By: Chris Harrison
Even during the wild 2023 offseason, which saw multiple hopeful championship contenders make ambitious moves to chase a ring this year, the Phoenix Suns stood out. Matt Ishbia, the new owner, has made it clear he will spare no expense in pursuit of the ring the Suns’ fanbase desperately desires.
While the team’s cap sheet may be a mess and the draft pick cupboard may be bare, pushing every chip to the center of the table in pursuit of short-term success was understandable. The Phoenix Suns are the oldest NBA franchise to have never won a championship – the Hawks and Kings won as the St. Louis Hawks and Rochester Royals, respectively.
They have a grand total of zero championship trophies in their 55-year history, which is impressive considering they’ve played more playoff games (320) than eight franchises with NBA titles. With an ascendant homegrown superstar and an aging all-time great on the roster, this might be the Suns’ best chance at a title since the Charles Barkley era of the 1990s, if they can stay healthy and figure out a strong closing lineup.
How did last season go?
The Suns’ 2022-23 season was a bit of a mess. Their previous owner, Robert Sarver, was suspended after an investigation revealed he fostered a toxic workplace culture. Billionaire businessman (and former college hooper) Matt Ishbia bought the then-underachieving team, kickstarting a series of major changes.
Fan favourites like Cam Johnson and defensive stalwart Mikal Bridges were traded along with multiple first-rounders for Kevin Durant, who battled with injuries for the remainder of the season.
The Suns were eventually bounced in the second round of the playoffs in a Game 6 blowout by a dominant Denver Nuggets team that would go on to win the NBA Championship. Coach Monty Williams was let go soon after, although their season looks better in hindsight – the Suns were the only team to beat the Nuggets twice in last year’s playoffs.
What’s new this year?
The Suns hired Frank Vogel, who won a championship with the hated Lakers, as their new head coach. They traded Chris Paul, Landry Shamet, and what felt like 2,000,000 pick swaps for longtime Wizard Bradley Beal and swapped the talented yet inconsistent DeAndre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkić, Grayson Allen, and others. They also made some savvy free-agent signings for cheap, picking up useful role players like Bol Bol, Yuta Watanabe, Drew Eubanks, and Keita Bates-Diop.
If it sounds like they have a whole new team, that’s because they essentially do – Devin Booker is somehow the only player remaining from their Finals run in 2021. That’s a ton of change in a very short time.
The Suns didn’t get too many games with Durant and Booker both healthy last year, but they were as dangerous as you’d expect when they were. Both players are equally comfortable as number one or number two options offensively and are capable of scoring from anywhere on the court, initiating the offence and making plays for others (Booker in particular is an excellent passer for his position). They fit together intuitively and it’s easy to see why the front office thought to pair them.
The Bradley Beal trade is a bit more complicated. It became clear last year Chris Paul wasn’t as effective as he had been for the Suns previously, and in the playoffs, opponents were more than happy to dare him to score. Beal, a guy who has had two seasons over 30 points per game, will have no such issues, but he is far less of a natural fit. Like Booker, he’s a good playmaker for a shooting guard (though perhaps a little less so than Booker) but he’s not at the level you’d want from a primary playmaker. And unlike Booker, he’s not a particularly strong perimeter defender. Their skill sets overlap, maybe even a bit too much, and Chris Paul’s departure leaves them without a true setup man. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make a sort of playmaker-by-committee approach work.
Replacing Ayton with Nurkić probably raises the Suns’ floor, but lowers their ceiling. At his best, Ayton was a big man nimble enough to switch onto guards in the pick-and-roll and sturdy enough to make big men like Nikola Jokić work for his points, all while being a very efficient scorer. At his worst, he lacked assertiveness and was disengaged and sloppy on both ends. Nurkić will be more consistent and is a better passer when he has the ball, but he’s less dangerous as a scorer and doesn’t move as well as Ayton.
Last year’s Suns couldn’t find a fifth starter who could contribute on both ends of the court and complement the team’s stars. Guys like Landry Shamet could shoot but would get picked on on defence. Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig were stout defenders, but opponents wouldn’t really guard them on offence. So far this preseason, Okogie seems to have the starting role as the nominal point guard despite his offensive limitations, but it’s likely one of their bench players might close games. Eric Gordon is no elite defender, but he works hard and can both space the floor and attack the basket off the catch. He may very well close out a lot of games unless the Suns want to go bigger and use a two-way wing like Allen or a sweet-shooting hybrid forward like Watanabe.
Of course, all these questions about fit might not matter if the Suns’ best players can’t stay on the floor. Over the last three regular seasons (a possible 246 games), Durant, Nurkić, Beal and Booker have missed 109, 101, 96, and 58 games, respectively. It feels unlikely they’ll all be at full strength when the playoffs start.
X-Factor: Josh Okogie
The Suns have some capable wing defenders they can feel reasonably comfortable with in matchups against elite shooting guards and small forwards. However, unless Bradley Beal shows a level of defending he’s never shown before, they don’t really have someone suitable for taking on the NBA’s lightning-quick point guards. Other than Okogie, that is. He won’t be asked to do much with the ball on offence, but if the 24-year-old can improve his shooting (career 33.5% from three on low volume) enough to keep defences from ignoring him, he could seize that fifth starting spot and be a huge asset in the playoffs.
Last year, Devin Booker was third in the league in points off pull-up jumpers, putting up 10.9 a night. Who was first? His teammate, Kevin Durant, with 11.7 points per game off of an absurd 54.8% shooting.
Franchise fun fact:
The Suns’ mascot has been a gorilla since the late 70s. What’s the origin story behind one of the oddest (and best) mascots in the NBA? It all started with a telegram delivery.
Injuries and a brutal Western Conference will keep the Suns at around 50 wins, followed by a conference finals appearance.