We’re all learning a lot more about what we mean by labeling a team a “contender” this year.
That’s because the Phoenix Suns as of Monday are 28-13, third place in the NBA standings and showing no signs of slowing down while playing a style that’s suitable for the postseason.
So are they contenders?
Well, it depends on your definition. The most general and broad one is if they’ve got a real chance to win a championship.
My personal answer to this point has been “yes,” based solely on the fact that with Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns can win any series if those two both have it going.
The biggest obstacle, however, that stands in the Suns’ way is inexperience.
Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges have never played a second in the postseason. With Booker 24 years old alongside a 22-year-old Ayton and 24-year-old Bridges, they’re still rather young, too.
In Stephen Curry’s fourth season at the age of 24, he took the Golden State Warriors to the playoffs for the first time in 2013. After getting by the Denver Nuggets in six games while averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 assists per game, shooting 46.8% from the field, he dropped 44 points and 11 assists in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.
The other five games of the series? He scored 91 points on 91 shots and was held to 18.2 points and 6.0 assists per game as the Warriors fell in six.
Everyone saw the greatness that was coming, but he was young and it wasn’t his time yet. The playoffs are a different beast, and the Spurs had been there too many times to lose to an uber-talented 24-year-old.
The X-factor, of course, for the Suns is that arguably their best player and unquestionable leader in Paul brings with him 109 career playoff games.
They aren’t entirely relying on the young trio, but they still are quite a bit, so what’s the precedent for this?
Let’s find some comparable teams.
First, we’re going to identify every team that has had at least three playoff starters 25 years old or younger make the conference finals since 1984, the first year the league’s playoff format went from eight to 16 teams.
From there we’ll analyze any real trends there, such as playoff experience and so on.
Finally, we’ll glance at those teams and see if there’s anyone that can compare.
As our starting off point, of the 144 teams to make the conference finals since 1984, only 22 met those qualifiers of three starters with a max age of 25. That’s 15.2% of ’em.
This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Of those 34 years, over half (19) did not have a team that young.
While it was less common to find these teams in the ’80s and ’90s given the later trends of high school players declaring for the NBA Draft and one-and-dones, there are still gaps.
Four of the last 10 conference finals did not have one team with a trio of sub-26-year-olds, but the biggest absence was from 1990-2001. A Celtics team featuring Paul Pierce (24), Antoine Walker (25) and Tony Battie (25) broke the streak in 2002.
Winning two playoff series with that type of group has been done. Not really all that common and also not all that rare.
But the more important question is how many teams did that when it was the first postseason for all three of those players?
One. Yep, just one.
Surely it’s some future Hall of Famers, right? Well, one. It’s that Boston squad mentioned with Pierce, Walker and Battie. Yes, I’m serious. Not one lick of playoff experience and they made it that deep. That’s the one. Sports are weird like that sometimes.
In total, five of those 22 eligible teams had at least one player 25 years old or under that was playing their first year of playoff basketball: That ’02 Celtics bunch, the 2005 Suns (!) …
Wait, pause for Suns fans.
Don’t scroll down yet. No cheating! I’ll know if you did!
OK, get a guess in your head.
Right, so, did you guess Amar’e Stoudemire?
That’s great because you absolutely have the incorrect answer.
What about Joe Johnson?
Good shout, good shout. Also wrong.
The correct answer is Quentin Richardson, at the ripe age of 24!
The other three teams are the 2006 Dallas Mavericks with 24-year-old DeSagana Diop (remember him?!), the 2007 Utah Jazz led by 22-year-old Deron Williams and 25-year-old Carlos Boozer, and, finally, the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers saved by LeBron James starting with 22-year-old Kyrie Irving and 23-year-old Tristan Thompson.
Looking at those groups primarily featuring youth to make a run, Williams at 22 is the youngest who was in his postseason debut. He was a month older than Ayton, so the big fella would be the new answer that if the Suns make a run this year.
If you’re curious, 25 total players since 1984 have started a conference final game under the age of 23. It’s that rare. Stoudemire and Robin Lopez (!) are the two to do so in a Suns uniform.
The hope of this exercise was to find a suitable comparison at some point, but there really isn’t one. That ’02 Celtics team had two young, high-level scorers and little else offensively, with a top-notch defense. They won Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Detroit Pistons by a score of 66-64. No one broke 100 in six games.
The clear advantage in front of the Suns is the presence of Paul and the fact that Booker is in his sixth season. And while Bridges is only in Year 3, all of his attributes translate directly to playoff basketball. There’s a little bit of wiggle room present.
So let’s axe playoff firstcomers again and circle back to those 22 teams. Do any stand out where there’s a comparable piece to Paul?
The 2016 Golden State Warriors and 2005 Phoenix Suns had MVP Stephen Curry and Steve Nash while those aforementioned ’15 Cavs and ’06 Mavs were led by All-World in-their-prime LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki. Little too much juice at the top.
We’re getting warmer with the 2004 Indiana Pacers, as 25-year-old Jermaine O’Neal, 24-year-old Ron Artest and 25-year-old Jamal Tinsley started alongside 38-year-old Reggie Miller, but that’s a bit too much in the other direction. Miller only took seven shots a game.
Here’s the best match: the 2002-03 New Jersey Nets. They were captained by 29-year-old Jason Kidd, a bit in his prime still — he was Second Team All-NBA that season. That’s a slot Paul just earned last year. Richard Jefferson (22) and Jason Collins (24) were in their second playoffs and NBA seasons as a whole. A 25-year-old Kenyon Martin in his third postseason go and second as Kidd’s running-mate rounded out the top of the pecking order.
But a key differentiator and the only reason this group didn’t pop up the year prior was Jefferson coming off the bench as a rookie on a surprise 52-win team that made a trip to the NBA Finals. The team they beat to get there? Come on, haven’t you been paying attention? Those ’02 Celtics, of course!
That Nets squad that also had the solid Kerry Kittles in the starting lineup got four playoff series and a four-game whooping from the Los Angeles Lakers to come back seasoned and ready for another run in ’03. They they made it back to the NBA Finals before losing again, that time to the Spurs in six games.
So, the answer to the headline is “no.”
It can definitely be treated as something working against the Suns considering their biggest competition out West as well.
The Jazz added Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, two playoff-tested veterans, to a core of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles that has been to the playoffs all three years since Mitchell was drafted.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ one-two punch of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has over 200 playoff games of experience on a roster surrounded by experience. It’s enough said on the defending champion Lakers with James and Anthony Davis.
Even further down the standings lies the Nuggets, who just made the Western Conference Finals last year, the Portland Trail Blazers, who haven’t missed the playoffs with Damian Lillard since his rookie year in 2013, and the Dallas Mavericks, a team that had Luka Doncic get a valuable first taste last year. And then there’s the Warriors.
Simply put, the Suns have that clear disadvantage compared to every other team in the league that deserves to be in the conversation at or near the top. That great unknown will truly be the sink or swim for a Suns season that has quickly seen its expectations magnified, rightfully so.