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Phoenix Suns going down an uncharted road in quest for championship

The Suns are trying something almost no teams have ever tried: keeping it together, no matter how hard the winds of change blow

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

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Would you believe the Phoenix Suns are one of a small group of teams in the past decade who ran it back two straight training camps with the same pecking order after coming up short in a deep playoff run?

That’s a long sentence. Let me break it down.

  1. Deep playoff run that came up short — winning at least one game in the Conference Finals but not the championship
  2. Two training camps later — that’s two full off-seasons where the average NBA team changes 40% of its roster
  3. Same coach
  4. Same top two players
  5. Looking back the last 10 years (for consistency in economical climate, in NBA terms)

I even set the bar low, looking for any semblance of continuity across the league compared to the Suns. When the Phoenix Suns begin training camp next week, they will not only have their same top two players and coach from the 2021 NBA Finals, the are set to have their same top EIGHT players and coach. No one does that. No one.

We always preached continuity, and General Manager James Jones has carried that mantra like Gandalf carries a staff or Galadriel carries her brother’s knife.

All of the starting lineup, plus Cameron Payne, Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson are scheduled to be back, but even if there’s a trade or two in the coming days you can be sure that at least six of those eight, including the top four, will don a Suns uniform on Monday for the annual Media Day.

This level of continuity is uncommon — but you know what’s even less common than that? The idea that making changes after a deep playoff run makes you better.

The evidence shows, in fact, that changing either your coach or one of your top players soon after a deep playoff run in order to take that NEXT step is often tried but almost always fails.

Let’s take a close look.

Not included

I looked carefully at the Conference Finalists over the past ten years.

We are not including the Utah Jazz, for example, because they never even reached the Conference Finals with that group. I am also not including the Portland Trail Blazers because, while they did make a WCF, they got swept. By that logic, I also have to exclude the 2015 Hawks, who many compared to the current Suns except that those Hawks got swept in their Conference Finals too (2015).

And no Golden State Warriors, because they never came up short. The Warriors won the 2015 title in their first foray past the second round and everything’s been gravy for them since, with six Finals and four championships in eight years. Blech.

The 2019 Raptors are not included. They won the whole thing in the one year they had Kawhi, and never came close again after he bolted.

And, finally, the Spurs are out of this. They won the whole thing right away with Pop and Tim Duncan in 1999 and had uncommon patience for the next 17 years while they won four more titles. Sure they changed the parts around those two a few times, but they never made their biggest roster decisions in reaction to playoff losses. Only to retirements.

That leaves us with...

Teams who CHANGED top player(s) and/or coach within 2 training camps of CF/Finals

  1. Dallas Mavericks — WCF in 2022, lost to Warriors, immediately lost Jalen Brunson in free agency
  2. Atlanta Hawks — ECF in 2021, lost 4-2 to Bucks, ran it back one season, lost in first round 4-1 to Heat, added Dejounte Murray for draft picks during the second offseason
  3. Milwaukee Bucks — ECF in 2019, added Jrue Holiday for draft picks, won Finals in 2021, lost in second round in 2022 to Celtics
  4. Boston Celtics — ECF in 2017, lost to Cavs, traded Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving, drafted Jayson Tatum, and made the ECF again...
  5. Boston Celtics, cont’d — ECFs in 2018 and 2020 with same top-2+coach, lost to Cavs and Heat, changed the coach, made Finals in 2022, lost to Warriors
  6. Houston Rockets — 2018 WCF, lost 4-3 to Warriors, stayed together one more year, regressed to second round in 2019, then traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, lost bigtime since
  7. Cleveland Cavaliers — 2015 NBA Finals, lost to Warriors, changed the coach (Blatt to Lue) mid-season, WON Championship 2016 over Warriors...
  8. Cleveland Cavaliers, cont’d: 2017 NBA Finals, lost to Warriors, traded Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, lost 2018 Finals to Warriors, lost LeBron to LA
  9. Houston Rockets — 2015 WCF, lost 4-1 to Warriors, stayed together one more year (second round loss) before firing the coach and changing other players around Harden
  10. Indiana Pacers — 2013 and 2014 ECF, lost Paul George to injury, missed playoffs, then broke up the team before George was healthy again.
  11. Oklahoma City Thunder — 2012 NBA Finals, traded James Harden, lost in second round next year, made 2014 WCF, lost 4-2 to Spurs, then Durant injured for a year/missed playoffs, changed coach from Brooks to Donovan, made 2016 WCF again, lost 4-3 to Warriors, then Durant BOLTED in free agency

Let’s face it. A lot of these teams have one major thing in common — seven of the 11 on this list, in fact — that they lost to the Warriors in a Conference Finals or Finals since 2015 and, in the wake of that loss, decided to rethink their pecking order. None of the seven felt they could beat the Warriors without a major change.

