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RECONSTRUCTED: A Preview of the 2020-21 Phoenix Suns

The Suns have been killing it lately. It all started with a dominant performance by Devin Booker in the NBA 2K Players Tournament. Then, they parlayed an undefeated bubble run into a glorified coach of the month award for Monty Williams. The Suns must have enjoyed the spotlight because they made the first big splash of the offseason by trading for Chris Paul. The Suns have managed an impressive streak of winning things that don’t really matter.

As impressive as their 8-0 bubble run was, it was just a reminder that they had hit the point of no playoff return with the 39 losses they had racked up earlier in the year. Flipping any one of those losses to a win would have guaranteed a spot in the play-in tournament. That inevitably leads to thoughts of what would have happened had Deandre Ayton not gotten suspended for over a third of the season. Those thoughts manifest themselves into mild PTSD over the 2018 draft. All of a sudden, I’m having flashbacks to Isaiah Canaan and Mike James running point. Oh god, can the season just start already? Suns fans really need this. 

HEAD COACHMonty Williams
2019-20 RECORD34-39 (.433)
3rd in the Pacific Division
10th in the Western Conference
DRAFT PICKSJalen Smith (10) 
FREE AGENCY GAINSJae Crowder – Damian Jones – Langston Galloway – E’Twaun Moore – Frank Kaminsky

KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM 2019-20: They say you need to learn how to walk before you can run. Well, after years of crawling, the Suns finally learned how to walk last year.

Devin Booker found out what it’s like to play with a competent point guard. Ricky Rubio’s presence allowed Booker to reach new heights of efficiency. Deandre Ayton continued to make strides as a defender, although he regressed a bit offensively. Although, the Suns will take that trade-off everyday of the week. Mikal Bridges worked his way up from the outskirts of the rotation to starting lineup mainstay. He’s quickly becoming one of the league’s premier defenders, and his offense is slowly catching up.

The Suns managed to do enough to earn the respect of the league and pique the interest of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. Now, it’s time to run.

GRADING THE COACH: Monty Williams is the perfect coach for the Suns at this point in time. He’s a calming presence on a team full of young energy. He holds his players accountable, but more importantly, he holds himself accountable. He’s highly respected around the league, and for years, respect was hard to come by for the Suns.

It will be interesting to see how Williams utilizes the roster. Last year’s rotations were borne out of necessity due to injuries and lack of talent, but he has a lot more options this year. Whether the Suns can hit their ceiling as a top-4 seed will depend on how quickly he can get the team to mesh with all of its new pieces.

GRADING THE DRAFT: The Suns draft room and I have an annual tradition. Every year, I fall in love with a particular prospect, and every year, the Suns draft someone else. Now, I can add Tyrese Haliburton to my What-Could-Have-Been All-Stars along with Luka Doncic and Brandon Clarke. It should be noted that the last time I did love a Suns draft pick, it was Josh Jackson. So, what do I know?

James Jones continues to ruin everybody’s mock drafts. He selected Jalen Smith about 10 spots too high. In his tenure as GM, Jones has thrown all asset management to the wind and is content on getting his guys no matter their perceived value. It’s worked pretty well so far, so he’s earned some benefit of the doubt.

Jalen Smith’s unique blend of rim protection and three-point spacing give him a clear path towards minutes this year. He is a solid finisher inside which makes him an intriguing fit next to the playmaking Dario Saric off the bench. Smith will have to tighten up his perimeter defense by loosening his hips if he wants to play consistently at the four. Otherwise, the Suns just used a lottery pick on a backup center. 

GRADING FREE AGENCY: Chris Paul and Jae Crowder are the obvious headliners here. The Suns missed out on their own playoff experience last year so they decided to import some. The leadership and toughness that those two bring will only expedite the team’s development. They also re-signed Dario Saric to reprise his super-sub role that he adopted in the bubble. 

COVID-19 and load management are sure to ravage the league this year, leaving a trail of DNPs and 10-day contracts in their wake. In past years, the end of the Suns bench was reserved for rookies and reclamation projects. This year, they filled those spots with legitimate NBA talent.

The Suns bolstered their guard depth adding Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore to their bench alongside Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter. James Jones has never met a shooter he didn’t like, and Galloway and Moore fit that mold. The one glaring hole in this guard rotation is the lack of point guard skills which may lead to Monty Williams staggering Devin Booker’s minutes with Paul so the second-unit offense doesn’t get too stagnant.

STRENGTHS:  Any team can have a lead on any other after 43 minutes. What separates the good teams from the great ones is late-game execution. The Suns developed a bad habit last year of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Devin Booker was the only real option the Suns had down the stretch, and opposing teams were keenly aware.

The Suns should make vast improvements in that area. Monty Williams will have a ton of lineup flexibility with their versatility on the wings and in their backcourt. Chris Paul will bring stability to the Suns’ closing lineups as well as offer another option as a crunch-time scorer. Now that the Suns have the top-end talent to compete with the upper echelon of teams, they have everything they need to make the leap into contender status.

OPPORTUNITIES: The last Suns team to even sniff the playoffs before last year was the 2013-2014 squad led by Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Then, they decided to double down on their two point guard experiment by signing Isaiah Thomas which is like doubling down when you already have a 19. The dreaded Hydra experiment led to the departures of Dragic and Thomas, the arrival of Brandon Knight, and the Suns’ relegation to point guard purgatory for the past five years.

This time, they opted to upgrade their point guard position instead of adding to it. Chris Paul makes the Suns better immediately but his impact could exceed his time in Phoenix. The Suns’ young core has an invaluable opportunity to develop winning habits under Paul’s tutelage.The lessons they learn in the next two years will serve them well as they aim to keep building towards title contention.

There’s also a nonzero chance that Paul pushes Ayton just enough to shatter his confidence. Better sooner than later. It’s a good stress test to see if the big man is worth the max extension he’ll most certainly ask for next offseason. 

PREDICTED FINISH (DIVISION/CONFERENCE): The Suns will finally end their decade long playoff drought. Their 40-32 record will be good for 3rd in the Pacific and 6th in the West.

Side note: I’ve known my wife for over seven years. That may seem like a long time, but it’s still three years removed from the Suns’ last playoff appearance. She has no idea what playoff basketball does to me as a person. I’m not sure she’s going to like it. Please send you thoughts and prayers for my marriage. 

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