Kawhi Leonard just changed the NBA entirely on Friday night. Leonard, the two-time champion and Finals MVP, committed to the Los Angeles Clippers on a four-year max contract. Then, Leonard turned into the real life Thanos (except the good kind) — snapping his fingers and bringing another star into Staples Center alongside him.
Leonard’s move to Los Angeles caused a shift within the Western Conference as well as the entire league.
No longer are the Lakers favorite to win it all. Nope, it’s most definitely the Clippers now, with Leonard’s arrival coupled with the jaw-dropping trade for Paul George minutes later which included five (!!!) first-round picks plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari heading to Oklahoma City.
Los Angeles is now firmly back at the epicenter of the league. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are Lakers, while Leonard and George are across the hall with the Clippers. Assuming James and Leonard are the bedrocks of the two prominent teams in Los Angeles, with Davis and George signing extensions soon after they’re offered over the next year or two, the NBA runs through this city for the foreseeable future. Odds are strong that LA is hosting the Western Conference Finals the next few seasons, with all seven games being played in the same building.
The Golden State Warriors, even without Kevin Durant, aren’t going anywhere as long as their original big three remains intact long-term. James Harden and Chris Paul are still together in Houston, at least right now. Denver and Portland are also ascending right within this chaotic era of player empowerment.
The top half of the Western Conference is stronger than ever before. And even teams near the middle of the pack have shots at improving drastically, if the right moves are made.
What does the Leonard-George news mean for the Suns, though? Even if it was never likely to matter over the next year or so, in terms of actually competing for a playoff spot with their young core, this makes playing the waiting game more realistic. No longer should the Suns’ front office consider rushing anything.
It may pain fans and players alike, but Phoenix is in a position where 13th in the West next season would be considered a win. That’s how deep this conference truly is, spelling trouble for franchises who were looking to ascend up the ranks quickly over the next year or two. The Suns winning only 30 games, which hasn’t happened since 2015, would be a joyous occasion.
However, that doesn’t mean Phoenix should wallow in the cellar long-term. Assuming Kelly Oubre Jr. re-signs, which is even more likely at this point with the Clippers and Lakers’ cap space vanishing overnight, all four of the Suns’ key young core members will be entering their prime years early in the 2020s. Here are the ages of the Suns’ key pieces once Ricky Rubio’s 3-year, $51 million contract expires: Devin Booker - 25, Deandre Ayton - 23, Mikal Bridges - 25, Oubre - 26. Phoenix’s two 2019 first-round draft picks — Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome — who will also be right in that same age range.
From the other side of the coin, the two super-teams in LA will be reaching near expiration dates, at least while staying in their physical primes once the 2022 season opens: James - 38, Davis - 30, Leonard - 32, George - 33.
The blueprint is there for the Suns to be in a position to catch the baton when it is passed from Los Angeles. Everyone will be in their mid-20s while the stars one state over are in their 30s. If Phoenix is able to sneak into the playoffs within the next few years, that will allow them critical postseason experience. Booker and Ayton licking their wounds after a sweep or five-game series against Kawhi’s Clippers or LeBron’s Lakers in 2022 would go a long way toward sustainable success.
Only one thing can derail this idea before Phoenix can vault from irrelevance to contention with steady improvement: Booker’s patience.
Booker has talked openly about wanting to be in the playoffs since the end of his third season. He told local media back in April 2018 that he wanted to put the pressure on himself to not miss the playoffs again. That of course didn’t happen, as another turbulent season engulfed the organization. During last season, Booker was more frustrated than ever. It showed sometimes in his on-court mannerisms or even postgame in the locker room while being interviewed.
Phoenix’s 22-year-old star is ready to become a well-known commodity around the Association. It’s rare you see a player this young put up the numbers Booker did, while nobody outside of Phoenix really ever brought up his name. Wins are what matter most, especially for the stars.
Incremental improvement is of the upmost importance over the next few years. In three years, Booker will be in his age-25 season. His prime will be beginning, and he sure doesn’t want to continue basking in disappointment where the playoffs isn’t realistic after December.
Empowerment for the stars is at its all-time high right now. George has requested a trade from two organizations within three years. Leonard walked out of San Antonio, as well as Davis in New Orleans. Toss in Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving to that mix as well and you can see how differently the league operates nowadays.
If the Suns can’t move up the proverbial ladder soon enough, many national pundits will point towards Booker being the next disgruntled star to ask out.
The NBA landscape changed overnight with Leonard pulling an all-time power play forming his own rival superteam in the same building as James and Davis. For teams such as the Suns, the formula is right there for all to see.
Bank on the fortified young core — Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Oubre — to move Phoenix up the ranks while the superstars reach their 30s. No more missteps can be taken, especially with the hourglass now beginning during Booker’s second contract. It’s time for the Suns to progressively move up the ranks, closing with hopefully the baton being passed their direction within the next three or so years.