Staying with the 27-and-under core of Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Deandre Ayton led by culture coach Monty Williams could have meant a half-decade championship window for the Phoenix Suns. They’d grown together. They trusted each other. Any year could have been the breakthrough, like the Bucks eventually did in 2021 after years of coming up short together.
They traded that for a bigger window with less durability. The new tandem of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker probably only has a two year championship window, considering Durant will be 35 years old next year.
Why would the Suns do that? Why trade a 4-5 year window for a 1-2 year window?
Several reasons, as it turns out.
The first is obvious: Today’s Kevin Durant is more likely to carry a team to a championship than Mikal Bridges or Deandre Ayton. All by himself, he makes the window bigger in the short term.
The second is less obvious: that 4-5 year window with the 2022 core might not have been much of a window after all, if you’re talking about winning the whole thing.
That core was showing signs of fracture. The summer of 2022 was particularly weird and, in retrospect, awful. First, it appears the coach lost the trust of some very important aging veterans. Jae Crowder was quite vocal about it, refusing to play for the Suns again after his postseason exit interview. Chris Paul was much quieter, but late in the year we heard whispers he’d had a falling out with Williams too dating back to the end of the 2022 playoffs. And then there’s the coach not once talking to his young, immature center after that infamous Game 7 fight on the sidelines. No exit interview. No congratulations on signing a huge deal to stay in Phoenix. No air-clearing at the start of camp, let alone before it started. Nothing. Nada.
Even through the season, something was off. We went from nightly pressers filled with smiles, vibes, family and mutual compliments, to pressers that often felt strained, forced and simply joyless. Was it the injuries and more-frequent losses? The hangover from the embarrassing 2022 playoff defeat that no regular season wins could avenge? Sure, that’s part of it.
But there’s also got to be a real correlation between the strain that began in the middle of the Suns-Mavs series and becoming the first team in NBA history to get down 30 points on their home court at halftime of a playoff elimination game. And they did it TWICE. IN A ROW.
Something major had to change. Even during the season, only diehardest of diehards believed the organically built core that lost to the Mavs could truly win the championship.
Change came, indeed. New owner. New best player, or at least player 1B. Yet still the same embarrassing outcome.
So change continues, and it starts with the coach.
Monty Williams has been excellent in Phoenix as a culture-first, ‘pound the rock’ coach who won more regular season games (194) and more playoff games (27) than any other coach in the league since 2020, and he’s now the highest-paid coach in the NBA after signing for $12+ million per year with the Detroit Pistons. But these last two playoff exits have been ugly. He’s now got an 0-5 career record in elimination games. And we can’t forget the rifts with important players.
In comes Frank Vogel, with a career 49-39 playoff record, including a 6-5 record in elimination games, and a 2020 NBA Championship on his resume.
While Monty was unique in many ways, Vogel is the literal embodiment of ‘NBA coach’. He famously never played the game at a high level, rising through the ranks from college grad assistant to eight years as an NBA assistant coach before getting that first head coaching gig.
After a successful stint in Indiana, including two Conference Finals appearances, he took a detour to rebuilding Orlando before taking a job with the Lakers that looks a whole lot like this job he’s getting in Phoenix today.
In the summer of 2019, Vogel took over for the underwhelming Luke Walton with the express purpose to ride an aging All-NBA LeBron James and mid-prime All-NBA Anthony Davis to a championship and that’s exactly what he did. Vogel faced a daily deluge of pressure to win, and he came through with the Lakers playing their best basketball in the playoffs.
Who cares what happened after that. Predictable injuries, trades and mismanagement led to a grand total of two more playoff wins in the next two seasons before he was fired and replaced with Darvin Ham last summer.
Vogel did what he was brought in to do: win a championship with a pair of stars whose championship window as a tandem was likely only a couple years.
Sounds like the Suns gig, doesn’t it?
In the last five months, new owner Mat Ishbia has brought in a player and a coach who both know what it feels like to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Vogel is also likely to load the bench with successful veteran coaches like he did in LA, including a rumor that he will bring in former NBA head coach David Fizdale as an assistant. The better the coaching staff, top to bottom, the better the 2023-24 season for the Suns.
Dominos are falling, Suns fans. Let’s see what happens next.