EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns shouldn’t be content with continuity after failed Kevin Durant pursuit

Aug 23, 2022, 6:39 PM
Chris Paul #3 and head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talk during the second half of Game...
Chris Paul #3 and head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talk during the second half of Game Two of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoffs at Footprint Center on April 19, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Pelicans defeated the Suns 125-114. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns know better than we do when it comes to what exactly happened to their team over 13 postseason games when they looked like a shell of themselves.

Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s easy to identify where the structural integrity was compromised to bring on the collapse.

Even with injuries for Devin Booker and Chris Paul, this was not the case. It got to the point of it being difficult and tedious talking about the Suns’ performances.

We kept waiting for that moment when a 64-win juggernaut would snap back into place. Game 6 in New Orleans was less pretty and more of a grind but it looked like that might have been the moment after an all-time outing from Mikal Bridges the game prior. The first two games at Footprint Center hosting the Dallas Mavericks almost confirmed it.

Then, in Dallas, it was back to, “Who the hell are these guys? Where did that monster go?”

The Suns were unrecognizable. One more brief glimpse in Game 5 of who they used to be was followed by two losses by a combined 60 points.

Again, this was a group in the regular season that was ruthless. They seemed to take road back-to-backs personally, insulted by the schedule positioning them for losses and creating a level of disdain from opposing fanbases because of the swagger they used to dismantle the opponent’s spirit with.

There was greatness in those 2021-22 Suns, a squad that rightfully has the franchise’s record for wins and was on course to raise its first championship banner.

The old wounds are important to unearth and bring back to the surface because this is an effort to try and understand why Phoenix would be content with a “run it back” version of its roster for next season, an offseason outcome that seems likely after getting topped in the peculiar “run it back” category by the Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Durant.

The Nets and Durant had a nuclear-level breakup in front of the whole school before walking into the party together holding hands on Monday while you shot looks and eye rolls to your friends wondering why those crazy kids just can’t quit each other. Who knows.

Anyway, the Suns were correct in halting their offseason to see the Durant situation unfold. They were incorrect with the lack of aggression they showed.

All indications are Phoenix never shifted into full gear for its pursuit. It took its time to start extending its best offers as Durant’s preferred destination and then a Deandre Ayton offer sheet screwed the whole process up.

I went into detail about the front office’s team-building principles and how landing Durant would probably mean ditching those. The Suns did not. And now they still have their roster and draft pick stash full of depth and flexibility.

Are they going to do anything with it to address what keeps going wrong in a title window?

We focused so much on last year’s playoff run, but really, this goes back to the 2021 NBA Finals too.

The consistent themes intertwined within the Suns’ last two postseason exits have been Paul’s health and a lack of offensive pop.

The most logical solution to both of these problems is adding another ball-handler, one that would slot in as Paul’s backup that could also play alongside Paul or Booker when the situation permitted it. Giving Paul fewer minutes as well as more days off would be far easier to do, and an extra threat off the bounce would really help the postseason offense breathe. Remember when someone else other than Paul had to keep bringing the ball up the court?

So far, the Suns have Cam Payne and Landry Shamet as the only other two ball-handlers on the roster besides Booker and Paul.

Payne was one of the three best backup point guards in basketball two years ago. He was phenomenal in the playoff run until hitting a wall against the Milwaukee Bucks, a wall he is still having trouble with after uneven performances last year. It almost looked as if it broke the way Payne plays, especially after a roller-coaster 12 minutes in Game 5 versus New Orleans during which he was actually pretty good (while also fouling out).

It wasn’t going to be consistent, though, and Payne struggled for four games against Dallas before head coach Monty Williams made the overdue call of another option and went with Shamet, someone who hadn’t started a possession as the initial ball-handler and defacto floor general all season.

Like Payne’s Game 5, Shamet’s Game 5 surprisingly went extremely well. He was tremendous, and it looked like Williams had stumbled onto something he should have been trying to incorporate a lot earlier in the year before Shamet’s inconsistencies that plagued him all year came back.

Neither player is a safe bet. Right now, the Suns are positioned to bet on both.

Elsewhere, to go back to the most obvious fixes, there’s scouring the trade market for someone a few notches below Durant’s ability as another source of scoring on the wing.

This is not an indictment of Jae Crowder and his skill set. It is not on him to bring that. Ironically enough, Crowder was sensational in the previous two playoff series the Suns were eliminated.

If anything, the Suns have failed Crowder, because a player like him should perfectly accentuate a championship roster. Stylistically, based on the way Williams likes to play, it needs a guy like Crowder.

But it feels like something new needs to be there, and the Suns have expiring salaries and first-round picks to dangle in order to bring something fresh at the 4 spot and/or off the bench at guard. And while the names on the market are sparse, the Suns still possess their taxpayer mid-level exception and should use their open roster spot on it.

Maybe Phoenix just bets on more returns of internal development, and that’s when you wonder if the Suns are trying too hard to juggle two windows at once.

Booker is 25 years old. Cam Johnson is just a year older and Bridges will join him as a 26-year-old in a week. Ayton is the youngest at 24. A shiny new contract extension for Johnson like the other three got would further support this thinking.

Is that long-term outlook or the short term with a 37-year-old Paul, an All-NBA guard for the last three years, more important to them?

There’s the chance those young pieces take a big step forward.

Booker gets better every year, and it’s possible he jumps a level to certify himself as one of the faces of the league. Ayton emerging as a legitimate offensive option would qualify. We all know Bridges has the talent to be one too. Johnson at his CJ23 Invitational 3-on-3 Tournament in late July spoke like someone who has heard the chatter on this matter and wants to help there as well.

At the very least, this is going to be another excellent basketball team in the regular season. There is no doubt about that. There are just doubts beyond that in an absurdly stacked Western Conference that could present serious challenges as early as the first round.

If the Suns do indeed run it back, we’ll find out soon enough whether this amount of self-belief was inspired or foolish.

Penguin Air

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