For the 55th straight time, the Phoenix Suns had to watch another team celebrate winning an NBA championship. And for the 15th time in those 55 seasons, they had a chance to knock off the eventual champs in the playoffs but failed. Three of those 15 times (1976, 1993 and 2021), the Suns were literally on the court taking the loss as the champs celebrated their ultimate win.
This year the heartbreak came in the second round, a 6-game loss to the eventual champ Denver Nuggets, who won the championship in their first NBA Finals appearance.
On one hand, the Nuggets had the easiest path ever to a championship, having beaten the lowest possible seeded opponent in three of the four rounds and not playing team seeded higher than 4th. On the other hand, they beat six All-NBA players in Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, plus All-Stars Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.
On one hand, the Suns appear to have been the Nuggets toughest opponent, being the only team to take two games off them. On the other hand, the Suns were the easiest to eliminate in the closeout game.
But none of that matters. I’m just being petty.
All that matters is that the Nuggets are the NBA champs and the best team in the NBA with the best odds to win again next year.
In the words of two-time regular season MVP, Western Conference Finals MVP and NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, nothing comes easy. You need to overcome a few failures before you can stand on the mountaintop.
“If you want to be a success, you need a couple years,” he said on Monday night right after the Finals. “You need to be bad, then you need to be good, then when you’re good you need to fail, and then when you fail, you’re going to figure it out.”
The Nuggets three max-level players — Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr — have been with the Nuggets franchise for 8, 7 and 5 years respectively. Coach Michael Malone has been there 8 years. He’s the only coach any of those three have ever had. Their tenure until these playoffs was marked by good offense and not so good defense. They persevered through playoff disappointments, long-term injury to Jamal Murray and salary cap pressures, and found their defense at exactly the right time thanks not only to supporting role players but also to, as Jokic puts it, the big three learning from past failures.
“I think experience is something that is not what happened to you,” Jokic continued. “It’s what you’re going to do with what happened to you. Yes, Jamal was injured. Yes, we lose the first round or second round in the Playoffs. I don’t even remember. Who remembers.
But there is a process that you need to — there is steps that you need to fill, and there is no shortcuts. It’s a journey, and I’m glad that I’m part of the journey.”
The foursome of Coach Malone and players Jokic, Murray and MPJ represent the epitome of continuity, but are the only Nuggets who remain from their Conference Finals appearance three years ago. Aaron Gordon was acquired in 2021 for homegrown Gary Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was acquired for homegrown Will Barton and Monte Morris in 2022 and Bruce Brown was added with a portion of the mid-level exception last summer.
Other champs have experienced playoffs failures before winning the championship too, but they didn’t all build the same way the Nuggets did.
LeBron’s second-chance Cavaliers lost once to the Warriors before breaking through in 2016. The Raptors couldn’t get out of the second round for years until they traded half their core for Kawhi Leonard to win in 2019. The Lakers came up short the first Anthony Davis year before winning the Bubble in 2020. The Milwaukee Bucks came up short for years until acquiring Jrue Holiday and winning in 2021.
Another way to say it: The Raptors broke up their home grown core and fired their coach before winning in 2019. The Lakers broke up their home grown core for Anthony Davis and fired their coach before winning in 2020. The Bucks held firm on top players and coach but needed to acquire a third star before winning in 2021. The Warriors held firm, got healthy and won in 2022. The Nuggets held firm, got healthy and won in 2023.
The Suns held firm for a hot minute before going the way of the Raptors and Lakers, detonating on their core and coach with the aim to buy a ring. As the Lakers proved with AD and the Raps proved with Kawhi, you can shake up your homegrown core if it brings back the right player.
Which brings me to roster construction. What happens around Durant and Booker in the next few weeks will make or break their chances at a ring the way the Lakers and Raptors did.
Check out this comp of the salary structure for this year’s Suns versus this year’s Nuggets.
It takes money to win a championship. The Suns and Nuggets salary structure is actually quite similar, with only two notable differences:
- Top salary: Kevin Durant makes a lot more than Nikola Jokic
- 4th salary: Chris Paul makes a lot more than Aaron Gordon
- 5th salary: Landry Shamet makes a lot less than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Nuggets roster is just more balanced. The Suns are too top-heavy, but before everyone tries to trade both Chris Paul AND Deandre Ayton for a bunch of KCPs and Bruce Browns, take note that the Nuggets wouldn’t have won a ring without $30 million MPJ and $21 million Aaron Gordon doing their thing.
Let’s go beyond the 2023 Champs to look at the 2022 and 2021 Champs.
The Warriors 2022 salary structure was a lot like the Suns this year, actually. Very top heavy. The difference for the Warriors in 2022, of course, was getting outsized contributions from low-paid contributors like Looney, Poole and Otto Porter Jr. to make up for the salary imbalances. Those outliers dried up just enough in 2023 to oust the Warriors in the second round, just like the Suns.
Now let’s look at the 2021 Bucks, who had acquired 3rd star Jrue Holiday the summer before.
Again, a huge discrepancy at that 4th highest salary. Now let’s take a peek at the last two Finals losers, in 2023 and 2022, and you’ll see the same trend.
Bottom line is that the Suns had one too many big salaries ($28+ million/yr), which led to a lack of depth. They only had four starting quality players on the roster come playoff time, and that dropped to two when Paul (groin) and Ayton (inner thigh) went down during the Nuggets series.
But take an even closer look. The Suns lack of depth was also caused by the lack of playoff gems among the lower salaried guys.
The champs the last few years not only got great performances from their biggest stars (MVPs Giannis, Steph and Joker), but they also got unexpected playoff contributions from 2-3 low-salaried guys. The Suns fell short in both areas this year.
I know you all want to trade both Paul and Ayton for middling guys like KCP and Bruce Brown. But if you trade both and neither trade brings back at least one high value third player (like Wiggins or Gordon), then the Suns are going to struggle to win a ring next year too.