It has been over a week since the Phoenix Suns’ unceremonious, second-round exit to Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks. The pain of Game 7’s horrific loss has (barely) begun to fade, but a deep scar has been left behind in the hearts of fans, and that series will remain a blemish on the records of every Suns player involved.
But like most blemishes, this one can be wiped away. And there is only one way to wash this one away.
It’s how Earvin “Magic” Johnson wiped away the “Tragic” Johnson moniker from his errors in the 1984 NBA Finals.
It’s how LeBron James wiped away his subpar performances in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and the 2011 NBA Finals.
It’s how Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs dynasty wiped away their early playoff exits from ‘09-’11, their collapse to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, and their late-game collapses to the Miami Heat in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
If this Suns team wishes to wipe away the blemish of the worst Game 7 performance in NBA history, they must come back, stronger than before, and win the championship.
In some ways, this year’s Suns team already had this approach when the season began in October. Their loss in the 2021 NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks after leading 2-0 was painful enough to power them to their 64-18 record this season.
At the center of the Suns’ resurgence was the development of their young wings, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Both players posted career-highs in points this season and both were recognized by the media for their consistent play during the regular season, with Bridges being named to the NBA’s 2021-2022 All-Defense 1st Team and Johnson finishing 3rd in the Sixth Man of the Year award race.
But when it came time to show these improvements in the playoffs, neither were able to do enough. This is not to put more blame on either Bridges or Johnson in comparison to the rest of the team.
Rather, it is to explain the harsh and unfair reality of the NBA: regular-season performances don’t matter if you can’t back them up in the playoffs.
So while there are the obvious points of interest regarding Deandre Ayton’s contract situation and Chris Paul’s age and health, the continued development of Bridges and Johnson is equally important, if not more important to the Suns' chances of contending for the foreseeable future.
If Ayton is traded, it is unlikely that the returning player will be as strong of an offensive scoring option as Ayton is.
And regardless of how strong Paul returns next season, there is a significant risk in relying on a 37-year-old, barely 6’0” point guard to be a consistent scoring option in next year’s playoffs after another grueling regular season.
The fact is one of Bridges or Johnson must step up and become consistent scoring options capable of scoring 20+ points on any given night. For them to have had only one game between them both of 15+ points in the entire series against the Mavericks was inexcusable. Both Bridges and Johnson have shown flashes, but if the Suns wish to remain contenders next season and onward, these two will need to take the next step in their offensive responsibilities.
Another aspect that adds pressure to both Johnson and Bridges is their contract situations. Johnson will be entering the final year of his rookie contract next season and will presumably be discussing the terms of an extension this summer. The 26-year-old will certainly be looking to maximize his earning potential and this could lead to Johnson banking on himself in the same way Ayton backed himself this past season and rebuked the Suns’ extension offer last year.
On the flip side, Bridges will enter the first year of his 4-year, $90 million rookie extension next season. But the Suns invested more than just that $90 million in Bridges, as it was this extension that possibly prevented the Suns from offering Ayton the full max extension offer he and his agent were looking for. You might question this linkage of Bridges’ contract to Ayton’s, but you have to admit it would be easier on the Suns salary cap to handle Ayton’s big $30 million contract if there wasn’t a Bridges getting $20 himself.. and a Johnson close behind getting $15+ million. If Ayton is moved, the question of whether Bridges’ extension was worth the loss of Ayton will be raised.
So as we prepare for the dog days of the off-season, the pressure is on for Bridges and Johnson to hit the gym and make those improvements to their offensive game, from the team’s success perspective and also from the perspective of their respective futures in Phoenix.