36 unbothered: Who is Suns’ biggest rival in the Western Conference?
Sep 28, 2023, 12:06 PM
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.
He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.
Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.
To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 26 days away from Thursday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will be joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby to dish on 36 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season.
Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry
Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul
Day 28: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role
Day 27: Deandre Ayton is no longer a Sun
Day 26: Which Phoenix Suns rivalry in the Western Conference is the biggest?
Erik Ruby: You could argue the Suns have a “rivalry” with seven teams in the Western Conference, seriously!
I count the Nuggets, Clippers, Lakers, Pelicans, Warriors, Timberwolves and the Mavericks. That is nearly half of the entire Western Conference.
Instead of talking about all of these specifically, I’ll touch on what this will mean for the Suns this season and then dive into two team I am particularly looking forward to watching Phoenix play.
When a team has this many opponents who could be considered a rival, especially having three of them in the same division, that will take away some monotony of an 82-game regular season. The Suns already bring intrigue by boasting arguably two top-10 players, another high-level scorer and a decent amount of depth. That alone will make opposing teams give the Suns their best shot on a random night in January, but it will be ramped up even more when facing those seven teams.
Having so many high-intensity games will give Phoenix reps that simulate a playoff game, and for a team that is reshuffled, that should get them closer to where they need to be to make a deep playoff run.
Now, let’s look at some actual teams, starting with the Clippers.
Devin Booker versus Paul George has become one of the league’s most public butting of heads and not just on the court. You have the actual basketball moments like Booker’s bubble buzzer-beater over George and teammate Kawhi Leonard where he hit his signature celebration.
BOOKER. CALLED. GAME. pic.twitter.com/50QtNzJU0O
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 4, 2020
Fast forward, and you hit the 2021 Western Conference Finals that saw physical play lead to a broken nose for Booker. Mix in signature moments like the Valley-Oop and their hard-nosed clash in the first round of last year’s playoffs that saw L.A. get bounced (again), you could safely say these two teams are rivals.
Oh, and the “beef” has gone off-court as well. This summer, the two stars publicly exchanged barbs after George was trying to bait Klay Thompson into talking about trash-talking Booker on his podcast. The two went back and forth via comments and livestream, so it is safe to assume they are looking forward to lacing them up against each other when it comes time.
What about the Pelicans?
When looking at all the teams I listed off, New Orleans and Minnesota will most likely be overlooked the most, but I am not sure they should be. The Pelicans are led by former Suns assistant Willie Green and proved during their many matchups over the regular season that followed a first-round duel in 2021 that they take this matchup seriously.
Most notably, when Zion Williamson hit a nasty dunk to end a win.
The Suns weren’t happy with Zion’s windmill dunk at the end of the game 😯 pic.twitter.com/N2NyLb2q9b
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 10, 2022
The last time these two teams met, Devin Booker dropped a cool 58 on 21-for-35 shooting, and I am sure that was not a coincidence.
Sports are fun because of the passion and intensity that comes with them, and there will be no lack of that throughout the entire Suns season this year.
Kellan Olson: The Suns have quietly built up a decent-sized list of not so much “rivals” but opponents where there’s some added spice. And more importantly, memes. I love memes.
The Andre Drummond meme for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2021 postseason was the latest “congratulations, you played yourself” moment after that provided social media with a “Phoenix hasn’t lost to the Lakers in ___ straight games since this,” a streak that ended last season.
Booker and fellow meme lord Luka Doncic have created some magic together already. The buildup to this was “The Luka Special,” a sneaky declaration by Booker to baseline fans after he sold a foul call on the ground longer than usual, a solid bit. That first face Doncic made to Booker is the image to sum up the Suns’ Game 7 loss in 2022.
The lore in regards to the New Orleans Pelicans took an unfortunate turn after Jae Crowder became a mostly disliked former member of the team due to the way his exit panned out. But the “(expletive) Jae Crowder” chants in the bayou eventually brought on a pair of fans wearing shirts and bringing extras that were intercepted by Suns assistant Jarrett Jack, leading to my favorite postgame picture I’ve taken. The series itself was the precursor to not a meme but a moment, when Zion Williamson’s 360 windmill dunk as a regular season game was ending in December was a statement he sent in response to that result he was not a part of.
Another excellent Booker meme, his signature laying down pose on the floor when he’s fouled on a jumper, was birthed against the Los Angeles Clippers in the bubble. That was the start of maybe the closest thing we’ve gotten to a “rivalry” so far. The scuffle between Booker and Paul George during the 2021 Western Conference Finals, Patrick Beverley’s shove on Chris Paul and now two years later there is a decent rally of exchanges between Booker and George again over some Podcast P content.
Elsewhere, the Denver Nuggets’ first postseason go against Phoenix included a viral catchphrase thanks to a fight between fans, and while a 2023 tussle in the stands was not as explosive, it included MVP Nikola Jokic taking the ball away from a fan that happened to be the billionaire owner of his opponent.
I’m a big fan of the “Too Small Game,” when Karl-Anthony Towns inferred Crowder lacked the proper physical size to defend him properly before the Suns roared back to thoroughly beat the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not a ton there, though. No playoff series with the Golden State Warriors has prevented the possibility, even though the Podcast P content was over a moment between Klay Thompson and Booker.
Maybe the Sacramento Kings have some bite to them this year. We know the Memphis Grizzlies do. Something there with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder, perhaps?
So, I decline to answer the question, instead waiting in anticipation for the next meme that inches us closer to something mildly resembling a rivalry.
Kevin Zimmerman: We’re forgetting that the departure of Chris Paul combined with the arrival of Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal does a bit of reconfiguring the rival meters.
A rivalry with the Warriors took a few turns this offseason when Draymond Green — admitted CP3 hater — welcomed Paul as his teammate. Thompson walked back his in-game banter with Booker and said nice things about him on a podcast. Durant’s history with that team, while not especially tense, adds to it. But we’ll have to wait until Oct. 24 to see how this all plays out. Obviously, there will be some old man spice from Paul — please let Mat Ishbia sit courtside for that one in the Bay.
Booker plays the biggest role in keeping with the rivals of late. The friction between George, Doncic and him feel the most real, while there have been enough back-and-forths with James’ Lakers to tab them as a rival in this moment.
It’s hard to determine how much of on-court rivals the Nuggets are … Nikola Jokic seems too nice as he carves up defenses to be a villain and laughed off the Ishbia thing pretty quickly. Who on that team is all that hatable? In terms of the Denver-Phoenix fan bases though, that matchup has got to be No. 1 if we’re going off social media beef.