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An ode to Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, Phoenix Suns for life

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 13, 2023

Only players — and people — of an unbelievably high caliber could leave Phoenix Suns fans feeling conflicted about acquiring one of the 15 greatest NBA players of all time. And yet, even after the dust has settled from last week’s bombshell Kevin Durant trade, the sting of losing two promising wings, class acts and fan favorites like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson hasn’t quite subsided.

Make no mistake about it: Trading the Twins (along with Jae Crowder, four first-round picks and an additional first-round pick swap) for a singular talent like Durant is a no-brainer. Opportunities to acquire a game-changing superstar don’t come around very often, and that’s especially true in the middle of the season.

It’s a risky move, but also an all-in maneuver that boosts’ the Suns’ odds of winning the franchise’s first championship in 55 years of existence. Despite his initial shock, even Bridges himself understood why it happened.

But there’s something to be said about how difficult and emotional it was for the Suns to part with both Bridges and Johnson, to the point that it took an entirely new owner with no attachment to the roster to push the deal across the finish line.

Even someone with no prior knowledge of the Suns would be able to pick up on the emotion from Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and coach Monty Williams when they were asked about losing the Twins.

“They are literally like my family.”

“Did a lot of crying already.”

“The definition of bittersweet.”

The Suns often talk about each other as brothers, and while that frequently amounts to lip service in sports, that wasn’t the case for Phoenix’s two starting wings. They were drafted one year apart, spent 4-5 years developing together and called each other “Twin,” often adopting teammates as another “triplet.”

They weren’t born and raised Arizonans, but the city adopted them as Phoenicians as soon as they arrived. As they grew into exceptional two-way players who could start for any team, their ascension mirrored that of the Suns, who went from a 19-win bottom-feeder to a powerhouse that reached the 2021 NBA Finals and then won a team-record 64 games.

Given that the four young cornerstones of Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson were all added on draft night, the team had an undeniable “homegrown” feel, making their triumphs all the more joyful…and their recent departures hit that much closer to home. Booker was the face of the franchise, but Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were the heart, soul and humor that connected with the fanbase in ways few players here ever have.

They’re not dead, obviously; just playing basketball on multimillion-dollar salaries elsewhere. Williams has always kept things in perspective when it comes to this job, and this was no different. Nobody’s going off to war, the Twins get to ball out on the Brooklyn Nets, and all of the inside jokes, fond memories and friendships that were cultivated in Phoenix will persevere.

But before fans understandably turn their attention to the arrival of the best player who’s ever worn a Phoenix jersey, it’s time for one final sendoff for Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson — an ode to what made them special as players and people, the best moments from their time in the Valley, and how they created Suns legacies for themselves in such a short time.

An ode to Mikal Bridges

Bridges never averaged more than 20 points a game in any of his five seasons with the Suns, nor did he earn an All-Star selection or bring home any piece of NBA hardware.

But in a league where availability is the most important ability, Bridges lived up to his “Iron Man” moniker. In four and a half seasons, Bridges played in all 365 regular-season games and 35 postseason games without missing a single one. Despite dealing with the types of nagging injuries everyone encounters, Bridges was on the floor every single night for his teammates, making big plays on both ends.

The fact that he was doing it while logging heavy minutes, defending every opponent’s best perimeter player and growing as a scorer, ball-handler and playmaker made it even more impressive. Games like his 27-point performance in Game 2 of the NBA Finals hinted at his two-way potential, but over the last two seasons, he finished as the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and took his game to new levels offensively.

Watching him explode for a playoff career-high 31 points in a staggering 47 minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 5 last year was one of the fanbase’s proudest and most exciting moments — not just because Bridges put together one of the best individual performances in Suns playoff history, but because it reminded everyone what this group’s championship ceiling looked like.

“His spirit is somewhat of the lifeblood of our team,” Williams said. “He brings the same attitude, focus and intention and attention every single day, and it’s an amazing thing to watch. I’ve not been around many guys with that kind of work ethic, focus and care for the program and for his teammates.”

It’s not surprising the Nets wanted Bridges as part of the KD trade, or that the Memphis Grizzlies reportedly offered four first-round picks for him. He leaves as the Suns’ second all-time leader in offensive rating, also ranking fourth in 2-point percentage (trailing only Mark West, Shaquille O’Neal and Deandre Ayton), seventh in true shooting percentage and ninth in 3-point makes.