All 11 teams won at least one Conference Finals game but didn’t have the patience to keep their core together for even two more training camps. In the cases of the Bucks and Hawks, they added to their core to double down on it, but that’s still blinking. It’s still a deviation from what the four teams in the next section did.

Eleven teams. All 11 found great success, but decided they’d never make it further without some major change at the top, either the coach or one of the top two stars.

How did they do?

  • 2 of 11 To Be Determined: Mavericks and Hawks — they hope to get back to that promised land this season, but neither is a top-4-seed favorite in their Conference, let alone title favorite)
  • 6 of 11 Got Worse: changes did not get them any further, and they eventually just switched it up again
  • 3 of 11 Got Better: the 2021 Bucks added Jrue Holiday and broke all the way through, winning the NBA Championship. The 2016 Cavaliers (Lue) and 2022 Celtics (Udoka) replaced their veteran coach with an untested rookie coach and got further in playoffs — the Cavs to a championship, the Celtics to the NBA Finals.

How might this apply to the Suns?

It tells me that there’s almost no chance the Suns can win a championship in 2023 if they change out one or more of Chris Paul, Devin Booker or Monty Williams. Those two cases (Cavs, Celtics) who switched their coach to a rookie who’d never done the job before? I simply don’t see the Suns getting better by firing Monty Williams. I just don’t.

It also tells me how hard it is to get better by changing something lesser than the top players or coach. Among ALL the teams who qualified for the list, only the Bucks, by adding Jrue Holiday to the core of Middleton, Giannis and Mike Budenholzer, were able to go deeper in the playoffs. But even there, they added a non-All-Star supporting player who slots right below Giannis and Middleton, but who isn’t that much better than Mikal Bridges or Deandre Ayton.

In a perfect world, the Suns would use draft capital like the Hawks and Bucks did to merely add another player to their top four without losing any of them, an upgrade over Jae Crowder or even Cameron Johnson.

Unfortunately, the more realistic world if the Suns fall short again is to do what six of the teams on this list did, by swapping one of their already-top-40 players (Ayton?) for a different top-40 player, and hoping for the best with a new pecking order.

I know there’s a lot of worry about Chris Paul around here because he’s 37 years old now, but the man is still a Top-20 player in the league this next season (top-25 at worst), and it’s just not reasonable to downgrade and hope the ultimate result is better. Plus, his contract is such that he’s much easier to move next summer than now (worst case: only $15 million guaranteed, could be waived and stretched five years for a mere $3 million cap hit each year).

Teams who STAYED THE SAME with top two players + coach for 2+ years after losing CF or Finals

  1. Phoenix Suns — 2021 NBA Finals, lost 4-2 to Bucks, regressed to second round in 2022, still going
  2. Los Angeles Clippers — 2021 Western Conference Finals, lost Kawhi Leonard to injury, lost 4-2 to Suns, missed 2022 playoffs with injuries, still going
  3. Miami Heat — 2020 NBA Finals, lost 4-2 to Lakers, had injuries in 2021, made the 2022 Conf Finals, lost 4-3 to Celtics, still going
  4. Denver Nuggets — 2020 Western Conference Finals, lost 4-2 to Lakers, had injuries in 2021 and 2022, still going

Four teams. That’s all I can find. You might say ‘ah that’s because they’re the most recent losers’, but no that’s NOT it.

None of the 11 teams in the prior section even made to their second training camp together after the deep playoff loss without making a significant change. That’s extreme lack of patience.

Yet four contenders this year are showing more patience than anyone. Why? I dunno. They’re all paying through the nose to keep their teams intact. The Clippers are set to pay the most salary in the league ($192 million + luxury tax), while the Suns (7th), Nuggets (9th) and Heat (12th) are all in the top 12. The only teams spending more money than the Suns next year are the Clippers, Warriors, Nets, Bucks, Celtics and Lakers. All but one are contenders, and the sixth has LeBron and won the championship just two seasons ago.

It’s one thing for a rebuilding team to stand pat, considering they’ve got fewer players on market-rate contracts. It’s quite another to continue investing big money in a group that may have already reached their peak.

Yet, the Clippers, Nuggets, Heat and Suns believe their apex is still to come.

All four of these teams are contenders, but all four are counting on health to get them there. They kept their teams together because they believe they can win a championship with good health all season, including in the playoffs. Likely, no more than two of these teams gets their full wish. Probably no more than one.

The Nuggets (Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr.) and Clippers (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George) have seen whole seasons scuttled by injuries, but now begin training camp next week with (probably) full clearance for the first time in over a year.

Of these teams the Suns and Heat have been the healthiest, but both have seen their most experienced star suffer through repeated injuries at the worst times. Chris Paul (Suns) and Jimmy Butler (Heat) are still All-Star/All-NBA players but have both been compromised in recent playoff runs.

Whichever of these teams falls short again will likely change gears and join the cadre of those who started rolling the dice on big moves because they couldn’t wait any longer for that core to get to the promised land.

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