There was a great article on The Ringer recently outlining the Suns and Atlanta Hawks unprecedented leaps to Finals contention. I wanted to share this with you right when I saw it, but karma warned me to wait.
Now it’s safe to share!
They are two of the league’s ‘final four’. The Suns have ascended to the NBA Finals and the Hawks are still alive in their Conference Finals.
They have also been two of the worst teams in the NBA for half a decade now, sometimes openly losing as many games as possible for higher draft picks. Just as recently as last year, the Hawks were second-worst team in the league with a 20-47 record in the pandemic-shortened season. The year before, the Suns were second-worst with a 19-63 record.
Those weren’t one-year anomalies either. In the three-year span prior to this current season, the Suns and Hawks ranked 27th and 28th in winning percentage. In a 30-team league.
Yet this year, the Suns leapt to the league’s 2nd best winning percentage while the Hawks climbed to 11th best. And now the Suns are in the Finals.
No team has ever been this bad and then suddenly turned it around to a Finals berth.
Check out this graph from the Ringer story (change the ??? to Yes next to the 2021 Suns)
The closest “annually awful to suddenly awesome” team in history was the Cleveland Cavaliers, who added LeBron James and Kevin Love in one offseason to team with All-Star Kyrie Irving.
That Cavaliers team was unique, though, and nothing at all like the Suns and Hawks this year. Neither the Suns nor the Hawks added the inarguably best player in the NBA and another in-their-prime All-Star in the same offseason.
Since this is a Suns blog, let’s focus on the Suns from here on out. Here’s how the Finals-bound Suns rank among all the Finals teams in the shot-clock era, in terms of winning percentage in the season(s) prior to the Finals run:
No team in NBA history has had a 10-year drought from making the playoffs at all, only to rocket all the way to the Finals in year 11.
How did the Suns do it?
First, they got lucky with hiring a great young General Manager (James Jones) and Head Coach (Monty Williams). Neither came highly regarded. Jones had never run a front office before and Williams had never won a playoff series. Yet two years later, Jones and Williams were awarded their respective ‘of the Year’ awards by their peers.
Jones gutted the whole roster except for the three young players with the highest potential, and made sure they were surrounded by good veterans and a good coaching staff that could maximize their potential.
And finally, they shocked the NBA by acquiring an All-NBA point guard to run the show.
Bada boom bada bing, Finals baybeeee!
Is the Suns formula repeatable?
Can the Kings, for example, break their 15-year playoff-less streak to make the NBA Finals next year or the year after by copying the Suns model?
Sure. All the Kings need to do is find an Executive of the Year among recently retired players, find a Coach of the Year from the fired coaching ranks, polish up Marvin Bagley, D’Aaron Fox and Tyler Haliburton into at least one All-Star and two others who are irreplaceable in a playoff run, hit perfectly on every single trade and free agent signing and then, oh yeah, fill that last weak rotation spot with one of the best players of his generation.
Bad boom baba bing, indeed.