But as talented and versatile as Bridges was, a major part of his appeal could simply be described as “vibes.” As perhaps the most meme-able player in the NBA, Suns fans could always count on a Mikal Bridges face, 3-point celebration or ludicrous quote to put a smile on their face.

Everyone had their favorite, whether it was creeping in front of the inflatable T-Rex:

The time he let the Suns bench know he did “get it back”:

Mikal Bridges got it back

The Mikal wave:

Mikal Bridges wave

The hold up meme:

Mikal Bridges says hold up

Or just the “Mikal face” itself:

Mikal Bridges face

The kind of joy Bridges exuded on the court was infectious, and it showed up every day. He would occasionally crash media sessions, and his teammates often returned the favor in the locker room.

That bond was particularly strong with Chris Paul, who joked during the NBA Bubble that being around Bridges and Jevon Carter was like being around his own kids. Bridges would make vegan jokes or straight up call CP3 a “bum” right before hopping off a Zoom session, but for all the faces they made at each other, those moments of levity brought out a rare side of the future Hall-of-Famer.

“‘Kal is like the life of the team, man,” Paul once said of Bridges before grinning. “He’s uhh…how do I word this? He’s sneaky. That Mikal is something else, man. Don’t think he’s just some nice guy. But he’s a fun guy to be around and he works. He works, so you respect everything about him.”

Bridges was living proof that hard work behind the scenes earned the opportunity to play with joy. It was on full display in every pregame whenever “Nevada” by YoungBoy Never Broke Again came on at the arena, as Bridges, Ayton and Cam Payne would bust out their dance moves, sometimes along with young fans seated courtside.

That daily dose of joy made it all the more difficult to say goodbye. After the Suns lost Game 7 last season, Bridges was down at the podium — not just because their season had ended in brutal fashion, but because he was genuinely upset it’d be months before he got to be around his teammates every day again.

His words turned out to be prophetic after being traded nine months later.

“I just think the biggest thing personally is, I just love everybody here — even you guys,” Bridges quipped, indicating the media. “So just not being able to see everybody every day, that’s always the toughest thing. It just sucks.”

There are very few players who would cite their love for being around their teammates as the reason for finding enough energy to play 47 minutes in a playoff game. Mikal Bridges was the exception.

This won’t be the first time Bridges has had to make a home out of his new surroundings. After spending his life growing up and playing basketball in Philadelphia, the NBA Draft offered him the chance to play for his hometown 76ers…before they ripped it away by trading him to Phoenix.

Bridges and his mother, Tyneeha Rivers, spoke at length about how difficult that transition was. Years later, his pinned tweet read: “I don’t ever wanna leave.”

A guy like that deserved better than finding out over FaceTime that he’d been traded from the place he’d grown to call home, and it’s those little touches that make the goodbyes feel like tiny little knife twists to the gut.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Mikal Bridges (@mikalbridges)

Back in 2021, before Bridges and Ayton had reached new contract extensions with the Suns, he summed up his relationship with the franchise as perfectly (and painfully, in retrospect) as possible:

“We love this team, love this organization and what it’s done for us, especially what it’s done for both of us, and I’d never take this for granted, man,” Bridges said. “They just turned me to a better person and player. So obviously we want to be here more than anything.”

An ode to Cam Johnson

Bridges was a top-10 pick, but Johnson was viewed as a reach on draft night. Not only did he live up to his status as the No. 11 selection of the 2019 NBA Draft, but he established himself as more than just a deadly spot-up shooter. Johnson was a quintessential fit within the Suns’ system on both ends thanks to his high basketball I.Q., hustle and determination to prove himself.

As a 3-point sniper, Johnson was obviously potent. He made 39.6 percent of his 3s in a Suns jersey, finishing fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage last year (42.5 percent) and posting a new career high in that category this year (45.5 percent). In just three and a half seasons, he leaves as the franchise’s 10th all-time leader in 3-point makes, 10th all-time leader in true shooting percentage and eighth all-time leader in 3-point percentage.

“He knows he’s gonna get yelled at if he don’t shoot the ball,” Chris Paul said of his shooting prowess. “Everybody on our team gon’ be pissed if he don’t shoot the ball, ’cause he is seriously one of the best shooters in this league and one of the best shooters I ever played with.”

High praise from a future Hall-of-Famer who’s been in the league for nearly 20 years!

