NBA Finals: Why title path for Suns, Chris Paul will only get tougher after missing golden opportunity

If making it to the NBA Finals were easy, Chris Paul wouldn’t have needed 16 years to get there. It takes a combination of talent and cohesion and health and luck that is impossible to fully manufacture. You can build the perfect team, have the best regular season, decimate your early round opponents, and then, at the worst moment, bad things can just happen. Officials miss a few key calls or Corey Brewer and Josh Smith make a million consecutive 3-pointers or a hamstring injury flares up at the exact wrong time. Circumstances play a far greater role in crowning champions than anyone wants to admit. For Paul, they almost always worked against him. 

They nearly did on multiple occasions in the 2021 postseason. A shoulder injury nearly got him knocked out of the first round. Health and safety protocols cost him the first two games of the Western Conference finals. But for once, the stars around him aligned. Or, more accurately, the stars around him disappeared. Anthony Davis got hurt against Paul’s Suns. Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard were already out when their teams faced off Phoenix. An entire career’s worth of bad luck turned over the course of a single postseason. Paul finally made it to the Finals. The best player on the team he was set to face there hyperextended his knee only a week before the series would begin. It doesn’t get better than that. 

And the Suns still lost. As we’ve established, getting to the Finals is never easy, so winning there must be even harder. It says quite a bit about the nature of winning championships that the “easiest” path a team could have reasonably hoped for still involved slaying a two-time MVP capable of scoring 50 points in a closeout game. There’s no shame in failing to do so, because obviously, doing so would not have been easy. But the sad truth facing the Suns is that they only had to play one such player with a complete supporting cast to win the title this year. That number is going to be substantially higher the next time around.

The Lakers aren’t going anywhere, and if Giannis Antetokounmpo could have this much success against Phoenix’s thin front-line, it stands to reason that healthier versions of Davis and LeBron James should as well. The Golden State Warriors will re-enter the fray, and Paul’s last two postseason battles with them didn’t end well for him. The Clippers and Nuggets won’t be healthy on opening night, but they could be by the postseason. New contenders will emerge. If Antetokounmpo isn’t waiting for them in the Finals, the even more terrifying three-headed monster in Brooklyn will be. Phoenix may get some breaks next year. The Suns may be as unlucky as their opponents were. But the odds of so many of them falling to the wayside again are practically negligible. 

By no stretch of the imagination does that mean that Phoenix can’t make it back to the Finals. They had the second-best record in the NBA for a reason, and aside from Paul, the core of their roster remains exceedingly young. It would hardly be fair to draw meaningful conclusions from either the Lakers or Clippers series considering the issues they faced themselves in those victories. With a few breaks, they easily could have defeated the Bucks in five games. The Suns aren’t leaving the contender’s club quite yet. 

But the longer a team stays there, the higher the price tends to be. Long-lived contenders pay that price in attrition. The players that helped them get there in the first place become expensive. Phoenix will start to feel that next season. The effects will really set in the year after. 

If Paul opts into the final year of his contract, the Suns will be only $12 million or so below the luxury tax line. That doesn’t account for key reserves Torrey Craig and Cameron Payne or a replacement for Dario Saric, whose torn ACL will likely keep him out most of next season. Paul could opt out and extend at a lower number in exchange for more years to help the Suns keep this roster together, but Milwaukee just showed that the group Phoenix put together can’t just return and expect to win it all. It would need improvements. 

Perhaps they will be internal. The Suns hardly used No. 10 overall pick Jalen Smith last season. Ideally, he would serve as an internal replacement for Saric with a year of seasoning now under his belt. Phoenix has the chips to make a meaningful addition on the trade market. Aside from its bevy of young players, Phoenix owns all of its own first-round picks aside from this season’s. The trouble in adding a true difference-maker is the financial commitment the Suns would need to make to him. Starting in the 2022-23 season, the Suns will become one of the NBA’s most expensive teams.

That is because Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, currently playing on rookie deals, are eligible for extensions that would kick in for that season. Neither is expected to receive the full max, but they won’t be too far off, either. Paul is going to be well-paid. Devin Booker does have the full max. Saric and Jae Crowder have healthy salaries as well. Phoenix will talk a big game about paying for a competitive roster, but its history tells a different story. The Suns made a number of ill-advised trades for financial reasons during the Steve Nash era, including giving up two first-round picks to dump Kurt Thomas and giving away the pick that would eventually become Rajon Rondo.

As the roster gets pricier, eventually, history says Paul’s value is going to decline. Paul made an All-NBA team at the age of 35 this year, but only 11 players have done so at 36 or older, and only two of those players, John Stockton and LeBron James, did so as perimeter players. Paul’s new plant-based diet has had a noticeable effect on his durability and performance, but Father Time is undefeated, and the Bucks series suggests that Phoenix’s championship hopes rest on Paul not just being a good player, but a superstar. His inability to supplement Booker as a scorer in Games 4 and 5 played a big part in Phoenix’s ultimate defeat. 

That is one of the lessons any team should take from the 2021 Finals. Even when everything goes right, the margin of error is razor thin. Opportunities to win championships are rare under the best of circumstances, so when they present themselves, they have to be seized. The Bucks did that. The Suns couldn’t. It took Paul 16 years to get to this point. There’s no guarantee that he will again. The Suns aren’t going away any time soon, but it’s hard to imagine an opportunity like this one will present itself again. 

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