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Game of inches turns into summer of financial pressure for Phoenix Suns

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The Phoenix Suns now must look at summer roster moves in the wake of the Finals loss.

2021 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While you, along with the players, coaches and anyone associated with the team, grieve for the abrupt end to the Phoenix Suns 2021-22 season with a loss in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, take a long moment to consider the import of those last six words: Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

The Phoenix Suns just finished the fastest turnaround in NBA history for reaching the Finals just two years after being one of the two worst teams in the NBA.

The Suns have also become the only team in NBA history to snap a 10-year playoff drought with a thrilling Finals run.

No, they did not win a championship, which would have been the first in franchise history. The Suns lost their third NBA Finals in 53 years, all by a four-games-to-two margin, while the Milwaukee Bucks used a former 15th-overall-pick-turned-two-time-MVP to win their second championship in their own 53 year history.

You’re hurting today. But make no mistake: the Phoenix Suns are real and they’re spectacular.

They lost the Finals to a veteran team whose brightest stars — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton — suffered five years of playoff heartbreak to get to this point and were labeled as recently as a month ago as not good enough to win a ring.

I’m happy for them and their fans.

The Suns, on the other hand, skipped all those steps to the Finals before realizing ‘oh crap, we don’t have an answer for this guy’. They know how fortunate they are, and they tried to embrace that gratitude while also pushing past it to win a ring anyway. It almost worked.

The Finals series began as a trio of comfortable wins, with the Suns taking two of three, and then progressed to three straight clutch wins where the Bucks simply made more of the biggest plays than the Suns did.

The series was close. Oh so close.

Over six games and 1,441 minutes of play, the Bucks made just 1 more shot and 12 more free throws for a final series margin of 14 points.

Alas, the Suns lost. Doesn’t matter how close the series was. It’s over.

Now they have to figure out how to get right back there next June.

Mo Dakhil of Bleacher Report already gave us a glimpse of how an outsider sees the Suns in the coming years. He ranks the Suns as the 3rd best team in a power ranking of the next three years, behind only the Bucks and the Nets which ranks them atop the West.

3. Phoenix Suns

As surprising as the Suns’ run to the Finals has been, the team is set up quite nicely for the next few years. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are all [at or] under 25, and Deandre Ayton is just 22. Assuming Phoenix either agrees to extend contracts or matches any contract Ayton and Bridges receive in the 2022 offseason, this young core should be together for a long while. Add in Jae Crowder, who is signed with the team for the next two seasons, the Suns’ core is almost completely locked up. The big question is whether Chris Paul will opt into his contract for next season.

Even if Paul leaves, Phoenix has plenty of talent on the roster and with this recent run could bring in a younger replacement who fits the team’s timeline better. The Suns have only one draft pick outgoing, and that is to Oklahoma City for the Paul trade. It is most likely to be conveyed in the 2022 draft, so Phoenix would be free to move future picks or add more talent to its roster.

Ultimately, this team is built well for both the short and long term. There is no reason to believe the Suns are not going to be a threat in the West for years to come, especially as they embark on the prime years of Booker.

On this list of all 30 NBA teams, Mo ranks the Lakers (4th) just behind the Suns, then Jazz (5th), Nuggets (10th), Clippers (11th), Mavericks (13th), Grizzlies (14th), Pelicans (15th), Warriors (17th), Kings (21st), Blazers (23rd), Wolves (24th), Rockets (26th), Thunder (28th) and all the way down at the bottom are the Spurs (30th).

Some of these rankings may seem ridiculous, but the considerations here are the current roster constructions of each team before making any draft picks or trades or signing any new free agents. The Spurs don’t currently have any stars to carry them into contention, and the Blazers might just lose theirs faster than they can acquire a second one.

Mo’s intro goes as such:

Teams were ranked by where they are now and where they might be in three years. For example, a team that is a lottery club might be higher in the rankings than a current contender. The criteria are how the team’s current roster looks, cap management, draft equity and overall place in the league.

Check out the whole article: Power ranking every NBA team’s three year window

Of course, all of those rankings can potentially shift as soon as this off-season. Some teams with bleak futures can make big moves in the right direction. Some okay teams could become contenders, like the Suns did last year. And some great teams could be gutted with a bad off-season.

Mo is right that the Suns have control over their core, and are very likely to either keep Chris Paul or, if he leaves, find a comparable replacement. James Jones has already acquired Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul in consecutive off-seasons. The key is the continued growth of the Booker-Ayton-Bridges core, Jones’ ability to find excellent role players around them and Monty Williams’ brilliance as the coach.

What the Suns CANNOT do is become the next Oklahoma City Thunder. Like this year’s Suns, the young Thunder made the Finals even before their young core had reached their primes, only to trade away James Harden because they were worried about money. They did not want to extend both Serge Ibaka and Harden in the same offseason after already rookie-max’ing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the two years prior. They never touched the Finals again.

Closer to home, Robert Sarver cannot do what he himself did in 2005-06, losing young Joe Johnson over extension talks. The Suns were the NBA’s darling on the cusp of a dynasty, but the eventual Johnson trade as well as other money-saving moves undermined any championship aspirations.

Sarver said a few years ago that losing Joe was his greatest regret as the Suns owner, so he can’t let that happen again with Ayton or Bridges. Based on how those two improved this year and considering their incredible basketball talents, they’re only going to get more expensive the more they play.

First lesson: Don’t be 2005 Robert Sarver, and don’t be 2012 Sam Presti.

And let’s see if they can capture another brand of magic and make the Finals again.