76 days. That’s it.
When the Phoenix Suns take the court to open the preseason in Sacramento on October 4, it will have been 76 days since the team played their last game. That game, which took place on July 20, was a Game 6 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals.
Plenty has happened in the time since our hearts were crushed on that Tuesday evening.
Devin Booker, alongside new Phoenix Sun JaVale McGee, traveled to Tokyo and earned a gold medal representing the US of A. Book has been to Italy and back, and recently caught, “the ‘vid”.
The NBA Draft came and went without the Suns making a pick, opting to trade for Landry Shamet rather than bringing in a project. We bid “adieu” to Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter. We’ve said “welcome back” to Elfrid Payton as he rejoined the franchise, and we’ve holla’d “welcome aboard” to the additions of Chandler Hutchison and Chasson Randle.
Outside of those additions, this is the same team that was in the Finals a mere 1,824 hours ago.
As the team embarks on a new season, this time loaded with playoff experience and championship aspirations, they will battle more than the team across from them.
They will take on the heightened awareness from those teams relative to who Phoenix is. In other words, they’ll be getting the best shot from their opponents for those teams know that a) the game is most likely on a national feed — as it will happen 34 times (41% of their games) this season — and b) this is an opportunity for them to see were they are as a team against one the best in the NBA. There will be no load management nights against the Suns like we saw plenty of last season.
Many of the players will be facing the greatest expectations of their career and, with the national spotlight upon them, will be challenged in ways they have yet to feel as a pro. While we have faith in the cold-blooded nature that Devin Booker possesses, how will Deandre Ayton respond? Mikal Bridges? Cam Johnson? The young core will be tested mentally and how they respond will determine the record of the team.
All of these tests will occur with the shortest off-season in Suns’ history.
This isn’t a newly asked question. The Miami Heat, who played their first preseason game 68 days after losing to the Lakers in the Orlando Bubble, faced the same question entering last season. So did the Lakers, but they won the ‘chip, so “mission accomplished” as George W. would say.
Miami is the best apples-to-apples comparison to what Phoenix is facing this season. While numerous teams and players have faced shortened off seasons due to deep playoff runs (see: LeBron James’ career), no other team has had to face such a quick turnaround. The 72-day off season (preseason not included) was the quickest in NBA history, a full 55 days faster than the previous shortest offseason (2017, 127 days).
How did Miami fare last season? Well, this is where you hope it isn’t apples-to-apples. The team began sluggishly, winning 6 of their first 18 games. Was this due to fatigue? Or was this a result of injuries and COVID? My guess is the latter. All Star wing Jimmy Butler in just six of those games. When he was back and healthy, the team won 12 of their next 18.
The season progressed and the team continued to deal with injuries and not living up to expectations born in the Bubble.
Players who the fanbase expected to take the next step in their careers, most notably Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, did not. Joey Jackson, writer for Overtime Heroics, noted that, “[Herro] was inconsistent and seemed distracted at times,” and, “It seemed that Bam was scared to take over games. He oftentimes wasn’t looking to score, and if he started the game with a couple misses, you could see his confidence leave him.”
The Heat ended their season with a 40-32 overall record and were swept out of the playoffs by the Bucks in the first round.
Pat Riley said, “Our players, our staff, the people that have been here every day, every single day, they’re mentally worn out more so than physically. And I think they just need to rest for a couple of weeks, a month,” at the conclusion of last season.
This is why the question is posed, and will continue to be anytime they are bogged down, as to whether or not the team will be tired entering the 2021-22 campaign. James Jones responded to this on Media Day, stating that quickly getting back to it will allow guys to get back in their rhythm better as opposed to a “longer break”.
Sure, the narrative is the same for both teams. Short off-season. Both roster a leader who is demanding of themselves and their teammates (Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul). Both have a nice mix of young players and veterans. And yes, Jae Crowder was a member of both Finals’ runs. Quick side note: damn Jae. Back-to-back short offseasons?! Ouch.
One primary difference between the Heat and the Suns? Depth.
The depth of the Phoenix Suns should allow them to ramp up accordingly while not sacrificing any effort on the court or wins. James Jones did, at least on paper, a stellar job of filling out the roster with a lineup that can beat you in multiple ways. With multiple players. The “five-by-three” philosophy of having all five positions three-deep can address any fatigue that occurs.
My expectation is they will, at some point, be tired. It is an 82-game season once again. Traveling is a grind, especially mentally. They will be battling heightened opponents and expectations. This season will be a challenge unlike any other for all of the team.
Outside of depth, Phoenix has one of the most important aspects any team can possess, and that is organic chemistry. They can come together and push through adversity because egos are checked at the door. That allows space for accountability, internal motivation, and (hopefully) success.
From the outside looking in, this team doesn’t like each other. They love each other. These few, these band of brothers.
Just don’t be apples to apples with the Heat, Suns.