Don’t look now but the betting books now have the Phoenix Suns as the favorite for the 2022 NBA Championship.
With 20 games to go in the regular season, the Suns have a 7-game lead over the next closest team. Guess what that means, historically, when a team has that big a lead with that little to go in the season? Ring, ring.
Other sites of the non-betting variety have had the Suns the favorites for a while, including basketball-reference.com who give the Suns a 28.2% chance to win the Finals, well ahead of Golden State’s 16.6% chance.
Of course, the Suns are unusual, and that breeds skepticism. They are a favorite without having a clear top-5 or even top-10 player on their roster to carry them through the toughest games.
As John Hollinger put it in a recent Athletic article,
You see, these Suns are the definition of a “nice” team. They have a lot of good players. They win most of their games. They just don’t have the one guy who immediately strikes fear and trembling.
Even if they win 60-whatever games, that doesn’t change the basic picture. Phoenix is built differently, and as a result, the Suns represent a more interesting question: Is this the year a team with an ensemble cast wins the championship?
That’s 9 players who account for 28 of the last 31 championships.
The Suns have none of those nine players, which is why Steph and Giannis have such good odds behind the Suns. And if Kawhi were healthy and LeBron wasn’t surrounded by 10 minimum-wage teammates, they’d be favored too.
Hollinger cites only four teams, by his count, who won a championship without a current first-team All-NBA or ‘in their prime’ superstar on the roster: the 1989-90 Pistons, the 2004 Pistons and the 2014 Spurs.
Before the Suns-Blazers game on Wednesday night, I asked Chauncey Billups — rookie coach of the Blazers — about this characterization of the Suns not having a superstar, being a rare ensemble cast like his 2004 Pistons.
“I don’t see really any similarities between those two teams,” Billups said quickly. “Chris is Top-75, first-ballot [Hall of Fame], top 3, 4, 5 point guards in the history of the game. Book is gonna finish up there as well. Our team, we didn’t have those things.”
Billups, a seven-time All-Star with the Pistons during that era, helped the Pistons make two Finals (won 2004, lost 2005). They had Ben Wallace, the Defensive Player of the Year, in his prime and Rasheed Wallace was a four-time All-Star in his prime.
But none of them were, as Hollinger put it, ‘in their prime’ superstars or first-team All-NBA.
“But we had really good players,” Billups said. “I believe what we did and how we did it, I don’t think is every going to happen again. We didn’t have one max player. Some of us made the All-Star game, but we didn’t have a superstar or anybody you thought was a superstar.”
The same could be said of the Suns, right?
Billups disagrees. “Our teams are totally different from that standpoint.”
Chris Paul doesn’t make Hollinger’s cut because he hasn’t been first-team All-NBA... since 2014, isn’t in his prime anymore and only ranks about 15th best in the league today.
Yet Chris Paul IS a superstar. He’s made an All-NBA team 10 of his first 16 seasons so far: first-team four times, second-team five times and third-team once. He’s easily top-40 All-Time in NBA history and has been top-7 in MVP voting 10 times as well.
Devin Booker doesn’t make Hollinger’s cut because he’s not a clear-cut top-10 NBA player yet, not yet in his prime (still just 25 years old) and still only two years removed from being a good-player-bad-team guy.
Yet Devin Booker is a three-time All-Star already, will get some MVP votes this year and likely receive the first of many All-NBA nods. As Billups alludes, he’s only starting a long upward trend of superstardom.
The Suns don’t have that shake-in-your-boots superstar, but Kawhi wasn’t that guy until he won that second ring in Toronto. Steph wasn’t that guy until he won with Golden State’s Hall of Fame lineup.
If the Suns win a ring, the history on Paul and Book will change retroactively. If the Suns win a ring, people will remember Paul and Book as the superstars they are.
Let’s get back into context again for a moment. The Suns have the most wins in the NBA since the NBA Bubble started, which spans the end of 2019-20 through the late stages of the 2021-22 seasons. They have a huge lead on the pack for the top seed in the 2022 playoffs, and just beat an NBA team by 30 on Wednesday night without either of those stars in the lineup.
“But I can actually see where you’re coming from,” Billups said in conclusion. “They (Phoenix) are actually a real team, and they play that way on both ends of the floor. And I think it’s the reason why they are who they are right now.”
This might make your bile rise, but these Suns are the closest thing to the Spurs since the Spurs in that it they run their system and win games no matter who plays, because everyone knows their role and fits it perfectly.
The 2014 Spurs won a ring after having lost the 2013 Finals on a Ray Allen step-step-step-back-three without anyone in their prime as a superstar. Kawhi was pre-prime, and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were post-prime. But they were a TEAM, and they knew exactly what to do every night to win the game.
That’s probably the best comp out there right now, except the Suns are more on the front end of their run than those last-hurrah Spurs. Those 2014 Spurs had one pre-prime (Leonard) and the rest post-prime. These Suns have one post-prime (Paul) and the rest pre-prime (Book, Ayton, Bridges, Johnson).
That’s probably the closest comp to this year’s Suns. Not the 2004 Pistons. The 2014 Spurs.
Personally, I don’t care who these Suns compare to.
I just want to see them win a ring, and then I’ll watch the rest of the NBA change their narrative retroactively as a result.
Footprint Center will likely host its 20th straight sellout when your Phoenix Suns (50-12) host the fading New York Knicks (25-37) and reigning coach of the year Tom Thibodeau on Friday night.
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