EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Kevin Durant injury takes away crucial development time for Suns
The Phoenix Suns are on a roll. In the last seven weeks, they are 16-5. This followed an injury-ravaged, shorthanded middle chunk of the season.
And halfway through that terrific form the Suns found, the blockbuster trade for Kevin Durant prolonged that as he recovered from a MCL sprain in his right knee. Four games ago, he made his debut, playing in three straight wins before his late scratch on Wednesday.
Chris Paul was asked after the win if this form is similar to how he talks about piling up victories like the team did the last two seasons and if that rhythm is now there.
“I don’t know. Obviously, Kev is a huge part of our team,” Paul said. “Anytime he’s not out there or other guys in our rotation, we’re gonna make do, but in order to really see what it looks like consistently, we gotta try and get our guys.”
The Suns won’t have much time to get a look at it. They announced on Thursday that Durant will be re-evaluated in three weeks after he sprained his left ankle in pregame warmups on Wednesday.
Three weeks from Thursday, Phoenix has six games left in the regular season. If Durant gets the green light on his re-evaluation date, that would be nine regular season games for him with the Suns. Realistically, it could be eight with one back-to-back left in the last week.
Is that enough time to develop the continuity required to win a championship? More appropriately, can they develop that on the way to doing so?
It’s a cruel twist of fate that we’re even at this point after Phoenix kept its roster mostly intact going into the last two seasons with a belief in how much its continuity mattered.
This is part of the beauty in the sport. If you toss together a B-tier roster a few weeks before a huge tournament and throw it against a C-tier roster that has been together for a few years, it’s normally going to favor the latter.
We see Team USA struggle with this occasionally despite the preposterous talent advantage it holds. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. But the Americans usually have some growing pains, like they did in Tokyo two summers ago before winning an Olympic gold medal.
Durant and Devin Booker were on that team together. They were one of the few guys along with Jrue Holiday to really figure it out, adapt to the style of international play and the roles required on the team.
Having them as co-heads of the snake is going to be a huge plus. They are two of the most pure basketball players in the league. It’s most of what made the Durant trade so appealing, beyond the fact that he’s Kevin Durant.
And this is not just a grab-bag of players the Suns have. Booker, Paul, Deandre Ayton, Torrey Craig and Cam Payne made the Finals together two years ago. Craig re-joined the team mid-year to help in winning 64 games last season. They are battle-tested and have Monty Williams’ philosophies and system down pat.
Durant is not physically going anywhere, either. He will be meticulously watching games and practices, selecting specific examples of something that will be important in the latter half of April and then May. He will continue working with the brain trust of Williams and Paul, like he did when he was on his way back from the knee injury.
The Suns came back from the All-Star break with some tweaks of their own as well, before Durant even stepped on the floor. There was further emphasis on deep spacing, Booker was bringing the ball up more and so on.
But eventually it just has to come on the court, together. And it could very well be two consecutive weeks, maybe less. Layering in complexities to what they on both ends is now a tough ask. Now, it’s just going to be more about understanding how they play off each other and fit.
It is not a reason to count out this Suns group. It’s a new challenge to identify, a learning process that will in some ways happen on the fly.
This could end up the highest accomplishment across Durant’s all-time career. Perhaps it was that way before Wednesday’s freak accident. The Valley’s missing championship banner adds some emphasis to it.
His greatness, however, has always been tied to how easily he could be slotted into any team, thanks to his one-in-a-million skill set and ability to adapt.
No better time to prove that then now.