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What the Suns can learn from the Raptors and Heat as they refocus for 2022

Thoughts on super teams, winning in the modern NBA, and how it all relates to the Suns.

Miami Heat v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Maybe it’s just the name: super team. There’s something seismic and ecstatic when you say it, as if you behold the power of the assembled legends donning the same team logo. We love to talk about super teams.

But the Suns aren’t a super team, and they just came within a few shots of hosting a Game on 7 in the NBA Finals. The 2020 Heat weren’t a super team, and they got just as close against a Lakers team with one of the best Batman and Robin duos of all time. The 2019 Raptors were far from a super team, having lost and lost and lost before betting on Kawhi Leonard and winning the jackpot. We talk too much about super teams.

There’s the Heatles and the Light Years Warriors, sure. But point me to another one in recent years that actually went anywhere. We wait in limbo for what Brooklyn can do, but aside from them, for now I’ll disagree with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s focus on starry squads. The real conversation should be about building around stars, no matter how you get them. And that’s the conversation the Suns face this offseason as they seek to avoid the fate that befell Toronto and Miami the past two seasons as the former Finalists fell back to Earth.

2019 Toronto Raptors

How they got there: Traded DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for Kawhi Leonard

How it ended: Leonard left for the Clippers in free agency, then the pandemic forced them to Tampa Bay in 2021

Toronto got a raw deal all around, doing all they could to convince Leonard to stay and losing out because of the (literally) greener pastures of SoCal. But to simply say that the Raptors fell off after Leonard left is inaccurate — Toronto forced a Game 7 in the second round in the Bubble with many of the same pieces, minus Leonard. They owe the growth of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and even Chris Boucher to a phenomenal player development program and an excellent coaching staff.

The Suns can look to Toronto for the good (young players compensating for departing stars) and the bad (a player like Leonard or Chris Paul fleeing). I choose to chalk up their ghastly 2021 to the awful circumstances of being away from home for six months rather than overreact to one season.

Still, it’s a huge blow when someone like Leonard leaves. It’s the difference between a championship-caliber squad and one that is simply very good. In many ways, Toronto is right back where it was pre-Leonard: the middle. That is palatable to some franchises, and not palatable to others.

It is far more likely in my eyes that Paul stays in Phoenix than that Leonard was going to get his passport renewed and remain a Canadian, but if there is any hazard here, it’s to do what it takes to keep the stars that make you great.

2020 Miami Heat

How they got there: Traded for Jimmy Butler

How it ended: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic regressed (and Jae Crowder left)

Some of what made last year’s Heat so special applies to these Suns. They were greater than the sum of their parts in a way that made up for youth, inexperience and a lack of star power. Resiliency helped them survive through challenging circumstances across a pandemic season. And the explosive growth of young big men turned them from frisky to legit.

If there’s anything to take from Miami, it’s that you ought to keep important role players (Crowder for Miami, Cameron Payne or Torrey Craig for the Suns). There’s also the matter of Bam Adebayo looking more human in this year’s regular season than he did in the Bubble, a fate the Suns will want to avoid with Deandre Ayton. But while Miami’s young players looked worse after their run, I don’t think any Suns contributors played above their head.

Just as I expect the Heat to be better by playing smart team basketball in a way that maximizes Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, I expect the same when it comes to the Suns with Paul and Devin Booker.

To return to the crux of what’s important here, it’s less about Super Teams vs. Normal Guys and more about how you build around stars. The Raptors, Heat, Bucks and Suns didn’t just happen into the playoffs because they were not super teams. They got there because they had depth, played intelligently together, were well-coached, and had enough star power to win playoff games.

Their presence in the Finals doesn’t mean super teams are dead or even that that’s not a viable route to competitiveness in the NBA, but simply that there are many ways to build a great team. The Suns got there by finding a way to maximize their best players, staying healthy, and out-maneuvering opposing teams with their versatility and IQ.

If there’s anything that a super team is safer from, it’s regression. The one lesson to take from Toronto and Miami (and the 2011 Mavericks before them) is that without multiple superstars, it’s easier to fall back to the middle. If everything does not fall into place after a Finals berth, these teams can look startlingly average.

To avoid that, the Suns need to prioritize keeping Paul, maintaining the core of the team, bolstering the depth, and continuing to look for ways to make Paul and Booker better.

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