The Phoenix Suns have a 24-11 record halfway through their 2020-21 schedule. They have two All-Stars. They boast the league’s eighth-best offense, third-best defense and third-best net rating — one of only two teams (Jazz) with top-eight rating on both offense and defense. They are 8-3 against the teams currently in playoff position in the West, including these last two wins by a combined margin of 32 points.
That 24-11 record is the second best in the entire league. The last time the Phoenix Suns had one of the league’s two best records at the All-Star break was the last time they were a serious contender for the championship.
The year was 2007, and the Phoenix Suns were 39-13 on the road toward a third straight Conference Finals with hopes of going all the way this time. Y’all know what happened, so I won’t repeat it. That team had three All-Stars, including the two-time defending League MVP. They were clearly a championship favorite.
This 2021 Suns team is not that team. Paul, Booker and Ayton are no Nash, Amare and Matrix of 2007. The apex star power is not quite the same level. But then again, this current Suns team is not putting all their hopes in a style that regularly gets stifled in the post-season (offense, pace).
This 2021 Suns team does not have the high end expectations of that 2007 team, so let’s stop that comp right now.
How about a comparison to the 1992-93 team that acquired an All-Star to supplement a good core and make a Finals run that first year? That team got Charles Barkley, who won the MVP and carried the Suns to the Finals. This current team got Chris Paul, who has been named an All-Star for the 11th time and has the Suns second-best in the league.
Even with those obvious parallels, though, this 2021 team does not compare to the 1993 team. That 1993 team began with a core group (Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers) who already knew how to make the Conference Finals with or without the Chuckster. Adding Barkley made them an instant title contender and favorite to make the West Finals.
So which former Suns team compares most favorably to this current one?
I have two.
The 2006 Suns
The Sunderella Suns from 2005 got decimated with unfortunate injuries. First, Amare Stoudemire sat out the year with knee surgery. Then the enforcer, Kurt Thomas, went down with his own knee injury mid-season. And finally, Raja Bell went down with a calf strain in the playoffs.
But they still had MVP Steve Nash, All-Star Shawn Marion, Most Improved Player Boris Diaw, and a deep core of hoopers, including flamethrower Eddie House off the bench and street signee Tim Thomas. They had the league’s second-best offense, 16th-best defense, fourth-best net rating, and nine players averaged eight-plus points per game.
They had an identity, and a uniqueness that carried them quite far — all the way to a 1-0 lead in the Conference Finals before Raja went down and dashed their hopes. They just didn’t have enough left in the tank to hold off Dirk and the Mavs.
That team never quite had the league’s second best record, but they went 54-28 and scared everyone along the way.
The 2010 Suns
Ah, the last Conference Finalist (or even playoff) team in the valley. General manager Steve Kerr had effectively swapped out Shaquille O’Neal for Channing Frye to re-commit to a Steve Nash type of score-first, score-more offense. They had a great start (14-3) and great finish (28-7) on the way to a 3-seed and deep playoff run. They had the league’s best offense by a wide margin, 23rd ranked defense and 5th best net rating. Nine players averaged 7.9+ points per game.
What spurred that second-half 28-7 surge was not only the All-Stars in the starting lineup (Nash, Amare) but also the special fire off the bench. The five-man combo of Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa and Lou Amundson would sometimes play so well early in the 4th quarter they could close out wins with Nash cheering on from the sidelines.
I see a lot of similarities between this current team and the 2010 team.
- aging All-Star point guard who commands the game (Nash, Chris Paul)
- All-Star wingman (Amare, Devin Booker)
- Complementary 3rd-5th starters (J-Rich/Grant Hill/RoLo, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder)
- Highly effective bench crew who can sometimes take over games
- the scoring is balanced: seven different players average at least 10 points per game
I mentioned the 2010 bench mob above. Forreal, the 2021 bench mob might be even scarier. The main group of Dario Saric, Cameron Johnson, Cam Payne, Frank Kaminsky and Abdel Nader has been superb lately.
And the great thing is that this 2021 team can withstand injuries among them. When Saric and Payne missed time, Frank Kaminsky and E’Twaun Moore stepped up. Langston Galloway has provided good minutes. And I guarantee you that Jevon Carter will make a big difference on this team before the season is done. His defense will be needed at some point.
But just like prior good Suns team iterations, the Suns will go as far as their most important players take them. They need Paul, Booker, Bridges and Ayton all there at 30+ minutes per game to go as far possible this season.
How far is that? Well frankly, I’ll leave you with two nuggets.
One: I believe this 2021 team is more capable and dangerous than either the 2010 or 2006 teams because they already play playoff-style basketball. They’re not trying to prove an offense-only team can win the championship. They’re simply trying to play the best playoff-proven kind of basketball there is.
Two: There’s no juggernaut bound to knock the Suns out no matter how good they get. The Lakers are defending champs and they are great, but they’re not the prime Spurs. I don’t believe the supporting cast around LBJ and AD are as good as last year. And then in the Finals... omg... can you imagine facing off against the Nets with Nash, D’Antoni and Amare still trying to prove offense-first can win a ring as the coaches? My heart would grow three times as big.
Time will tell, but I do believe the Suns are a contender and I can’t wait to watch the rest of this season unfold.
In the meantime, enjoy watching Devin Booker and Chris Paul in the All-Star festivities this weekend.
Which Conference/Finals team best compares to the 2021 Suns?
This poll is closed
None - this Suns is better than all of them
None - this poll is stupid, or at least irresponsible