The Phoenix Suns’ last two seasons include an NBA Finals appearance and a franchise-record 64 wins.
While taking into account the obvious, that this year ended in an ugly way, it’s been two quite successful years for the franchise.
With that in mind, you can never stop learning, and what the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors did to reach the Finals this year showed three areas where Phoenix can improve next season.
Since the 2018-19 season, when the Suns went an entire season without a point guard (remember that?!), my podcast co-host Kevin Zimmerman and I have been preaching the importance of having as many threats as possible on the dribble.
Perimeter players, at the very least, need to be able to attack the basket and make the right play when the opportunity arises. But when a team has multiple players in the game who can initiate an attack or execute secondary sets, that’s when modern attacks really get dynamic.
The Celtics through three Finals games are averaging three players in double digits per game: Jayson Tatum (14.3), Jaylen Brown (12.0) and Marcus Smart (10.7). Derrick White is close behind at 8.7 per night.
Golden State, meanwhile, has Stephen Curry checking in at 13.0, lackluster Klay Thompson with 8.7 and then no one else in the series coming in at six or more.
For reference, the Suns third in drives per game in the playoffs was Mikal Bridges at 4.5.
The Warriors’ main creator behind Curry was Jordan Poole, who was at 10.3 drives per contest in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but that number nearly halved in three games, falling to 5.7. He’s had a brutal streak, and when he and Draymond Green aren’t good point guards, the Warriors can’t win.
One of the best things about playoff basketball is that the longer the big teams in the tournament advance, the harder it becomes to hide one’s limitations from side to side. This is what playoff-level attacks and defenses do.
For most of the series, Curry had to carry the offense for the Warriors, although we know Golden State’s offense has been superb with balance all year.
Now, players like Smart and White aren’t particularly game-changing offensive talents, but those two plus Boston’s special sauce of two prime starters with size have kept the Celtics’ offense in gears. apart from a funky game 2.
Phoenix’s need for more help on the ball to support Chris Paul and Devin Booker was already evident once it was clear that Cam Payne and Landry Shamet weren’t going to be consistent. Beyond that, players like Bridges and Cam Johnson will need to rebound more to present more challenges than Boston in this series.
We’ve seen it before in last year’s NBA Finals for the Suns and the offseason will have to address that.
Before we have the pleasure of watching Boston’s Al Horford and Golden State’s Kevon Looney, let’s go back to the previous final to talk about Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez.
The 34-year-old has a case as the best offensive center of the past decade, ranking second in total points on that streak in the 2010s behind DeMarcus Cousins, per Basketball-Reference. Lopez was a constant game problem in the position and had a deep bag to turn to in those spots.
His gamer race, however, was dying. And Lopez knew it. So he adapted.
Lopez went from 31 3-point total points in his first eight seasons to 387 the following year. While his mobility on the perimeter as a defenseman wasn’t sensational, Lopez squeezed every ounce of what was physically possible for him on that end to survive a five-out type of game. He’s become an excellent rim protector and an extremely aware defender in other areas of the floor who plays his tail, to the point of making second-team All-Defense in 2020.
And this is where we come back to Horford and Looney.
Horford is 36 and Looney moves like he’s 46. Both are undersized for the 5. And yet they are highly intelligent defensive players whose engines never quit and provide enough offensive value to hang on to the court for long stretches of basketball from the final.
The defense speaks for itself when you watch these two. The offense is where the beauty is in the details.
Horford’s 3-point shooting, at 46.2 percent in the playoffs, is good enough, but the play he made took his game to another level. He adapted to his own struggles in Game 2 and Golden State’s game plan by not only scoring aggressively into the post through shifts, but also coming out of the dribble.
Looney is an excellent passer and passer who has perfected his catch-and-pitch transfers with Curry, Thompson and Poole to create decent looks for them out of thin air.
There’s immense value in all the little centers like Horford, Looney and Deandre Ayton in the last playoffs as a whole.
Yes, feed me the pebble on the block and watch me work for seven seconds. The centers are almost extinct. That doesn’t mean centers making $27 million like Horford or Ayton’s next contract aren’t worth that money because of a smaller offensive role.
With the way modern centers are used as defensive anchors, switchable defenders, screens, divers, floor spacers and center floor playmakers, they are arguably more valuable now than they were when the tremors dream and sky hooks were all the rage. I’d take it a step further and even say it’s the most valuable position in the league right now, because finding a center who’s at least decent in all of those things is rare.
Boston has one right now that’s rocking the biggest streak of the year. There are many reasons why Phoenix was eliminated by Dallas, but Ayton didn’t give them what he did against New Orleans or the final post-season is in discussion as to what should be top of mind. listing.
Phoenix has to wonder if dropping that level of contribution, however inconsistent, is worth it for the benefits of potentially leaving Ayton.
Beyond that, the Suns need the variety that Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric brought to the job last season. JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo have been great all year, but both have provided little to none against Dallas. The Suns need to find that ying back to the yang, whether it’s through Kaminsky, Saric, another player, or a proper small ball 5.
Nail the margins
The Celtics have Brown, Smart and Tatum. The Warriors have Curry, Green and Thompson. The Suns have Ayton, Booker and Bridges.
Getting the crème de la crème of your NBA draft roster is something that all three of these teams have done well, but the two that are still playing have done better at closing the margins.
Boston’s big three-year run in the draft of Robert Williams II (27th, 2018), Grant Williams (22nd, 2019) and Payton Pritchard (29th, 2020) has produced three key players in rotation. Golden State hasn’t done too badly with Looney (30th, 2016) and Poole (28th, 2019), either.
While we should mention that the Suns’ current front office is only three years old, Cam Johnson’s success in 2019 is the only similar type of value capitalization we’ve seen. The misses of Ty Jerome (four picks ahead of Poole), Jalen Smith (10th, 2020) and their 2021 first-round trade for Shamet sting looking at the lack of depth this postseason and going forward.
And up to this point on Shamet, the Celtics’ midseason acquisition of White has had the kind of impact we’ve come to expect from Shamet. And that was for White’s cap on a four-year, $70 million deal, the kind of deal the Suns might be considering acquiring this offseason.
But to give Phoenix credit, the trade for Paul is what those two Finals teams also did to a lesser extent. Horford and Andrew Wiggins were two huge deals that hardly anyone wanted each organization to get into their system and become the best version of themselves.
Both of those things may be true: James Jones has done a stellar job, and the Suns could also be better in that final 10-15 percent of roster build to really round things out like Boston and Golden State did.