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Searching for a Phoenix Suns surrogate in the NBA playoffs

The 76ers and Jazz offer Suns fans a team to root for — and a possible path forward in Phoenix

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

As fans of the Phoenix Suns, we are orphans — at least during this time of year. Since 2011, we have been relegated to watching as 16 other teams play meaningful playoff basketball, left to instead debate draft picks and trades and free agents and anything, really, that might offer a glimmer of hope for the future.

This year is no different. Fans from Golden State to Boston and everywhere in between get to watch their favorite players and teams scrap for the Larry O’Brien trophy while we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters) find ourselves with no vested interest in any of the outcomes. The New Orleans Pelicans swept the Portland Trail Blazers? Uhh, does that mean Terry Stotts might be available?

Yeah, it’s a hard knock life.

But just because Devin Booker is playing in charity softball games with Larry Fitzgerald right now instead of basketball doesn’t mean Suns fans are out of options. If there’s anything fans of a title-less franchise know how to do, it’s how to live vicariously through others.

The Houston Rockets would seem to be an obvious choice for a Suns surrogate in these playoffs when you take into consideration former Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni; former Suns P.J. Tucker, Joe Johnson, and Gerald Green; and even ASU product James Harden. They aren’t a bad choice, but it does mean rooting for a favorite to win the title this year. And how many times are the Suns a legitimate favorite for anything good?

No, there’s a better choice — actually, two choices — for Suns fans looking to adopt a team for a month or two, teams that feel Suns-ish (read: overlooked) and could even be harbingers for where Phoenix might end up a season or two down the road: the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.

The Sixers, a year removed from a 28-54 record and lottery aspirations, finished the 2017-18 season with a 52-30 record and entered the playoffs as the 3rd seed in the East. Most predicted Philly would spend this season battling for the 8th seed, not holding off LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers in the playoff race, but their ascension happened sooner than expected thanks to a key rookie addition and solid contributors placed into orbit around the team’s young stars.

The impact of Ben Simmons on the 76ers has been nothing short of astounding, to the point that comparisons to Magic Johnson aren’t completely off base. The 6’10 rookie point guard, who missed the entire 2016-17 season due to a broken bone in his right foot, averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds over 81 games and recorded 12 triple-doubles; only Oscar Robertson in 1960-61 (26) had more as a rookie.

And now he’s proving that his regular season was no fluke, averaging 19.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists over his first four playoff games and becoming the first rookie since Magic to record a triple-double in the playoffs. Currently, his Sixers hold a 3-1 lead over the more experienced Miami Heat despite All-Star center Joel Embiid missing the first two games of the series with a broken orbital bone.

Without the addition of a healthy Simmons to this roster, there is no way Philadelphia is in this position. But almost equally as important are the supporting pieces the Sixers’ front office plunked around him.

J.J. Redick looms largest in the acquisition department, coming over from the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent on a one-year, $23 million contract. It was an overpay for sure, but it was necessary if the perennially tanking Sixers were going to lure a good free agent. It worked. Redick got paid, and Philly received a quality veteran and important floor spacer who averaged 17.1 points and shot 42 percent from 3.

While Redick was the most notable player brought in to supplement the roster, he was hardly the only one. Amir Johnson was also signed over the summer and has been an important role player for the 76ers. As well, Philly brought on Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli after both were bought out by the Atlanta Hawks mid-season, and both have filled major roles that have carried over into the first round of the playoffs.

Then there’s the Jazz. Like the Sixers, no one expected much from them coming into the season. Losing Gordon Hayward in free agency was supposed to doom Utah to the lottery, but similar to Philly, the addition of a star rookie and solid complementary pieces has led the Jazz to exceed expectations.

If it weren’t for Simmons’ stellar play, Donovan Mitchell would be the easy Rookie of the Year. He averaged 20.5 points per game for the Jazz — the highest scoring average by a rookie since Blake Griffin in 2010-11. His offensive punch allowed Utah to absorb the loss of Hayward while remaining one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses, finishing as the 5th seed in the ultra-competitive West and missing out on earning the No. 3 seed on the final day of the regular season. And all that while the team played without probable Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for 26 games due to injury.

Mitchell, too, has carried his regular-season play into the postseason, averaging 27.5 points as he’s helped Utah take a 3-1 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s also hit some milestones, as no rookie guard has ever scored more points in the first two games of the playoffs than Mitchell (55), and only Mitchell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever scored at least 27 points as rookies in their first two playoff games.

Utah wasn’t afraid to spend money and take chances to assemble this team, either. They identified Mitchell as a player they wanted and dealt for him on Draft Night, hoodwinking the Denver Nuggets…again. Then, they traded for the divisive Ricky Rubio over the summer to become their new starting point guard, wagering that a change of scenery would do the erstwhile budding star some good. They paid a handsome sum (four years, $52 million) to retain an important role player in Joe Ingles and added Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, and Royce O’Neale to the mix. Finally, they sent away Rodney Hood — one of the team’s top scorers — and Joe Johnson in a February trade to acquire Jae Crowder. The move, while risky, netted the Jazz another young, defensive-minded player who meshes with the gritty identity of the team.

While different from each other, both the 76ers and Jazz took similar paths to get where they are today. Both teams added a top-flight rookie to their rosters from a season ago, then compiled a group of players around their cores that fit the team identity and accentuated the stars. For Philly, it meant adding floor spacers like Redick, Ilyasova, and Belinelli around generational talents Simmons and Embiid. For Utah, it wasn’t about accumulating superstars as much as bringing in players who were versatile defenders and would adhere to the team’s offensive principles.

Different teams, different strategies, same results.

What’s encouraging is that the Suns can follow this blueprint as well. They will be selecting somewhere between 1-4 in June’s draft, adding a highly regarded rookie to a core of Booker and Josh Jackson. At that point, it is incumbent upon general manager Ryan McDonough to follow through on his pledge to bring in the right pieces to surround that core and legitimately accelerate the rebuild. Does that mean trading developing players? Loosening the purse strings? Cashing in collected assets? Yes to all three.

But before any of that can happen, the Suns must decide what kind of team they wish to be. Good teams have an identity they are looking to establish, as do bad teams looking to be good. The Suns have been adrift in asset-collection mode for several years, though, and have no real identity as a result. (Try to improve every day isn’t an identity.) The coach McDonough chooses to lead this next chapter of Suns basketball will dictate the identity of the team moving forward. From there, everything from the draft pick to free agent signees and trades should align with that vision.

It can be done. The Suns can climb out of the open sewer they’ve called home for several seasons and make noise in 2018-19; the Sixers and Jazz are proof expectations aren’t a death sentence. The biggest question is whether the organizational will is there. If so — and with a little luck — the Suns can be the Sixers or Jazz of the 2019 playoffs.

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with putting on a 76ers hat or wearing a Mitchell jersey right about now. After all, rooting for those teams in the playoffs means a lot more than simply rooting for another team as Suns fans.

It means rooting for hope.

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