Is one Finals appearance this team’s apex?
As we enter the doldrums of August in the NBA’s first real off-season in three years, we can take some time to contemplate the value of continuity with the Phoenix Suns.
On one hand, the Suns have a (mostly) young, healthy and locked-up core that has already won the Western Conference, with Chris Paul the only one approaching the end his career. All of the Suns other top players — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges — are young and signed for at least the next four seasons through their NBA primes.
Let’s take a moment to recognize the investment the Suns ownership group has made in this latest iteration of the team. In the past twelve months, all of the General Manager, Head Coach and top players have been signed to long-term contracts/extensions that could keep them together for most of a decade (three years already plus 4+ more). The nearly half-billion dollars in contracts committed since the first playoff run together is in sharp contrast to prior iterations of the team under Robert Sarver’s reign.
Best Suns team ever?
These current Suns might rival the last Finals-level Suns team of the late-80s and early-90s, except they’ve reached the pinnacle even faster, and with a younger top-end core. Tom Chambers was already 29 when he joined the Suns in 1988, and was in decline by the time Sir Charles stepped onto the stage four years later (scoring 12 points in 23 minutes per game during 1992-93). By the time that group hit the Finals, the oft-injured Kevin Johnson (26) was their youngest All-Star level player.
A better comp in talent-to-age-ratio might be the Seven Seconds or Less Suns of the mid-2000s, whose young core rode the balky back of MVSteve to three Conference Finals appearances in six seasons. That group never reaching the NBA Finals had a lot to do with injury (Amare Stoudemire’s knee, eye; Steve Nash’s back, eye, nose), but also some to do with contract negotiation failures. They shipped off budding All-Star Joe Johnson over a few million dollars, traded starting center Kurt Thomas for less than nothing to slip under the luxury tax and traded perennial All-Star Shawn Marion when he demanded too much in an upcoming extension. All those moves, plus others, chipped away at the team’s ceiling.
I won’t even waste more than a few words on the 2013-14 Suns, a fun group but all had big-money appetites and mostly sub-All-Star ceilings. Goran Dragic made All-NBA third team that year as the only league-recognized player for the Suns. Years later he made the 2018 All-Star team in Miami while Isaiah Thomas later made two All-Star teams and an All-NBA team with Boston.
This current Suns team could be the best of all three iterations. They already have a collective five All-Star appearances, three All-NBA nods, an Executive of the Year award, two Coach of the Year awards (one from peers, one from media), an All-Defense nod and a Finals appearance.
They’ve got (mostly) youth, health, high ceiling, great coaching, a very effective front office… and finally an owner willing to spend a lot of money to keep it that way. Not only have they kept the core together, they’ve also re-signed key role players as well. As of today, the Suns will have the 6th highest payroll in the league this coming season — a new apex for a Sarver-owned team.
Biggest investment ever, for sure
By committing $224+ million to Devin Booker (could be even higher with a rising cap), $133 million to Deandre Ayton, up to $120 million to Chris Paul ($75 million guaranteed), and $90 million to Mikal Bridges, Sarver gave more than half a BILLION dollars to his four best players in the past twelve months.
Devin Booker (age 26 next season), Mikal Bridges (26) and Deandre Ayton (24) are all just now approaching their best years in the league, with Booker having already reached All-NBA first team status and Bridges already receiving the second-most votes for Defensive Player of the Year and the second-most overall votes for the annual All-Defense team. Ayton, a full two years younger, might be the most talented of the three and now has that long-term contract in his back pocket to let him focus on maximizing his potential going forward.
As a group, they have won the second-most playoff games in the league the last two years, and still should have another season or two of an All-Star level Chris Paul — who we might forget single-handedly carried the Suns to four of their playoff wins just two months ago.
On the other hand, the NBA is not built on continuity.
Can continuity lead to a championship?
A third of the league’s players change teams every offseason, and nearly half of each year’s All-Stars either regress or change teams within a couple years too.
If you ride a group too long, you run the risk of your most expensive seasons to be your most disappointing. Just look at the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers as an example. Neither team ever even won a Conference Finals game, yet both hard-headedly ran it back with their same top two players, coach and GM for half a decade before finally blowing it up.
Most teams have no patience. One or two early playoff exits and they’re ready to reboot, or at least retool. Just look at any LeBron James team as an example. Bron never had the same top teammate/coach/GM for more than two seasons without a championship to show for it. Or the Sixers, who continue to build around Joel Embiid but have changed over the front office, coach and the top players around him year after year.
