EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Departure of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson leaves emotional void on Suns

Feb 9, 2023, 7:11 AM | Updated: 4:40 pm

The Phoenix Suns gave up their heart and soul to execute the biggest trade in franchise history, and perhaps Valley history.

It’s fitting the descriptor often used for a deal with the devil nets them a return of Kevin Durant, the superstar known as The Slim Reaper.

The acquisition of Durant and T.J. Warren cost the Suns Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, four unprotected first-round picks and a 2028 pick swap, the team announced Thursday.

Bridges was the heart. I’m sure reading that “was” stings for Suns fans to read.

Even though this was only his fifth season with Phoenix, Bridges has a case for a Ring of Honor spot when it’s all said and done. There are many in the fanbase young and old who cite Bridges as their favorite Sun and someone in their all-time ranks. That will not change with his departure.

And with good reason.

When I think of what a winning player is in basketball, Bridges is one of the first examples that comes to mind. Some guys like to say that winning is all they care about (*cough* lie). Bridges really just cares about winning.

His motor is hard to put into words.

We have to include the fact that he defends the toughest perimeter matchup every night and has for over three-plus years. He always seems to have a nose for the ball, is one of the best cutters in the league and slashes closeouts to counter his great shooting prowess with ruthless agility.

Whenever Bridges got knocked down, you knew he was going to get back up. Oh, he’s staying down a few extra seconds? I’m sorry, did a tank drive through the arena and run him over? Is this a Jackie Moon situation where a bear is loose in the coliseum? No? Then, believe me, he’s fine and will shake it off.

The fact that Bridges has played through all types of injuries, some that he won’t tell his family and friends about because he knows what they will tell him. The fact that he never missed one game for the Suns (365 regular season outings) because of that — because of how much he cared about his teammates and wanted to win. Not because he wanted to be known as Ironman.

All of this is about a guy who couldn’t possibly be a brighter light to be around. Good luck not smiling or laughing around him. Due to how much of a jokester Bridges is, he became everyone’s little brother in the locker room. With the media’s return to that space this season, Bridges’ teammates took that as an opportunity to relentlessly mess with him.

Bridges’ exit will be a gut punch to everyone around the team, its impact the equivalent of a body kick from the UFC’s Israel Adesanya. Core guys like Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton will probably need some time to get over it.

Booker was there with Bridges through the mud, all the highs and lows. Bridges went 103-13 in three years at Villanova and then lost 63 games in his first NBA season. They watched each other grow into elite players within their own respective roles, pushing each other to get there.

Paul once compared the presence of Bridges and former Suns guard Jevon Carter to like being around his children, claiming they have no sense. To go back to the little brother point, my favorite part of the Zoom era of press conferences was how Bridges got Paul to push his buttons back. It became a tradition of sorts to see them bicker. We rarely see that side of the Point God. But we all know that type of friend who brings that out of us, and that’s Bridges.

Ayton was someone Bridges routinely called his best friend. They came into the league together and were taking steps forward together the last couple of weeks as players in bigger offensive roles, just like they had been the last five years.

Bridges so far in 2022-23 was averaging career bests in points per game (17.2), assists per game (3.6), rebounds per game (4.3) and field goal attempts per game (13.6).

When the Suns were eliminated from last year’s playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks, they had just lost, of course. That’s not where Bridges’ answer started on how he was taking it.

“It hurts. I just think the biggest thing personally is, I just love everybody here. Even you guys,” Bridges said while cracking a smile at the media. “So just not being able to see everybody every day, that’s always the toughest thing. It just sucks. I just love being around everybody every day, man.”

Bridges’ pinned tweet for years now has been his declaration that he never wanted to leave Phoenix.

If he had it his way, that would have been the case. As the saying goes, though, it’s a business.

The label “irreplaceable” is often overused. Bridges is truly irreplaceable. One of one, on and off the court.

Johnson is cut from the same cloth and it’s part of why they get along so well.

He is the soul of what the Suns do, at the center of their DNA when it comes to their basketball philosophies.

There is no better system player for the James Jones and Monty Williams era of Suns basketball than Johnson. Williams, who arrived in Phoenix during the same season as Johnson, cited the forward constantly when answering questions about how the Suns do something, whether it is playing in 0.5 offense or using multiple efforts defensively.

Check out this Johnson sequence from the 2021 NBA Finals. This became a signature of his, chaining possessions together to create an awesome burst of play you might not have fully noticed until you solely focused on him.

After the Suns gain possession, do you see the way Johnson digs his feet into the floor, puts his head down and flies up the court after all the effort he had just exhausted? He even barged his way toward the basket in case there would be an offensive rebounding chance. Man, as a basketball fan, that’s the good stuff to me.

During the offseason, Torrey Craig uploaded a dozen or so clips on his Instagram story of himself recklessly falling. He’s a maniac. And the only reason I can claim he and Bridges don’t spend the most time on the floor out of anyone on the team is because of Johnson.

In Johnson’s first game back from a torn meniscus, he predictably landed on the hardwood a few times. It became a common practice to see Johnson after a game and asking him about the bump on his eyebrow or a developing bruise on his forearm. You got the sense that he loved it. He doesn’t know any other way to play.

Johnson, like Bridges, predictably drew in tons of love from the fanbase due to that playstyle and his engaging personality.

His lemonade stand, the result of a Super Bowl bet with Bridges, will be high atop the list of memories for those who were around for this stretch of Suns history. Johnson handed out lemonade and cookies himself for over two hours in a crowd that grew beyond 2,000 people. Everyone wanted a selfie and an autograph, on top of getting to meet Johnson and have him serve them. Even when fans were told that had to stop so the line could be moving at a quicker pace, Johnson still obliged when they persisted.

The Twins were both as perfect of teammates as you could imagine. There is an innate sense of respect guys like them get across basketball because of that.

And that is why we waited this long to really get into what they are truly known for on the court. Bridges is arguably the best perimeter defender on planet Earth. Johnson has established himself as one of its premier shooters.

They are both typecast into a 3-and-D label, an identity for wing players that every team needs to succeed. Some guys just have one or the other. The Twins had them both. They not only avoided being liabilities on either end of the floor but were pluses offensively and defensively.

It is impossible for Phoenix to plug in the gaps of that loss.

The Suns’ wing rotation outside of Durant now only has players who are liabilities to some degree on offense or defense.

There is no right answer as to who starts alongside Paul, Booker, Durant and Ayton. A good idea would be someone who can defend the opposition’s lead ball-handler so Paul or Booker don’t have to do it. We have no idea what that looks like because, my goodness, we have not seen the Suns play without Bridges since Bridges got here five years ago. This is probably one of the many reasons why the Suns were reluctant to include Bridges in the deal, according to Wojnarowski.

Josh Okogie is the best bet for the defense. Damion Lee, Dario Saric or Warren is the best bet for the offense. Craig is the best bet for the overall fit. Ish Wainright has been playing the best basketball of any of them the last two weeks.

Maybe it’s someone not on the team yet, a trade left to make. Or more likely, a signing on the buyout market.

Enough basketball, though.

As the guy who normally wants to stick to that as much as possible, we have to steer the ship back toward the void Bridges and Johnson leave.

The Suns won’t be able to fill it, and honestly, I bet they prefer it that way from an emotional standpoint. I’m sure Jones and Williams will soon echo similar sentiments on how they get to coach or draft players like The Twins only every so often. From my perspective, I can say the same when it comes to covering them.

For some Valley sports fans, it’s sacrilegious to root on another team or even players from the opposition. But what made Bridges’ and Johnson’s time so special in the Valley is that they weren’t players in this town. They were people.

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