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Taking one last look around before 2021-22 starts

Training camp for the 2021-22 season starts on Tuesday, September 28.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite what happened with Golden State and Cleveland Cavaliers this decade, almost no NBA teams repeat a Finals appearance two years in a row. And almost no cinderella season is matched in fervor and euphoria a season later.

The Phoenix Suns surprised the league, and even themselves, last season by playing so focused, so mistake-free, so driven that they blitzed all the way through the 2020-21 season and playoffs, including the Western Conference bracket, like a juggernaut despite having no prior experience together on such a stage.

So of course they can do it again next year, especially since they kept the band together during the offseason (the only player who helped the Suns make the Finals but won’t be back this year is 15 minutes-per-game Torrey Craig).

Well, next year is already here.

2021-22 Media Day is Monday, training camp officially starts Tuesday, and the first preseason game is next Sunday.

Whoa.

Suns fans, it’s okay if you’re not ready for the new season to start yet. The amount of time that’s passed since the Finals, Game 6 loss is almost nothing. In fact, these 70 days since that game are less than half the Suns offseason you’re used to.

It’s like that exhilarating but exhausting first date that ended so much later than you expected, even though it stopped short of the boom-boom, and here they are blowing up your phone before 6am the next morning. You’re happy to hear from them, but also you’re like ‘I need my sleep now’.

We just experienced the shortest offseason in team history. Barely two months will have passed between the last Suns game of 2020-21 and the official start of training camp for the 2021-22 season. A year ago, even amid the pandemic-shortened schedule, the Suns had 116 days (almost 4 months) off between their final Bubble game and the start of training camp with new point guard Chris Paul.

Before that? Devin Booker had never had less than 150 days (5 months) off between his last game of one season and the start of training camp for the next. This time? 51 days, thanks to that Olympics Gold Medal run.

The Suns have decided to be conservative with Booker and 36-year old Chris Paul, who underwent left wrist surgery once the Finals ended. Neither came back to the gym early for the annual volunteer pickup games that teams always do ahead of training camp each year.

Per Flex on my podcast last week, every single Phoenix Suns player has been back in the gym at the practice facility this month getting into basketball shape except for the two All-Stars. Paul is in town now — he went to the Mercury playoff game last Thursday night in fact — but we have not quite seen his partner yet. Media Day might be the first Booker sighting of the season.

Should we be worried about tiredness?

Last season, Finals contestants Lakers and Heat had only 50 days (less than six weeks) off from the end of the Finals and the start of training camp — nearly half what the Suns and Bucks have had this time. Were they tired? While LeBron James complained all season about being tired from the short break, he was also playing (and boasting) at MVP level until suffering a severely sprained ankle that diminished the rest of his season. On the other side, Jimmy Butler had one of the best seasons of his career when he wasn’t suffering from a bout of COVID-19. So I don’t think the Suns are in any danger zone here due to their Finals appearance.

Monday will mark my 9th official in-person Media Day covering the Suns, dating all the way back to October of 2012 with Lon Babby, Lance Blanks, Super Cool Beas and a giddy Goran Dragic.

I remember asking Michael Beasley — who the Suns paid big money to play small-ball power forward — if he preferred playing close to the rim or on the wing and without hesitation said the latter.

I remember asking Jared Dudley — 27 years old at the time, in the prime of his athletic career — how many dunks he’d throw down that year, to which he quickly responded “17!”. JD finished with 10, second-highest of his career. That was pretty great for JD though. In eight subsequent seasons, he threw down only two more. Total.

I remember asking Goran Dragic if he could lead the team to their first playoff run after what seemed like an interminable two year hiatus. The Dragon, just signed to his first big contract to come back and replace Steve Nash as the starting point guard, smiled and said ‘why not?’.

I remember asking rookie Kendall Marshall — taken 13th overall in the 2012 Draft — what he had to prove in the NBA, to which he responded “nothing”. In retrospect he was right. He proved nothing in the NBA.

Those were the days, eh?

Ten years. Nine in-person Media Days (last year was all via Zoom).

And yet, this will be the first year I will cover an incumbent playoff team. On Monday, I will be on-site to see how the players and coaches handled their first off-season after an emotionally and physically draining two-month playoff run. Did anyone have time to develop new skills, did anyone put on that 10 pounds of muscle, or get in the best shape of their careers, or did they just take a couple minutes to breathe?

Before Monday’s Media Day officially kicks off “this season” and makes that Finals run “last season”, I’d like to take a few moments to appreciate what happened with the Suns this past year.

They rocketed all the way to the NBA Finals in their first playoff run. On a team level, they proved that high draft picks bourn of tanking can indeed be the backbone of championship contender, as long as you build a smart roster of role players around them and lead them with an All-NBA, MVP-caliber talent. They basically repeated the formula of the 2004 off-season, didn’t they?

On a player level, they all proved their worth for big-value extensions before the team had to actually pay for it. Deandre Ayton justified the max-value extension he was going to get anyway, but at least it’s being awarded based on performance rather than potential. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne also justified bigger contracts that either have come or will come in the next year or so. And of course there’s Chris Paul, getting his last big contract with the team that gives him a chance at a title every year till he retires.

And on a Devin Booker level in particular, the Suns rewarded the homegrown star’s unwavering loyalty through five years of losing by surrounding him with a championship contender before he had to consider going all Anthony Davis at some point. Booker could be one of the few superstars in league history who spend their entire career with the team that drafted him.

The Suns kick-started this rebuild into a contender faster than we could actually process, and I hope that this season continues those good vibes so that we can catch up before its gone again.

Cherish the memory of every moment of this past season, Suns fans, whether you’re still hurting from the Finals loss or not. At least all that tanking numbness is gone, allowing us to feel joy and pain the way they were meant to be felt.

Next up

Suns Media Day, which gives us interviews with players, coaches and James Jones for the first time in months, occurs on Monday, September 27.

Training camp begins Tuesday, and the first of four preseason games is next Monday.

The regular season opener is less than a month away!