If the Suns are bucking that trend and digging their heels into continuity as their path to a championship, they have to looks hard for comps who stayed together for 3+ seasons before winning a ring.
Most of them never got that payoff without first making some kind of change to the top duo, coach and/or GM.
The current Boston Celtics are close, but no cigar yet. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been together for five seasons now, never making the NBA Finals until 2022. They ‘had’ to change their coach and GM in 2021-22 to break through to the Finals, and are still looking for that ring.
The current Miami Heat are entering year four together (Jimmy/Bam/Spoelstra/Riley) and have a profile much like the Suns. They reached the Finals together in year one and had a rough second go-round in year two. In year three they dealt with tough injuries (Butler, Lowry, Herro), but came just one Butler missed three short of making the Finals again in 2022.
The 2009-2015 Oklahoma City Thunder kept the same duo/coach/GM (KD/Russ/Brooks/Presti) for seven seasons, even making the Finals once. But they never broke through. They finally changed out the coach (Billy Donovan) for one final try, then watched Kevin Durant bolt for the champs in free agency. Era over.
The 2008-2012 Orlando Magic kept the same duo/coach/GM for four seasons, making the Finals once, but never winning the whole thing. They eventually gave up, traded Dwight Howard, and started a rebuild into the land of mediocrity for the past decade.
The mid-2000s Dallas Mavericks stayed together for four seasons (Dirk/Terry/Carlisle/Nelson), once beating the Suns in the 2006 Western Conference Finals before losing the Finals to Dwayne Wade’s free throw barrage. Eventually, they had to change the coach (Rick Carlisle) and import Jason Kidd to finally break through for a ring in 2011.
The early 2000s New Jersey Nets kept the same duo/coach/GM for three seasons, making the Finals twice, but never getting the ring. They quickly scuttled the group and haven’t been back to the Finals since.
That’s it. That’s all I can find over the last 20-some years.
Again, I’m just listing duo/coach/GM who made the Finals at least once, stayed together 3+ years, but came up short of a championship, because that’s the profile of this current Suns group entering year three together.
So we are not including teams like the SSOL Suns, the pre-SSOL Kings, or recent Blazers, Jazz, Raptors, or Rockets, who never sniffed the Finals. A note on the Raptors: the Lowry/DeMar Raps always fell short of the Finals. It wasn’t until the Kawhi Leonard trade, and a new coach, that they broke through for that ring.
None of those teams who lost the Finals early in their tenure together ever made it back as the same duo/coach/GM to win the whole thing.
The one outlier
There is only one: the current Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, the very team that beat the Suns in the 2021 Finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks have had their core together — coach Mike Budenholzer, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton — for four years now. Four years might not seem like a lot, but in the NBA that’s a lifetime. They started with a pair of playoff disappointments in 2019 and 2020 but didn’t break it up despite A LOT of pressure. Coach Bud was on the hot seat every day for over a year, and many people speculated about Giannis forcing a trade before signing his max extension. Note: that was only TWO years of coming up short of a championship and there was tremendous pressure to change something big, either the coach or the players.
But they kept the duo/coach/GM together, added a third All-Star level guy in Jrue Holiday, and won the whole thing in the next year. We might have seen them win back-to-back if not for a Middleton injury.
Can the Suns do the Bucks thing and win a championship with this same core that’s come up short twice now?
Seems like the answer should be yes. It’s quite possible, without any trade at all, Deandre Ayton or Mikal Bridges develops into that third All-Star like Jrue Holiday was for the Bucks.
But long term evidence around the NBA says no. The Suns (year 3), Heat (year 4) and Celtics (year 2 with Udoka) all hope they can break the trend, but the Nets, Thunder, Magic and Mavericks are all shaking their heads no.
Hence, the Kevin Durant push
This is why you see Suns GM James Jones laser-focused on adding a player like Kevin Durant to this team as their third All-Star. You just can’t keep running back the same exact core and expecting different results.
Again, could these guys all develop suddenly into much better players? Sure, I guess. As constructed, the Suns are one of the Finals favorites again.
Here’s the latest DraftKings odds.
They could just hope for internal improvement as their catalyst for breakthrough. But that’s what the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves are counting on too.
The odds are that the Suns need to make a bold move to cross that barrier for a championship ring, after falling short with this crew for two playoff runs.
Tinkering around the edges with role player upgrades won’t do it. Adding another All-Star, ideally an MVP candidate in his own right, is the move that could really work.