Suns of their most reliable bench scorer and floor-spacer. That’s still an area of concern for the second unit, but fortunately, Phoenix may be reverting back to the types of pick-and-pop bigs that Payne initially found success with.
Frank Kaminsky is gone and Dario Saric’s role is currently unclear, but with Saric back on the court and Jock Landale looking like the backup center, Payne should enjoy more space again.
“That’s a delicate balance for a guy when you’re in the pick-and-roll with a different guy every year; you gotta figure out a new guy,” coach Monty Williams said. “So from that standpoint, I think he could be a little bit better if he’s out there playing with Jock and Dario, just because those guys have the ability to to create space for him in pick-and-rolls.”
Last year, Payne mostly played with rim-running bigs in JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo. The results looked great on paper, since the Suns posted a +10.4 Net Rating whenever Payne and McGee shared the court (471 minutes), as well as a +9.6 Net Rating with Payne alongside Biyombo.
However, that still didn’t measure up to Payne’s +16.5 Net Rating when sharing the court with Saric the season prior, or even his +12.0 Net Rating alongside Kaminsky last year.
“I think the one thing that hurt him was the makeup of the team,” Williams said. “Playing with a diving big all of the time, I thought it hurt him. The year before that, he was playing with Dario and Frank, and those guys were popping and he had some clear lanes to the basket. Last year, I thought he was playing against a crowd.”
According to NBA.com, Payne was more aggressive last year off the bounce, increasing his drives from 6.3 per game the year prior to 9.7 per game. Unfortunately, he had a hellacious time finishing: His field goal percentage on those drives dipped from 51.1 percent to 44.2 percent last year.
Payne admitted a few times that he felt like defenses were taking away everything he was good at while he adjusted to playing with rim-running bigs:
Playing with a stretch-big like Saric forced switches on screens, which gave Payne opportunities to attack slower 5s.
“He’s a big-time pick-and-pop guy, and I feel like for our team, that’s huge to have that different dynamic instead of just everyone rolling bigs,” Payne said. “So having Dario back is gonna be a huge plus. I mean, even from my game, getting the switches a little bit earlier in the shot clock with the 5s, being able to get downhill and just exploit mismatches how we did in the past.”
Not having Saric or another floor-spacing big certainly showed up in Payne’s pick-and-roll numbers:
- Payne as PNR ball-handler in 2020-21: 193 possessions over 60 games, 1.00 points per possession, 47.5 FG%, 80th percentile
- Payne as PNR ball-handler in 2021-22: 347 possessions over 58 games, 0.84 points per possession, 41.8 FG%, 50th percentile
However, as much as there’s been constant noise about Saric “unlocking” Payne (which, guilty), for the time being, it appears as though building chemistry with Landale will be more important. Saric is coming off a year-long absence from competitive basketball after two knee surgeries. He struggled shaking some of the rust off at EuroBasket and it appears he may not be in the rotation, since he’s currently slotting in as a 4, rather than the small-ball 5 role we last saw him occupy.
Saric’s limited preseason action and all the training camp buzz surrounding Landale suggests Payne’s biggest responsibility will be creating that chemistry with his new Australian teammate. Payne’s right finger sprain that held him out for a bit made that difficult, but Landale says they’re already seeing flashes in practice.
“Cam’s great at getting down and kind of being crafty around the rim and using his speed to get by bigs, and when you kind of have a big that’s kind of trying to play between two, and me popping and him going to the basket, it becomes a real big problem,” he said. “So there’s definitely some real opportunity for me to make Cam’s life a bit easier, just when he can just get a full head of steam downhill at a big, and I think that we all know that Cam’s able to get that shot off and kind of get around that guy. That’s a partnership I’m looking forward to honing in on this season.”
3. Find consistency and balance
There’s a lot riding on Cam Payne being solid this season. The Suns needed to shift away from their dependence on Chris Paul, and it appears they’re planning to play him off the ball more. There’s also the small matter of not having a third-string point guard outside of Duane Washington Jr., who’s proved he deserves a look but is still technically on a two-way contract.
In any case, the Suns are a different team when Payne is playing at an above-average level, and everyone knows it.
“He’s a spark plug, he comes in and he changes the energy of the game,” Devin Booker said. “That’s how he’s been successful with us. So we need to keep him right there, keep his energy high and have him out there not only scoring but making plays for others.”
The “making plays for others” part is important. Getting downhill is one of Payne’s strong suits, but that acceleration sometimes comes with the drawback of tunnel vision. Payne went from passing on 41.3 percent of his drives two years ago to 31 percent last 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 balance: the balance of being aggressive but making sure that everybody else is taken care of on the offensive end,” Williams explained. “Cam can score the ball. There’s no question about it, and we don’t want to take that away from him. At the same time, if you’re out there with Cam Johnson, if you’re out there with a guy who can roll and pop, you gotta be able to take advantage of everything.”
Finding that balance, poise and deceleration is important for any backup floor general, but especially so for Payne, who saw his win shares per 48 minutes nose-dive from 0.158 to 0.073 over the course of one season.
In his defense, Payne flashed some encouraging signs in the 11 games he played during Paul’s 15-game absence with a fractured thumb. He 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.
“He had moments last year where he was a partner in carrying us when Chris was out,” Williams said. “I go back to the playoff series versus the Clippers when we played without Chris. We don’t have Cam Payne, we don’t win that series. He has stretches like that last year.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t carry over into the 2022 NBA Playoffs, where he averaged 4.2 points per game on .297/.167/.833 shooting splits. It got so bad he was benched in the Dallas Mavericks series. Payne said he could use that experience as fuel, but prefers to stick with his usual motivation of just establishing himself as a solid NBA player.
“Just being consistent,” he said. “I feel like in the playoffs, I could’ve been more consistent. And now one of my goals is just to be consistent the whole year. That’s my fuel, that’s what I need. That’s how I can stay on the floor.”
As we’ve documented numerous times here, Payne struggled to find that consistency in 2021-22. He couldn’t make open shots, he forced drives in traffic and he took a lot more midrange shots despite his efficiency dipping from that area of the floor.
It may sound vague or broad, but “consistency” remains the biggest key for Cam Payne to enjoy a bounce-back year.
“When you look at it in totality, I thought he had a good year, not as consistent as he would want,” Williams said. “I think he’s going to be much better after some talks that we’ve had and just his focus on both ends on the floor. Like, I’ve seen him already fighting like heck to get over screens, and that’s a guy that wants to do more than just the offensive side, and he wants to have a much more consistent year.”