The Suns have been the best team in the regular season 2021-22. That is so, although right now it is more a source of bitterness than happiness for them and their fans. They have won 64 games (64-18), a figure that the franchise had never reached. Neither with Charles Barkley in the atomic team of 1993 nor with Steve Nash in the mothership of the Seven Seconds or Less, godfather of modern basketball. More: Since the COVID-fractured 2019-20 season restarted in the Florida bubble, the Suns have won nearly 76% of their regular-season games (123 of 162). An absolute elite figure.
But they haven’t even made it to the West finals because, for the third consecutive year (Bucks, Jazz, Suns) the best team in the regular season has not appeared in the penultimate round. The first championship ring will still not reach Arizona, one of the places where the most has been done, historically, to win it. Created in 1968, it is the only team that has not yet been a champion that has lost three Finals (1976, 1993 and 2021). The three, in addition, by 4-2. And the last one, against the Bucks, in the same and traumatic way that they just fell against the Mavericks: after having a 2-0 in favor and give a feeling of clear superiority in the first round of matches played on their court. From November 2019 to May 4, the Suns had 11 straight wins against the Mavericks. In the following eleven days they have lost four games against the Texan team. In three of them they have not passed 90 after averaging almost 115 in the regular phase… and 125 in those first two games of the series.
The end of a long honeymoon
The Suns have fallen by the wayside. These are things that happen, of course. as true as that it is a disaster, one of those sins that you are likely to remember for a long time. Sometimes forever (or something like that). When you are the best, you have to win. Or lose with a better alibi. When injuries don’t shake you, you have to take advantage of it. And it’s true that Devin Booker missed part of the series against the Pelicans and Chris Paul limped out of the post-Game 7 press conference. But there was no bad news during the eliminatory against the Mavs for the hard core of the Monty Williams rotation. The West was the weakest in many years. The Clippers were in a transition year, the Lakers in a year of God knows (or maybe even he) what and the Warriors waiting in the conference finals seem far from their pluperfect version. In the East Kevin Durant had fallen and the Bucks have been left out, punished by the loss of Khris Middleton. It was an ideal year for a team that came from staying two games away from being champion, and that reacted by winning 64, to impose its hierarchy until reaching the final prize. You never know when injuries will turn their eyes on you, when luck will look for another sidewalk.
The honeymoon ends here. Monty Williams, recently named Coach of the Year, has been poor as a manager at the first hint of a crisis. The team has seen seams, the rotation has leaked and plans B and C have not existed, entrusting everything to an A that is very nice (it really is) but that would have needed escape routes. Options. Champions always have them. The Suns looked fearsome at the start of the season, but there were two asterisks: Chris Paul’s age and health come the playoffs and the group’s ability to toughen up, learn from the blows and know how to win in many ways. Resilience, if you will. The two issues have ended up proving problematic. And the Suns have resembled, at the moment of truth, more like that Jazz project that is dissolving precisely now (also after losing to the Mavs), aesthetic but indoor basketball, perfect for the regular season but vulnerable in playoffs, rather than something akin to a dynasty. To the Warriors who emerged in 2015, to give the most obvious example… and the hardest to emulate.
Around Chris Paul and his legacy
The defeat, it is obvious, points to Chris Paul and reopens debates about his legacy. He has not ceased to be this week one of the best point guards in history, but has become horrible again, unrecognizable, at the moment of avoiding defeat. The day of the third game he turned 37 years old. The excess of physical demand of the playoffs has devoured him again. If he really ended up injured, it seems in his case more of an aggravating circumstance than a mitigating one. It is a problem that is not going to improve from now on, if anything quite the opposite. And less already in an age in which only one player has been all star and champion: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Chris-Paul He has spent his life being a legendary player despite his 1.83. In the end, it seems being a legendary player despite his 1.83 requires a wear that is tailcoat collector in playoffs. He always shows up to collect the bills.
Paul, with Devin Booker injured, contained the Pelicans’ rebellion. And he gave a cathedral display in the final match: 33 points and 14/14 shooting from the field. In the first two games against the Mavs, saucepan to Luka Doncic, dominated the game and finished the second (a 2-0 that seemed like an ocean) with 28 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. And in the third game turned 37 years old. And in that and the following four, the five from 1-4, he has averaged 9.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 turnovers. He has added 27 assists for 22 turnovers and 17 baskets for 20 personal fouls. Harassed by the physicality of the Mavs and chased by Reggie Bullock after being chased by Jose Alvarado and Herb Jones. Too much punishment, a horrible ending, a body that seemed to have suddenly become aware of its wear and tear, its scars, its load of years and games.