Nagging injuries prevented Johnson from reaching his true ceiling in the Valley, but that didn’t stop him from racking up a highlight or 10 during his time here. He’d often surprise opponents and even his own fans and teammates with some of his posters — a fact he lamented, but one that didn’t detract from how special they were.

Just ask JaVale McGee:

Jarrett Allen:

Or P.J. Tucker, the victim of arguably the best poster dunk in Suns playoff history:

The individual highlights were fun, but Johnson’s emotional, gritty, career-high 38-point performance against the New York Knicks last March cemented him as an intrinsic part of Phoenix’s core. Despite taking two cheap shots in that game, Johnson carried the Suns to victory, capping it off with a game-winning 3 off the backboard.

Even in a building that housed Devin Booker, Chris Paul and a 2021 Finals run, that home crowd eruption was special.

The fans embraced Cam Johnson wholeheartedly, not just because his 3s were backbreaking anvils to opponents’ momentum, but because of the maturity he displayed on and off the court. He ingrained himself in the community with events like his lemonade stand, which started as a lost Super Bowl bet and ultimately ballooned into a massive gathering that drew thousands of fans and raised $5,000 for charity.

While fans from all over the Valley crowded the stand, asking for autographs and selfies to keep him there well past the originally planned, hour-long appearance, Johnson remained as courteous as ever, humbled by the love shown at an event he never expected to be that big.

“This is what you dream of when you dream of playing in the NBA,” he said after the day was done. “All of the camaraderie with your team and then additionally, the support of a city. And that’s so big. It gets a little bit of attention, but I think it should get more that I think we have some of the best fans in the league.”

The fans reciprocated that appreciation. Last month, when he returned from a 37-game absence due to a meniscus tear, Johnson got the kind of ovation reserved for stars, extending far beyond the typical cheer for a role player back from injury:

“To have your fans emotionally wrap their arms around a guy that’s grown up in this city and watched him battle through a tough injury and have him check in the game and feel that love from the community, from our fans, I thought it was awesome,” Williams said afterward. “It was one of those moments where, I try to stay as focused as I can on the game, but in that moment, I felt it.”

Johnson knew there was a possibility something like this Durant trade would happen. All last summer, he and Bridges heard the rumors swirling around them, and he acknowledged the business side of the NBA.

But much like Bridges, his words after the Suns’ Game 7 loss ultimately proved to be prophetic nine months later.

“I feel very grateful to be in this city, playing on this team, a team that accomplished a lot in the regular season,” he said. “The people that we have in our program, the people that we have on our team, they all mean a lot to me individually. And it was a situation where I showed up to work every day, happy and excited — excited to be around our coaches, our teammates, our staff. And you can’t take that away. The pain of this doesn’t take that away.”

Goodbyes are never easy, but as always, Johnson’s words held a wisdom beyond his years: The pain of trading away two fan favorites doesn’t take away what came before.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Cameron Johnson (@camjohnson23)

Watching the Twins from afar

If there’s any solace for Suns fans — aside from the obvious of gaining Kevin-Freaking-Durant — it’s that the Twins remain together. It’ll be strange seeing them play in Nets uniforms for a while. Even with their endearing new jersey numbers, watching them do their thing on another team will take some getting used to.

There’s also a case to be made for how much more serious the Suns’ locker room just got. Durant’s arrival signals a true “all in” close to the season, and with new faces like him, T.J. Warren and Darius Bazley replacing core chemistry guys like Bridges, Johnson and Dario Saric, someone else will have to supply the lighthearted levity.

The vibes aren’t bad by any means; but if winning truly makes everyone happy, the pressure to do so will only be amplified without those locker room jokesters.

No one in Phoenix should regret landing KD, but such an acquisition comes at a price. In this case, it’s two players whose value to the team’s current trajectory, culture and turnaround from just a few years ago cannot be overstated.

For new Suns fans and even some older ones who have been here before, Bridges and Johnson are arguably the toughest departures ever for this fanbase to swallow…and that’s with an all-time great joining the mix as a result.

From their development on the court to the personality and lovability they embodied off it, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are the epitome of what’s made these Phoenix Suns teams special.

“That’s what I love about our team: We have guys that have a personality off the floor, and then they walk through those glass doors over there, man, and they’re maniacs,” Williams said. “In that case, man, one of the coolest things I’ve seen is their friendship blossom.”

That friendship will have to blossom on the opposite side of the country now…at least, until 2026.

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