Less than two months ago, the Western Conference leading Phoenix Suns (11-6) were a team in turmoil holding a funeral-like Media Day to kick off the new season.
Usually, the annual preseason Media Day is a free chance for all 30 teams to spout an egregious dose of optimism, setting expectations far and wide for a magical season. I still remember Goran Dragic returning to a ragtag Suns team sure to lose at least 50 games. Yet on Media Day he declared with a grin and a shrug, “Why not? I think we can” when asked if they could make a playoff push. That team went 25-57.
Every year, all 30 teams are gonna make the playoffs. At least 10 of those teams have visions of the Finals.
Yet for the Phoenix Suns in the year 2022, Media Day was more like a funeral than a celebration. Nary a smile was cracked over 6 hours of questions on everything but the upcoming basketball season.
An all-time playoff meltdown. Jae Crowder’s weird boycott. The NBA’s suspension of owner Robert Sarver for racism and misogyny. Sarver subsequently putting the team up for sale. The failed attempt to acquire Kevin Durant. That’s all anyone wanted to talk about.
The Suns, for their part, made no excuses for their failures. They pointed no fingers. They took the hit, accepted the blame and swallowed their pride.
“That’s what we keep telling our guys, like in order to go where we want to go, you got to overcome,” Williams says almost weekly, in some form or another.
So it’s no surprise that diehard Suns fans, let alone casual observers, assumed the Suns window to contention was closed. Many even assumed the Suns would stumble out of the gates, feeling pressure to make massive changes and ‘start over’.
Distractions didn’t end there. Jae Crowder remains a holdout. Cam Johnson went down after 7 games. All-Star Chris Paul went down after 9. Landry Shamet went down after 10. That’s $54 million in salaries out of the lineup these last two weeks, leaving Devin Booker playing significant minutes with two-ways and league minimums.
Yet the Suns just keep winning anyway. 17 games later, they yet again have the best record (11-6) in the Western Conference and the best net rating in the entire NBA.
No one is running away with the West this year, as no less than six other teams are within one win of leading the West themselves. But among those teams, the Suns are the most proven winners and will only get better when Paul, Shamet and Johnson return from injury.
Center Deandre Ayton credits head coach Monty Williams for keeping the team together through all of it.
“We go hard for him, play hard for this organization, and play hard for each other,” Ayton said after the Suns beat the Lakers on Tuesday night for their 11th win. “Once we have a great group of guys that are ready to lock in and listen from youngest to oldest it is hard to stop us.”
Ayton was asked about teams trying to break the Suns spirit this year, trying to capitalize on their troubles, and he immediately panned out to the bigger picture.
“This team, we have been embarrassed the last two years, playing the best basketball we have ever played and never finishing it,” Ayton said. “So, if you think [Patrick Beverley’s push in the back] is where we stop it at, nah. You are not looking at the brighter picture. We are aiming for something way bigger than that. There are going to be a lot more games and we just have to make sure we keep our head and play hard.”
Like I said, the Suns are still plugging along as one of the best in the game. They are one of only three teams (New Orleans, Cleveland) ranked in the Top 6 in both offense and defense. Four of their losses have come by a combined 6 total points. They have more quality wins than any other contender in the league.
“They are who they are,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said after Tuesday’s loss. “I mean you have to play damn near perfect in order to get a win in this building.”
All this means, as the holidays are upon us, we can be thankful the Phoenix Suns are still the Phoenix Suns.