For the first time, a player loses five playoff ties (to seven games) that had started 2-0. Only he had four and with three he is followed by Blake Griffin… with whom he had several blows, hand in hand, in the Clippers. For the first time, a player lets slip five straight series in which his team has been ahead on the win scoreboard at some point. He has also lost four seventh games in a row. It is so obvious that his legacy will go further as all that affects, of course. In a gray scale, without Manichaean visions. But it affects. And the championship ring still has not arrived with, in addition, the ugly feeling that perhaps we have already seen him as close as he will ever be: in that 2-0 of the 2021 Finals, before it worsened Giannis Antetokounmpo’s wrath.
Last summer, the Suns agreed with Paul not to take advantage of his player option of 44.1 million dollars. In exchange, they signed him 120 for four seasons, with protections: the next one will earn 28.4, but in 2023-24 he is only guaranteed 15.8. The rest, up to 30.8 (it will start at 38 years old) would materialize on June 28, 2023. His 30 million from 2024-25 (with 39) are fully pending to be guaranteed, with a cap on June 28, 2024 Paul’s contract, which gave stability, redoubled the commitment to the ring and allowed him to invest in the wardrobe (he has earned 30.8 million this season and not those initial 44.1), may end up being a problem, a excess. The window is still open, but it is obvious that the great train, a priori, passed through the Phoenix station this season. And everything was going well, wonderfully in fact, until just a few days ago.
The long shadow of the Deandre Ayton affair
Devin Booker is 25 years old. He has two years left rookie extension but this summer he can sign a new contract extension that, if, as it seems, enters the All NBA quintetscould be (format supermax) four years (as of the 2024-25 season) and 211 million. It seems like an obvious decision, although the shooting guard was well below his level, unfocused and excessively anxious, in the last two games of the tie. After making fun of Doncic with the already famous “The Luka Special” when the fifth was already resolved, the Slovenian added 68 points with a +52 on court and he, 30 with a -60.
Mikal Bridges (25 years old) is the other mainstay with an assured future (he signed a four-year, $90 million extension in October). From there, things get complicated. It’s the summer of you rookie extension of Cam Johnson (26), the fine forward who was expected more in the playoffs. The accounts will be complicated for a team that will be forced to enter the luxury tax for the first time since 2010. It has already invested almost 129 million in salaries for next season… and that before facing the tricky case Deandre Ayton.
The center (23 years old), who appeared in the tie as one of the key weapons to counteract the virtues of the Mavericks, it was less until ending up in 17 minutes and disappearance in the seventh game. Monty Williams’ explanation, “internal motives”, It doesn’t clarify anything and blurs a lot. Ayton, number 1 in the 2018 draft in which Luka Doncic was 3, ends up very touched after a very good season that he played containing intemperate reactions after not closing your rookie extension the last summer. The Suns did not want to give him then the 177 million for five years that tied their future to Arizona and the player did not want to settle for less. This outcome complicates things even more, with a reopened debate about whether Ayton is a maximum (it seemed a certainty not so long ago) and if it will be so incident when the decline of Chris Paul, the great generator, is definitely on us. Before June 29, that seems obvious, the Suns will offer him the 16.4 million with which they make him a restricted free agent. From there, it will be a question of will… and market.
There are serious doubts in the rotation. Little free money for very obvious needs on the bench, especially given the very poor performance of players like Cameron Payne or Landry Shamet or the ugly situation of Dario Saric after his serious knee injury, almost a year ago. Monty Williams is being questioned for the first time, although still (only missing) not loudly. Devin Booker is left to learn a couple of lessons that Doncic has taught him by bad And Chris Paul ends stuck in his most intimate labyrinth and with some very serious doubts about his ability to be decisive when the next playoffs arrive… and about how far his team can go if he can’t live as long as he does now on his game money. The fact is that a dream turned into a nightmare and a season that could have been perfect for the Phoenix Suns ends with very bad feelings, more fear than hope and the terrible emptiness left by missed opportunities. Especially one as big as this one. One in the shape of a ring.