Prior to this year, the Phoenix Suns last made the National Basketball Association playoffs in 2009, advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they were ousted by the eventual league champion, the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers.
That Suns squad was led by a 36-year-old Steve Nash, who two years later was traded to the Lakers for a package of future draft picks, one of which would materialize in 2018. Mikal Bridges was just 15 years old at the time of the Nash deal, but the Nash trade is responsible for the former Villanova standout winding up in the desert. The 2018 pick was subsequently dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers — and then dealt back to the Suns on draft day. With the 10th pick in the 2018 NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns ultimately landed Mikal Bridges.
The addition of point guard Chris Paul during this most recent offseason was surely the most important factor in cementing the Suns’ dramatic ascent from sub-.500 bubble darling to Top-2 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, but Bridges’ development as a top-flight 3-and-D small forward may be a close second. And to think that a franchise icon like Nash — now the rookie head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the odds-on favorite to win this year’s NBA title — had something to do with ending the longest playoff drought in Suns’ history is rather cosmic.
It makes some sense, then, that Paul is the fulcrum of this season's Suns' resurgence, a fitting heir to the Point God throne that’s been vacant since Steve stumbled on to Studio City. Accomplished as Paul is, the State Farm spokesman is infamous for choking in the playoffs. (That helps explain why the expectation bar is peculiarly low for the Suns’ potential postseason run.) The Suns’ bench also features some admirable reclamation projects. Backup center Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky and reserve point guard Cameron Payne were each out of the league for a spell before signing and sticking with the Suns, while small forward Torrey Craig, inexplicably wallowing on the end of the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench after leaving the Denver Nuggets in free agency, was acquired for mere cash considerations and has since become a key Phoenix sub.
Regardless of how the Suns fare in this year’s playoffs, their rise (like a phoenix!) constitutes one of the more remarkable two-year turnarounds in league history. Besides Nash, some of the linchpins on the Suns’ last playoff team included Amar’e Stoudemire, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, Robin Lopez and Lou Amundson’s man bun.
In the gap between that postseason berth and the current one, Phoenix’s roster featured players like Michael Beasley, Shavlik Randolph, Viacheslav Kravtsov, Garret Siler, Hamed Haddadi, Chase Budinger, Zoran Dragic (Goran’s much worse baby brother), white-stiff lottery busts Alex Len and Dragan “The Croatian Sensation” Bender, both Morris twins and Kim Kardashian’s second-most-famous ex-husband, Kris Humphries. (It’s worth noting that the Suns’ current leading scorer, shooting guard Devin Booker, is also romantically attached to Kendall Jenner, who is also a Kardashian.) The Suns bottomed out during the 2018-2019 campaign with a record of 19-63, good for dead last in the Western Conference and coming within three losses of the worst mark in franchise history, set in Phoenix’s inaugural 1968-1969 season.
Bridges and center Deandre Ayton, selected first overall, were rookies on that 2018 squad and acquitted themselves well. Ayton’s since become an elite rebounder with an efficient offensive arsenal (he’s shooting a career-best 62 percent from the field this season) who does a respectable job of protecting the rim. With Paul and Booker controlling the ball, he’s not the offensive focal point — but playing third banana seems to suit him just fine.
It’s hard to imagine that Ayton, Booker, and Bridges thought they’d have much of a chance to go from worst to (nearly) first in the west when the final horn sounded in 2019, yet here they are. But despite the Suns’ gaudy regular-season record, six teams — including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers — currently have better odds to win it all. Indeed, the road to the franchise’s first-ever NBA title will be far from easy, especially in the likely event that they find themselves matched up against the Lakers in the first round.
Here are the teams standing between Phoenix and its first NBA Finals berth since 1993:
Utah Jazz. Despite boasting the best record in the NBA, the Jazz, like the Suns, are not getting much respect from playoff prognosticators. That’s undoubtedly because they’ve flamed out in the first round each of the past two years. Early this season, Shaquille O’Neal called out Jazz star Donovan Mitchell — Utah’s version of Devin Booker — for not being ready to lead a team to the NBA Finals. He spent the remainder of the season proving Shaq wrong — until he hurt his ankle. Utah’s odds of making a deep playoff run probably depend on how that ankle holds up, although this team is deep and dynamic enough to make some noise either way.
Los Angeles Clippers. Here’s a legitimate question: After leading both the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors to NBA championships, does Kawhi Leonard have the fire to lead a third team to the promised land? Leonard is one of the league’s most feared defenders and has smoothly put up a smashing line on offense as well. But, like Mitchell, the health of one of his hooves is a concern, and he’s been prone to sleepwalking through fourth quarters, likely the byproduct of overrated head coach Ty Lue’s uninventive, isolation-heavy late-game sets.
Denver Nuggets. Led by point-center Nikola Jokic, the league’s leading MVP candidate, the Nuggets looked to have the stuff of a title contender after trading for Swiss Army knife forward Aaron Gordon at the deadline. But those hopes seemingly went to pot when star guard Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending injury — or did they? The Nuggets have performed surprisingly well since, buoyed by a 5’10”, 30-year-old Argentinian rookie by the name of Facundo Campazzo, the night-in-night-out excellence of Jokic, and the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., a top offensive option in his own right.
Dallas Mavericks. Luka Doncic is amazing. A-MA-ZING. His supporting cast, rounded out by the oft-injured Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of workaday role players, is not. Winning a first-round series against the Clippers would be a major accomplishment.
Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers have a high-octane offense, paced by their dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Unfortunately, they boast one of the most porous defenses in the league, which is rarely a recipe for postseason success.
Los Angeles Lakers. No team has been bitten harder by the injury bug than the defending champs, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis both laid up for extended periods of time. But the team’s decision to tinker with the rest of its roster after winning a title has been nearly as problematic, and small forward Kyle Kuzma—he of the occasional Eminem dye job and status as one of Kendall Jenner’s NBA exes — hasn’t come close to fulfilling his promise as a reliable third option (or boyfriend of supermodel reality TV stars). With a healthy James and Davis and questions surrounding virtually every other conference contender, you certainly can’t count the Lakers out — to the point where they’d likely be favored to win a series against the Suns. But it just feels like the havoc the pandemic hath wrought on the league’s schedule — and, in turn, the Lakers’ health and chemistry — will be too much to overcome.
Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry is in the MVP discussion for almost singlehandedly lifting an otherwise janky Warriors roster into the playoffs. Nobody wants to face Curry and the Dubs in a winner-take-all play-in game, but until Klay Thompson is firmly back in the fold, a victory in a best-of-seven series would be a minor miracle.
Memphis Grizzlies. If they make it out of the play-in round, this talented young squad could easily steal a game or two against a more seasoned contender. But deep and scary as they are, they’re at least a season and a marquee player away from being a true threat to run the table out west — even though Memphis is, uh, in the Central Time Zone.
San Antonio Spurs. Coach Gregg Popovich’s squad has a ton of talented young guards—and almost no chance of making noise in the playoffs. But the fact that Pop is back in the postseason after a rare miss is a testament to the strength of his system.