“It’s hard to get here, and I wanted it so bad, you know?”
The words came out stilted, choked with emotion. Not a hint of anger, regret or hubris. Just raw sadness. ‘Men don’t cry’, as they say. Yet when an NBA coach breaks down on national television after coming up short in the NBA Finals, many of the 10 million viewers choked up with him.
I know I did. Right there as we streamed the presser live on YouTube with hundreds of our closest friends on the postgame Solar Panel/SunsJAM simulcast.
Such is the beauty and joy of being around Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams. His intent is to be present in each moment, purposefully not looking too far ahead or behind.
As the Suns shocked the world with the fastest ascent from lottery to Finals in NBA history this season, Williams constantly preached the value of embracing here and now, leaving reflection of the totality of the experience for another time.
That other time is here. The season is over. Game planning is done. As the final buzzer sounded, an offseason of reflection had already begun. You can see it in Devin Booker’s face and his mouthed ‘damn’ as he watched the Bucks celebrate.
Williams eyes were noticeable puffy as he navigated his rambling 10-minute presser with the media. And when he left the dais, he stopped to give a long embrace to his young star Devin Booker, who was waiting his turn with the media.
“We’re an emotional group,” Booker said when asked of the embrace. “We fight hard, we practice hard, we have a lot of fun together and we trust each other and we love each other and we say it all the time. So, we all had a common goal of bringing a championship back to Phoenix and it’s tough to fall short.”
Booker was minutes removed from that emotional walk-off after the Bucks clinched the championship at the Suns expense. Such a close team had worked relentlessly to beat all the odds and in their first playoff run together.
“My goal was to win it for [Chris Paul] and Book, those guys have carried us all year long,” Williams said a few minutes earlier.
All-Star Devin Booker, still just 24 years old, has dealt with criticism because he had never even sniffed the playoffs let alone played for a championship his first five years. Now Booker set a record for most points scored (601) in a player’s first playoff run, including a pair of 40-point Finals games that only a half dozen other NBA players have ever done.
And point guard Chris Paul, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer acquired by the Suns just eight months ago, has now reached the playoffs in 13 of his 16 years in the NBA but suffers from a tarnished legacy because he has never won a championship.
They both had the same goal but for different reasons and different levels of desperation.
“I think we learned a lot just by being in it,” Booker said, echoing similar comments from his young teammates. “It was a lot of our first times in the playoffs, let alone the Finals. But it was a great experience for us. I think we set a foundation and a base for our team, and we all have stuff to work on and we understand that. So, we’re going to take this hurt and bring it into the summer and continue to get better.”
On the other hand, Chris Paul is going to be 37 years old the next time the playoffs roll around. His ability to dominate a playoff opponent next year, especially by the time you’re fighting for the championship, is questionable at best.
His 57 points in the first two games of the Finals exceeded the total points ever scored by players aged 36 or older in Finals history. That was after closing out the Clippers with 41 points, including 30 in the second half, to win his first Conference title. And that was after being named second-team All-NBA as one of the league’s four best guards this season.
But he also struggled in these Finals against the physical defense of Jrue Holiday and the playoff-best team defense of the Bucks. He accumulated nicks and bruises all playoffs, beginning with a shoulder-numbing stinger and ending with stabilizing wraps on both his right fingers and left wrist. Those are tough, tough injuries for your starting point guard.
And the headlines the next day? Littered with ‘yet another playoff failure’ and ‘first player ever with four separate collapses after going up 2-0’.
“Chris, this is my second time coaching him,” Williams said of the negative narrative. “I know what he puts into his craft, I know the dedication and so when I hear those sentiments about his career because he hasn’t won a championship, it’s just silly. It’s hard enough to make it to the NBA, let alone be an all-time great, which is what he is.”
“I heard what Coach Monty said about people saying you know that solidifies his career,” Booker said. “And that’s complete nonsense to the real hoopers out there.”
Regardless of what real hoopers think, or what the Suns themselves think, it’s Chris Paul who has to live with this latest failure to win a ring. While he’s moved to five teams in 16 years, he’s never tried to join a super team. In fact, he committed so hard to the rebuilding Thunder a year ago he carried them to the 5th seed rather than work out a trade to a contender and followed that up by orchestrating a trade to Phoenix, who hadn’t made the playoffs in a decade.
“It’s tough,” Paul said minutes after losing in the Finals to the Bucks. “Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
Now Paul has to face the prospect of having to try to win a championship one or two or three more times into his late 30s as he inevitably becomes more and more reliant on his teammates to get him over the top.
“It will take a while to process this or whatnot, but it’s same mentality, get back to work,” Paul said. “I ain’t retiring, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s out. So, back to work.”
Will Paul stay with the Suns for those twilight years? He’s got a player option for next season that he could pick up for a year, extend it with the Suns for longer, or opt out and try to win a ring with a 6th different team.
“The reality is you never know if you’re ever going to get back here,” Williams said of making the Finals. “That’s why you have to take advantage of these opportunities. We just came up short.”
At the moment, before free agency, the Suns have been given the third-best odds to win the championship next season and the best odds to win the West again. No other contender needs and/or can fit Chris Paul in their salary structure. Don’t listen to any jive about the Lakers — there’s no reasonable way that works in free agency, and James Jones won’t make a trade that hurts the Suns.
The Suns need CP, and CP needs the Suns if he wants the best chance to win a ring. He has lots of options, and with free agency starting in less than two weeks on August 2, we won’t have to wait long to find out.