Last season was an incredibly fruitful one for the Phoenix Suns, not just reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10 but getting as far the NBA Finals, where they even held a 2-0 lead before dropping four in a row to the Milwaukee Bucks.
That means this campaign will be about Phoenix proving that last season’s run was no fluke. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s championship-or-bust for the Suns, but simply reaching the playoffs and getting eliminated in the first round won’t cut it.
Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Suns campaign.
Returning: Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson, Abdel Nader and Jalen Smith
Additions: JaVale McGee (Denver), Landry Shamet (Brooklyn), Elfrid Payton (New York), Chasson Randle (Orlando) and Chandler Hutchinson (Washington)
Subtractions: Jevon Carter (Brooklyn), E’Twaun Moore (Orlando), Langston Galloway (Golden State), Torrey Craig (Indiana), Ty-Shon Alexander (Virtus Bologna)
* Great on-court leadership… Referee-related complaining aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better on-floor leader than Chris Paul, who, even after 16 years of NBA service, remains one of the top point guards in the game, a legitimate coach on the floor who younger teammates can look up to and ask for advice mid-game. As evidenced in his last two stops, including his lone campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul makes everyone better, and not just because of his elite playmaking or tidy mid-range scoring, but thanks to his abilities to lead teammates.
* Three of their top four players could/should see improvement… Because he’s been in the NBA for so long, it’s hard to fathom that Devin Booker isn’t even 25 yet. Deandre Ayton, meanwhile, is still just 23 while Mikal Bridges enters his fourth season at 25 years old. And with the way the latter two have been developing over recent seasons, there’s a good chance the Suns will see growth from at least two of their four most important players, and potentially from Booker as well, who could use what he learned during Phoenix’s trip to the Finals to reach another level. If all three see some modicum of improvement, that could be scary for the Suns’ opponents next season.
* They are incredibly well-balanced… Even on the best teams in recent NBA history, there has been some positional overlap or stylistic similarities that have led to on-court awkwardness between teammates. But this Suns team is built magnificently, with an elite playmaking point guard, a go-to scorer at 2-guard, two bulldog swingmen who thrive on both ends of the floor and are fine with their roles as slashing spot-up shooters, and a rare potentially dominant big man down low.
* Strong connection between players and coaching staff… Listen to any post-practice or -game press conference for Phoenix and you’ll often hear gushing from the players about head coach Monty Williams and the rest of the coaching staff or vice versa, with Williams often heaping praise on Paul, Booker, Ayton or any other Suns player who had a big outing. There’s clearly a strong connection between players and coaching staff with the Suns, and that goes a long way in helping team morale during the doldrums of the NBA season.
* Frontcourt depth… Even after the addition of reliable backup big man JaVale McGee, the Suns are light on 4s and 5s, especially with Dario Saric still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in Game 1 of last year’s Finals. That’s going to leave a lot of minutes for Frank Kaminsky and Jalen Smith, something that could be concerning, especially with how Smith struggled as a rookie.
* Chris Paul losing a step could be a huge deal… Paul is still performing at a very high level at point guard, even making the All-Star team last season. But he’ll be 37 by the time the playoffs roll around, and if Father Time does manage to catch up to him at some point this campaign, that could spell huge trouble for a Suns team very dependant on his nightly greatness. Cameron Payne and Elfrid Payton are fine backups, but they’re (obviously) nowhere near Paul’s level as a player. The Suns need Paul to stay healthy and productive to have a chance to contend again.
* Is Devin Booker good enough to be a championship team’s best player? The immortal question for players of Booker’s archetype – somewhat inefficient scorers who can get red hot and look like superstars or go cold at the worst times. In Booker’s case, the latter happened at the worst moment last year, as the former Kentucky standout shot just 32.1 percent from three in the playoffs, 27.6 percent over the final two rounds of the postseason. What’s more, Booker ranked 88th league-wide in VORP last season, 93rd in BPM and 97th in WS/48, and although analytics aren’t the end-all, be-all, there’s clearly some disparity in how fans view him and how impactful he actually is. Booker might need to get a touch more efficient to have a legitimate claim to be considered a player who can lead a team to a championship.
* The Suns enter the 2021-22 season with elevated pressure having just made the NBA Finals. After retaining Paul to a team-friendlier deal than many expected, they now need to lock up Ayton and Bridges to rookie-scale extensions. Many expect Ayton to receive a maximum contract but it will be interesting to see if the John Collins contract could serve as a below-max figure in negotiations. Bridges’ number is much more fluid with OG Anunoby’s recent four-year $72 million likely serving as a baseline. Booker is also currently eligible for a two-year, $82 million extension, but signing it eliminates him from potentially qualifying for the supermax and signing a projected four-year, $206 million deal next offseason.
* They finally addressed their backup center void by signing McGee. However, they are still relatively light with frontcourt depth now that Saric is expected to miss the season with a torn ACL. They have been rumored as a trade destination for Thaddeus Young and could match salaries for him with Saric and another minimum salary. Perhaps a heavily protected first-round pick or multiple second-round picks could be enough to acquire a player like Young. If they do not move Saric, they can apply for a disabled player exception for him that would be worth $4.25 million. They would be able to sign or trade for a player on an expiring contract earning up to that amount with it.
* The Suns also still have $4.5 million left on their mid-level exception and their entire $3.7 million bi-annual exception. While the market has dried up, these exceptions could be useful in the buyout market. For example, would Kevin Love give up more money in a buyout with Cleveland if the Suns offered him a two-year, $9.2 million deal with the remainder of their mid-level exception? Phoenix is currently $8.2 million below the luxury tax so they can comfortably use the rest of their mid-level exception. They also have both an empty roster spot and a two-way spot to fill.
– Yossi Gozlan
2nd in the Pacific Division, 3rd in the Western Conference