With the exception of the most optimistic of us, the 2020-21 Phoenix Suns exceeded expectations when they turned out to be the class of the Western Conference. While many fans believed the team would reach the playoffs after adding Chris Paul in a blockbuster trade, few (at least publicly) predicted it would be among the most successful teams in franchise history.
But now the expectation has been set at championship or bust, and anything less than a repeat trip to the finals would feel like a letdown.
What could be standing in the way of that goal? Well...
Father Time Catches Up to Chris Paul
How far removed today feels from the days when Ricky Rubio vs. CP3 seemed like a debate worth having on Brightside. Paul silenced his doubters with an unlikely MVP-quality season, shooting a rounded 50/40/90 at .499/.395/.934. I know that doesn’t count, but it’s tantalizingly close.
But Chris is 36 years old, and history has shown us that players’ games do tend to age at an accelerated rate on the wrong side of 35. The Suns will need Chris Paul to play at a level similar to last season if they hope to get back to the NBA finals, and that may well be a big ask of a man approaching an age few players even reach in the NBA.
This is a universal worry for a professional sports team, and our Suns are no different. A serious long-term injury to any of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, or Deandre Ayton would leave the Suns with a serious challenge that would be difficult (if not impossible) to overcome.
The loss of CP3 would mean a loss of quality all down the playmaking line. Cam Payne might be able to step in and ably man the starting point guard role, but this would shift serious playmaking duties to Devin Booker and to Elfrid Payton, who was not expected to be more than a lightly-used third guard. And even with Paul still present on the sideline, the Suns would sorely miss his on-court leadership.
The loss of Booker would rob the Suns of their dynamic #1 offensive option, forcing players like Mikal Bridges to abandon their usual approaches of taking mostly high efficiency shots in favor of trying to make things happen for the team. While one could argue that this could actually benefit the Suns long-term if such players are able to successfully expand their arsenals, for the 2022 season it would undoubtedly cost the Suns games.
An Ayton-less Suns would be seriously outclassed in the paint by many NBA teams, as JaVale McGee is the only other true big on the roster and it’s not clear he can handle playing starting minutes at this point in his career. The Suns could probably get by in the regular season running a near-constant small lineup, but it’s hard to see how they’d make that work in the playoffs against the best teams in the West.
The mojo is gone
This is far from a scientific point...but sometimes a sports team just has a sort of special thing going on that only lasts one season. Sometimes you can bring back more or less the same team, but somehow the magic isn’t there like it was last year. The 1990 Suns scrapped their way to the edge of an NBA finals berth before falling to the Blazers in a six-game series. The 1991 Suns were a substantially similar team in terms of personnel and regular season performance, but they became a first-round exit.
There are many year-over-year variables, of course...but sometimes the stars align for a team and simply do not the following season.
These potential pitfalls, disconcertingly, are not particularly controllable. Players get hurt, players decline with age, and sometimes teams just aren’t lucky. The team can try to mitigate these risks to some degree by being cautious with minor injuries and not overworking older players, especially CP3. But even careful management of risk factors can’t guarantee anything.
That said, Suns fans can take comfort in the fact that if the Suns take care of all the factors they can control, an NBA championship is a very possible outcome. And that feels pretty good, even if things could go wrong.