NBA

Three reasons why Suns could return to NBA Finals: Roster continuity, prove-it season for Deandre Ayton

There were several ways to describe the Phoenix Suns‘ run to the NBA Finals last season. Some called it a fluke, others a shocking run, and several labeled it as a storybook journey. After winning just 34 games during the 2019-20 campaign, the Suns finished with 50-plus wins for the first time since the Seven Seconds or Less days of Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire in the mid-to-late 2000s. They toppled the 2019-20 champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, made quick work of the Denver Nuggets in the next and sent the Los Angeles Clippers home to earn a berth in the Finals. 

Chris Paul had yet another renaissance season, Devin Booker shed that “empty stats” label and everywhere else you turned on the roster, role players stepped up left and right leaving few weakness to attack. The season didn’t end in a championship, but Phoenix walked away from that Finals appearance with a taste of what winning culture feels like. Though it’s easy to discredit the Suns with all the injuries to star players throughout their playoff run, you can’t discount the talent that exists on this team.

After an offseason that consisted of re-signing Paul and making slight changes to the roster as to not tinker with the formula too much, Phoenix enters the 2021-22 season as a legitimate threat to the throne. While they will face a tougher road to get back to the NBA Finals this season after every team in the West retooled and got healthy, let’s break down three reasons why you shouldn’t be surprised if the Suns end up back in the Finals again.

Phoenix Suns roster

1. Running it back with subtle upgrades

Phoenix has the benefit of knowing that this group of players is capable of getting them to the mountaintop. Entering the playoffs last season, it was difficult to project what the Suns were going to get out of youngsters Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne, but they all proved that they’re not afraid of pressure in big moments. 

Looking ahead to this season, with that playoff experience added to their belt, that will only benefit Phoenix. After Johnson shot a ridiculous 46 percent from deep in the postseason, he should be poised for another leap in his development. Bridges proved that although he is the ideal archetype for a 3-and-D wing in the NBA, he’s also capable of creating his own shot, something that we saw glimpses of in the postseason. When Paul was held out of the first two games of the Western Conference finals, Payne stepped up in his absence and dropped 29 points in the process. 

Then there’s the players the Suns went out and got to add to their depth, most notably Landry Shamet. A trade early in the offseason brought in Shamet from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Jevon Carter. Although Carter brought an edge on the defensive side of the ball, Shamet gives Phoenix yet another 3-point shooting threat off the bench to pair with the likes of Johnson and Payne. He shot 38.7 percent for the Nets last season from deep, while ranking in the 73rd percentile in corner 3s made during the regular season. That will certainly come in handy when Paul and Booker are looking for a teammate to make a bucket.

The only weakness that could potentially prove to be a problem for the Suns is their frontcourt depth behind Ayton at center. Dario Saric is expected to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the Finals. Frank Kaminsky proved to be unplayable throughout the postseason, and although the team signed JaVale McGee to fill Saric’s role, he played just 43 games last season split between the Cavaliers and the Nuggets and only saw eight minutes a game in the playoffs with Denver. The Suns will be relying on McGee to play big minutes, at least until they’re able to find a suitable replacement as a midseason trade candidate if they choose that option. 

That aside, the Suns depth at virtually every other position could potentially negate that issue. The internal improvements that should be expected from role players on this roster could result in Phoenix seeing another 50-win season. That, plus the performance from the next guy on this list.

2. Booker equipped to elevate his game even further

Every criticism and narrative surrounding Booker’s career was thrown into the trash last season. The “good player, bad team” tag, and “empty stats” label were switched out for ones that reflected his elite performance. The addition of Paul allowed some of the weight to be taken off Booker’s shoulders, and for the first time in his NBA career, Booker’s performance actually contributed to winning basketball.

He then followed up his impressive season with a gold-medal appearance during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with Team USA, where his 20-point performance in the semifinals against Australia helped get the United States to the gold medal game. Booker’s coming off an impressive past six months between the Suns playoff run and the Olympics, which should set the table for a 2021-22 season with heightened expectations for the 25-year-old.

As great as Booker was a season ago, there are still areas of his game where if he improves could vault himself into the MVP conversation. His 3-point shooting should be at the top of that list. Last season Booker shot a pedestrian 34 percent from deep, and once the playoffs arrived that declined to 32.1 percent. His effective field-goal percentage took a hit as a result, dropping from 53.4 percent during the regular season, to 49.8 percent. For a player who shoots on average around five to six 3s per game, that percentage needs to be higher. 

Booker is so skilled at scoring from mid-range, last season he ranked in the 97th percentile among guards, and has a knack for getting to the free-throw line by attacking the rim, that if he’s able to bump up his long-range shooting it would elevate his standing in the league. 

Last season the Suns success was largely seen as a byproduct of Paul’s presence, and while that may be partially true, Booker’s place was just as important in the team’s surprising run. Booker showed last year he’s capable of playing within a system to create a winning culture while getting a feel playing next to Paul. This time around, with the Suns returning most of the same cast, and entering Year 2 of a partnership with Paul, we could see an even more dominant season from Booker, and potentially more efficient, too. 

3. ‘Prove-it’ season for Ayton

Perhaps the most interesting storyline to watch for this season with the Suns is Ayton potentially playing on the final year of his rookie contract, as he has not come to an agreement with the franchise on an extension. It’s a shocking development, as Ayton has watched players from his draft class — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. — all sign hefty rookie-scale extensions over the summer. The Suns have until Oct. 18 to sign him to an extension, but if that doesn’t happen, Ayton will enter next offseason as a restricted free agent. 

The reason for the stalemate is because Ayton wants a max contract, which would be $172.5 million that could reach $207 million, but the Suns don’t think he’s worth that much. So that leaves Ayton to prove Phoenix’s front office — specifically team owner Robert Sarver — wrong over the course of this season. 

Ayton’s numbers last season showed the great development he’s taken in just three season in the league. Throughout the playoffs, he averaged 15.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, one block and shot an extremely efficient 65.8 percent from the field. In the NBA Finals, Ayton held his own when guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, limiting him to just 48.4 percent from the field. That pales in comparison to Antetokounmpo shooting 70 percent on virtually every other defender, which shows just how much of an impact Ayton made when guarding Giannis. 

Now entering this season, he’ll be extra motivated to show that he’s more than deserving of a contract comparable to his classmates. He already proved to be an ideal pick-and-roll partner with Paul and Booker, and last season his midrange shooting (47 percent) ranked in the 78th percentile among all centers. It was the most efficient season across the board for Ayton, and his commitment on the defensive side of the ball showed that he’s willing to improve on that end of the court as well. If he continues to take strides in his game, which will undoubtedly be fueled by this slight coming from the Suns front office, then Phoenix should prepare itself for an impressive season from Ayton. 



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