The Phoenix Suns are being overlooked in the championship conversation. Here’s why they could shock the world and win the 2021 NBA title.
It isn’t just the addition of Chris Paul that’s spurred this unexpected turnaround, as so many harebrained MVP debate segments would lead you to believe. CP3 has been instrumental both on and off the court for a young team that was ready to take the next step, but Devin Booker has been his usual, multifaceted scoring self while drastically stepping up his defense; Mikal Bridges has taken a leap as a shooter and scorer while remaining a smothering, amoebic defender; Deandre Ayton’s defensive growth has been immense; Jae Crowder has added defense, 3-point shooting and toughness; and James Jones did an excellent job rounding out the bench with guys willing to buy into the culture Monty Williams and the Suns helped establish last year, even before the 8-0 bubble run put the franchise back on the map.
It’s easy to doubt the Suns. Four of their seven best players — Book, Bridges, Ayton, Cameron Johnson — have never seen playoff action before, and almost every championship team in NBA history has had to pay its postseason dues in some form before finally breaking through.
But overlooking Phoenix as a legitimate title threat would be a mistake, for a multitude of reasons. Here are the five that explain why the Suns could very well hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the same year they end an 11-year playoff drought.
Bench depth matters less in the playoffs when rotations shrink to nine, eight or even seven players. So even though the Suns’ bench is a league-best plus-133 overall on the season (with the next-closest team being a distant plus-110), that won’t make as much of a difference when the starters are forced to log heavier minutes.
However, those limited minutes with the stars off the floor can make or break a team, as the Cleveland Cavaliers learned multiple times in the NBA Finals whenever LeBron James sat, or even as the Philadelphia 76ers have discovered in recent seasons whenever Joel Embiid took a breather. And in that regard, the Suns do have reason to feel good about their second unit being able to at least avoid being a net negative.
Cameron Payne has been arguably the best backup point guard in the NBA this season, draining pull-up 3s at an absurd rate and keeping the Suns’ offense humming whenever Paul needs a break. Dario Saric was a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate and plus-minus god until hitting a bit of a slump in April. Cameron Johnson is dealing with a wrist injury and hasn’t been his usual, sharpshooter self from downtown, but he’s still an underrated defender and reliable floor-spacer. Torrey Craig’s defensive versatility and rebounding has been a godsend, especially with Abdel Nader going down with a knee injury, and his presence will allow Phoenix to unleash some rarely-seen small-ball lineups depending on the matchup.
Even if guys like Jevon Carter and Frank Kaminsky don’t see the floor, the Suns have a solid playoff core to rely on. In the event of foul trouble or injuries, having that kind of depth and “next man up” approach matters.