Phoenix Suns: So close, yet so far
Despite their meteoric rise from the bottom, the smallest mistakes cost the league-leading Phoenix Suns what may be their one true shot at a championship.
The Phoenix Suns were so close to winning a title after a spectactular 2021-22 regular season but fell short in the playoffs, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 (Sean Carroll illustration)
If you had told me three years ago that the Devin Booker-led Phoenix Suns would win 64 regular-season games and enter the playoffs as the number one seed, I would have laughed.
Perennially poorly performing franchises stay bad, and good ones remain at the top. As a cynical sports fan, pessimism and self-proclaimed ‘realism’ are my bread and butter.
What the Suns franchise has done from the beginning of the bubble to now has been nothing short of a miracle. The arguably overrated Devin Booker, underwhelming Deandre Ayton and underperforming roster at the time took the NBA bubble by storm, leading all teams with an 8-0 record. This was not enough for the team’s first playoff berth since 2010, but it was something to build on for the upcoming season.
In comes Chris Paul. The savvy veteran and all-time point guard was traded to the Suns for a mish-mash of role players and one first-round pick as a clear win-now move by general manager James Jones and owner Robert Sarver.
Paul, in addition to second-time head coach Monty Williams, provided the young roster with much-needed maturity and intelligence. Large steps forward from Ayton and blossoming wing defender Mikal Bridges, in addition to small improvements across the roster, led to a strong surge from the up-and-coming Suns.
The turnaround was immediate, with the Suns finishing the 2020-21 season as the second-winningest team in the league with 51 wins and making a dramatic playoff run, before eventually losing in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The loss to the Bucks began to highlight the string of many micro-decisions made by the Suns that showcase the extremely thin margin for error if a franchise wishes to win an NBA Championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo feasted on the Suns' shorter, albeit stout, front line of Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton. This issue in itself was enough for the Bucks to win it all.
After the series, the Suns immediately signed Javale McGee to solve this issue and entered the 2021-22 season with the strongest looking roster in the NBA.
As the 2021-22 season and playoffs progressed, however, cracks began to show in the Suns’ armour. Recently extended backup point guard Cameron Payne seemed to have lost his flair and touch, creating another issue in the playoffs. Opposing bench units did not have to worry about a tertiary ball-handler for the Suns and could hone in on Booker and Paul, tiring them out.
Rumours began to arise about Deandre Ayton’s contract situation and how owner Robert Sarver, politely known as a ‘stingy’ owner, is not interested in paying the luxury tax for any of his rosters.
I heralded the decision at the time to pay Bridges before Ayton, as his contract was due to be less than Ayton’s and locking him up before his value improved any more was key. This all with the assumption that an Ayton max was coming down the pipeline.
Next came a Landry Shamet contract extension at roughly $10 million per year over four years, a worrying sign about how the franchise values Ayton in comparison to their other players. Shamet, a decent backup guard, is infinitely more replaceable compared to a top-five centre in today’s NBA and should not have been a priority signing.
The Shamet and Payne deals are all the more disastrous when looked through the lens of the 2020 draft, when the Suns passed on Tyrese Haliburton for Jalen Smith, who is no longer on the roster. Haliburton almost immediately blossomed into the player the Suns needed, a solid defender, good off-ball shooter and good on-ball playmaker that could have absolutely run their bench unit.
So that is why they say hindsight is 2020… the more you know.
Without a game-breaking, all-time NBA talent, the margin for error is slim. I will argue to my death that the Bucks team that defeated the Suns was more poorly run, yet the presence of Giannis was unfortunately all they needed.
This brings us to the final and most disastrous decision made by the Suns: not drafting Luka Doncic.
This is arguably not a ‘small’ mistake, but it did make a little bit more sense for the Suns to draft the seven-foot Ayton to pair up with Devin Booker than Doncic.
It was poetic justice that the undermanned Mavs, led by the already all-time great Doncic, knocked out the league-best Suns in a great series capped by a historic Game 7.
Doncic did whatever he wanted to fellow draft-mate Ayton and his teammates, scoring as many points in the first half as the entire Suns roster and ultimately ending their season in the embarrassing final game.
Now we enter an offseason where the Suns have to pay a seemingly unhappy Ayton, or acquire enough in a trade to supplement his value both offensively and defensively. Paul is one year older, and with what seems to be another playoff-caused injury on his resume, not getting any healthier.
If navigated effectively, the parts will all still be there for another outstanding run by the Suns and their chance at a championship is not yet over.
However, if recent history has taught us anything, one wrong turn can set you back just far enough for it all to be out of reach.