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The Phoenix Suns haven’t won the title yet but they put themselves in the NBA Finals driver’s seat with an impressive 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1. Even if they end up losing momentum and ultimately the series, they’re going to be an object of interest for plenty of rebuilding teams.
The Suns aren’t just in their first NBA Finals since 1993 — this is their first playoff appearance in more than a decade and their first winning season since 2013-14. They are just three years removed from finishing with the second-worst record in the league and landing the No. 1 pick in the draft. The rapid and radically upward trajectory of their rebuild is going to give other teams plenty to try and emulate but there are more than a few reasons what worked for the Suns probably won’t work for anyone else.
Chris Paul is a veteran outlier
There seemed to be universal agreement that signing Chris Paul was going to make the Suns better, but what they actually got from him has been above and beyond. First and foremost, he’s been healthy, playing in 70 of 72 regular-season games the highest percentage he’s managed since he appeared in all 82 games during the 2014-15 season. He was also unbelievably productive. Paul’s VORP (a measure that takes into account both quantity and quality) this year was his highest in three seasons and the eighth-best mark in NBA history for a guard, age-35 or older. Of the seven seasons ahead of him, four came from John Stockton, two came from Jason Kidd and one came from Steve Nash.
Not many young teams are going to be able to find a veteran of Paul’s caliber and experience, the kind that can transform the mindset and execution of a young roster, and still be able to count on elite, star-level production.
Deandre Ayton’s trajectory is counter-intuitive
The Phoenix Suns selected Ayton over both Luka Doncic and Trae Young in the 2018 NBA Draft, a pick that had the potential to look catastrophic in hindsight. But the Suns are still playing for a title, in large part because of the emergence of Ayton. But his growth is not what you would have expected.
Pre-draft profiles of Ayton focused on his post-game, his mobility and his jumpshot, basically his potential to turn into a high-volume frontcourt scoring hub, a big man who could pound his man in the post but also face-up and attack from the elbows or stretch the defense out to the 3-point line. Think some combination of Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid.
But that’s nothing like the Deandre Ayton who is playing such a key role for the Suns right now. He averaged fewer shots attempts per game this year than he did as a rookie and attempted just 20 3-pointers all season. He’s finished just 30 possessions on post-ups during this entire postseason, fewer than Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris or John Collins. And of the 128 postseason baskets he’s made this year, just seven did not come off an assist or a put-back.
Ayton has wholly devoted himself to being a screener, rebounder, rim-protector and off-ball finisher and it’s helped hold the Suns together at both ends. It’s not unusual for big men to willingly devote themselves to those tasks but it is incredibly rare to see it from a young big as offensively talented as Ayton. He could be playing for a bad team, hoisting 25 shots per game and putting up huge scoring numbers. But he’s bought into doing less for the good of his team. That’s not something every rebuilding team can count on from their upcoming lottery picks.
What the Suns have done seems simple — find your star (Devin Booker), develop a young big (Ayton), sign a veteran leader (Paul) and get lucky with a few 3-and-D role players (Cam Payne, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder). But any team that tries to replicate the same formula, in such a short time span is almost certainly not going to get the same results.
The Big 3 of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton put the Phoenix Suns that much closer to their ultimate goal in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals.
In this week’s WNBA Power Rankings, the top three remain the same but the Minnesota Lynx are pushing to join the party.
This week on the Over and Back Podcast — more NBA history with a look at playoff buzzer-beaters, this time looking at second round, conference semifinal and conference final series clinchers!
Fans of the mid-range jumper have to be loving these NBA playoffs.