36 unbothered: The Suns’ championship expectations

Oct 6, 2023, 11:30 AM | Updated: 11:42 am

Larry O'Brien trophy...

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, center, holds up the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy with teammates after defeating the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, June 16, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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 23 days away from Sunday, 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.

Previously –

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 finally is traded
Day 26: Who is Suns’ biggest threat in Western Conference?
Day 25: Matrix and STAT in Ring of Honor
Day 24: Phoenix Suns’ most appetizing lineups combinations
Day 23: The importance of Kevin Young’s return to the Suns
Day 22: The revamped Suns sunburst jerseys

Day 21: TV antennas and Phoenix Suns basketball for all
Day 20: Is there room on the Suns to unlock Bol Bol?
Day 19: What Grayson Allen brings to Suns

Day 18: Suns championship expectations

Erik Ruby: “Pressure is a privilege.”

You’ve probably heard some sort of iteration of that quote from a professional athlete once or twice in your life, and if that saying is true, the Suns are quite privileged.

There are handful of teams in the NBA who would fall into the category “championship or bust,” and Phoenix is not-so-secretly among them. Not only do the Suns have a homegrown superstar who his hitting his “prime,” they also have made two massive, league-shifting moves to acquire enough firepower to wonder if they can be the best offense in NBA history.

Kevin Durant doesn’t play for teams that aren’t threatening to win a ring, Bradley Beal demanded he come to Phoenix because it was his best shot to win it all for the first time, Frank Vogel is not here for a rebuild and the various free agents that signed for the minimum presumably passed up more money for a reason. Not to mention, we all know that Mat Ishbia has made it clear he wants to win at all costs.

Now the franchise has expectations going into a season to do something is has not been able to do in its existence, and yes, that is a privilege. Gone are the days of wondering how long it would be until the playoffs were even a possibility, the Phoenix Suns have arrived.

National TV games, media coverage, hate and love, all these things go hand-in-hand with being a threat to hang a banner. While there is no better feeling in the world than winning a championship, there is also nothing more agonizing than falling short.

Kellan Olson: When it comes to the pressure Erik hit on and comparing it to the last there seasons, man, that’s really difficult. They all had a ton of it for completely different reasons.

I’d argue the 2020-21 squad didn’t have loads of it because no one at the start of the season expected them to be in the Finals, but once they got there and took a 2-0 series lead, all the pressure arrived since it transformed into the franchise’s best opportunity at its first championship yet.

The following year had the expectations, and by January, it was already clear the Suns were the best team in the league. A franchise record in wins further cemented that. And we all know how it ended.

And then a new form of pressure set in last season, to avenge an embarrassing playoff exit. And when it faded just as quickly as it looked like Phoenix was no longer a title contender, the Durant trade brought all of it right back to everyone’s doorstep.

This year, the scope to which the Suns went all in has been magnified, even after the Durant move. The Beal deal was amongst the terrific work on the thinnest of margins to round out the roster. It was reloaded by getting rid of Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, put under a different voice in Frank Vogel instead of Monty Williams. Given Durant’s age, the importance of maximizing this year as the first full ride with him is heightened even further.

Kevin Zimmerman: The acknowledgment of championship expectations isn’t what’s stood out. It’s a given considering the literal cost and the players on the roster. It’s what happens when you bring only one player back the squad that made the NBA FInals just two years ago, especially when that team was not particularly old or flawed.

What’s surprising to me is not even how often Phoenix talks about expectations. Media day included title talk as expected, but it was the how that really shocked me. Frank Vogel has spoken of making the playoffs like it’s a given.

It’s cocky but it’s also correct. If this Suns team makes the playoffs, then the title run officially begins then. It’s how the regular season could play out that Phoenix is talking about. Vogel specified he needs to go through different looks — rotation changes, tinkering, moments to learn the roster. Doing so might lead to hiccups, and for whatever that’s worth, it’ll be OK so long as it’s worth a championship.

Now, what if the tinkering and learning and experimenting before making the playoffs in a tough conference ends with a sixth seed, then derails a title run because the Suns hit a bad matchup or two? Then we’ll see if it’s worth it.

Point is, Vogel and the Suns are open about talking future — big picture. It’s very different from almost every other team’s approach. Usually, it’s just about winning that day, and then the next. Phoenix’s expectations are so high, it’s fine to overlook winning the day so long as those flub-ups teach enough to be surviving — and then winning — in June.

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36 unbothered: The Suns’ championship expectations