I know we’re all thinking about Robert Sarver right now. And that’s very understandable. It’s an important topic affecting our team and it should be considered and discussed. But we are on the cusp of new Phoenix Suns season, regardless of how the ugly aftermath of the Sarver investigation unfolds. As much as we should talk about Sarver, let’s also not forget what the Suns are here for.
That said, it’s hard to tell if a team is good enough to win an NBA championship unless it actually wins an NBA championship. One could argue that a team that does not win a championship was not good enough, and it’s hard to argue the logic of that.
But one could also argue that a team could be good enough to win and simply fail to do so. And that’s what I’d argue of the past two Phoenix Suns teams, which lost in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks and then in the Western Conference semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks.
And I’d further submit that this season’s Suns squad, with a few adjustments that GM James Jones shouldn’t have too much trouble making before the trade deadline, is also going to be good enough. That’s three straight seasons of legitimate contention for an NBA title, and it’s time for Suns fans to realize that the ride will not last forever. The Suns need to smash through this window NOW, before the steel shutters come down.
Good things don’t last
Let’s look beyond the Suns’ own history, because most Suns fans are familiar with the previous legitimate contender iterations of the team, including the Steve Nash-led squads of the 2000s and the Barkley teams of the early 90s.
Many other teams have been where the Suns are — with an exciting young core seemingly set up to contend for four seasons five seasons — or even longer. But more often than not, those teams (especially middle-market ones like our Suns) have found their windows much more limited than the more optimistic projections. Let’s look, if you will, at a case study and what happened to derail a seemingly reliable contender.
Case Study: The Orlando Magic
Full disclosure: as a young NBA fan I LOVED the early-mid 1990s Orlando Magic. Their exciting style of play, their obvious enjoyment on the court, and their uniforms were on point. Other than the Sunbursts, these things might be my favorite NBA jerseys.
For those who’ve forgotten, or those under 35 who may only be dimly aware of this now-distant history, the Magic of the early-mid 90s appeared set up to challenge for the eastern conference crown for the foreseeable future. The 93/94 squad was swept in the first round of the playoffs, but compiled a 50 win season led 21 year-old Shaquille O’Neal and 22 year-old Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Of the Magic’s top five scorers that season, only one (29 year-old Scott Skiles) was older than 26.
The following season, the Magic went 57-25 and reached the NBA finals before falling to the Houston Rockets. And in 95/96, they went 60-22, without a single player over 30 among their top 5 scorers. They were swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals, however, by the resurgent Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls.
The following season they were only a 47-win club, and by 1998 they were a .500 team missing the postseason. So what happened? Well, a couple of things which illustrate the pitfalls a team can walk into.
First, and most infamously...they lost Shaq. The team made the ill-advised decision to lowball their free agent future hall of fame center, even though they could have exceeded the cap to sign him and there was no luxury tax penalty at that time. It is often retroactively assumed by fans that Shaq landed in LA because the Lakers could pay him the most, but that isn’t the truth...the Magic could have paid him anything they wanted, There was no maximum salary at the time, either.
O’Neal also reportedly suffered falling outs with both the front office and Hardaway, and this all eventually led to his joining the Lakers and anchoring a three-peat championship run in Los Angeles.
Secondly, Hardaway, one of the game’s most gifted young point guards, broke down. He missed 23 games in 1997, and almost the whole season in 1998. Though he did have some nice stretches as a member of our Suns a few years later, he was never really himself again after 1997. Unable to attract premier free agent talent to Orlando, the Magic would not advance beyond the opening round of the playoffs again until 2008.
What can we take away from this? The Magic fell victim to questionable decision-making from the top, big egos on the court, and the tragic physical disintegration of a star player just into his prime. We’ve seen the Suns grapple with all of these over the past couple of years except for the injury one...but we unfortunately know that can strike at any time.
There are some differences between the situations that are worth noting. First, the Suns have most of their top young stars, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges, under contract for several seasons each and they are not in immediate danger of simply leaving, as Shaq did Orlando.
But times have also changed since Shaq’s prime days, with star players now much more in control of their destinies and able (in some cases, anyway) to essentially dictate their futures despite their contractual status binding them to their current clubs. Mismanagement from the top, therefore, still poses a serious risk to the Suns.
Maybe this bears even more intense thought given the current situation with Robert Sarver. It’s not hard to imagine feelings fraying between players and this franchise right now, and it remains crucial that everyone operating the Suns fight to stop that from happening.
Injury, as previously noted, can strike any player at any time. I hesitate even to type this, but a serious injury to either Devin Booker or Deandre Ayton could easily derail a Suns season, even in a world where the team has effectively replaced Chris Paul.
The Suns need to take advantage of right now. This season. No half measures, no riding the fence, no deferring to future seasons when “Ayton will have improved more” or “Bridges will be able to create more shots.” If it takes a draft pick to make a key acquisition, I say do it. If it takes losing a well-liked secondary contributor, I say do it. Live for today, Suns fans.
Because if there’s anything those Magic teams I really liked (and many others we could name, given endless time and space to do so) have taught me, it’s that the ride can end awfully suddenly. Let’s make sure it’s the best one we could have, while it lasts.