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When the 2019-20 Suns returned to action after a 4½-month, COVID-induced break, Alvan Adams wasn’t expecting much. Under the NBA’s modified set-up, Phoenix still needed a miracle to end a nine-year playoff drought and the Suns limped into the bubble with a 26-39 record, the third-worst mark in the Western Conference.
“I don’t remember how many teams went into the bubble (22) but we were the only ones to come out with eight wins and no losses,” said Adams, who played 13 seasons for the Suns from 1975-88 and is now the vice president of facility management at Footprint Center. “After that I thought, ‘Well, this coach has something going on here.’ The commitment and the confidence that they showed, the composure and the compete level that was evident with this group was impressive, and that was before we got Chris Paul.
“The genesis of this current success is really tied to (GM) James Jones and (coach) Monty Williams, but that’s where I think you started seeing tangible evidence of something special. That was the first time we saw it taking shape.”
Two seasons later, the Suns are looking for the final form of validation — for the team, for the organization and for this city. Phoenix opens the 2022 postseason against the New Orleans Pelicans today as the favorite to win the NBA title, which would be the franchise’s first. There are still detractors who doubt the Suns’ preeminent status. Some doubt their ability to withstand a physical opponent, some doubt their postseason experience, some doubt their resolve, but for the first time in franchise history, those criticisms feel like vague swipes at the past; not sound analysis grounded in current-day reality.
“Based on the regular season, this is the best team they’ve ever had,” said Bob Young, who covered the team for 14 seasons (13 as the beat writer) for the Arizona Republic, and also covered the team for two seasons for The Athletic. “They’re a better defensive team than their previous best teams, they’re still pretty doggone good offensively, and they’ve got dogs, man. In the (Charles) Barkley era, they obviously had some really competitive guys, but I just think that with Chris Paul and Devin Booker, those two guys have a different mentality than we’ve seen in a long time.”
Killer instinct is an esoteric quality that is hard to measure. The Suns have shown that assassin-like quality on numerous occasions this season, but that mentality won’t really be judged until the postseason ends.
From a statistical standpoint, however, there is no arguing the Suns’ dominance over the rest of the league.
Phoenix finished in the top 10 in scoring offense (114.8, 5th); scoring defense (107.3, T-8th), rebounds (45.3 T-8th), assists (27.4, 4th), field-goal percentage (48.5, 1st), 3-point percentage (36.4 T-7th), defensive field-goal percentage (44.4, 3rd) and defensive 3-point percentage (34.0, 5th). With 64 wins, they finished eight games better than the next closest team, the Memphis Grizzlies, and 11 games better than anyone else.
“That’s the big thing to me; their reference against the rest of the league,” Young said. “There were other great teams when those other Suns teams were good. This team, at least in the regular season, has shown that there’s a greater gap between them and the rest of the league than there was with any of those other teams.”
When considering the best teams in Suns history, the 1992-93 Barkley-led team and the 2004-05 Steve Nash-led team are the two most frequently mentioned in the same breath as this season’s team (the 1975-76 team advanced to the NBA Finals but that team went just 42-40 in the regular season).
The 1992-93 Suns won 62 games, but the New York Knicks won 60 and the Chicago Bulls, who beat the Suns in the Finals, won 57. The 2004-05 Suns won a league-best 62 games, but the nemesis San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat both won 59.
“You just don’t see teams finishing eight games ahead of the rest of the league and 11 ahead of everybody but one team,” Adams said. “Those seasons are historic.”
The last team to enjoy an eight-game gap on the next closest team was the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who won the NBA title. The last team before the Warriors to enjoy at least an eight-game gap over the league was the 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers, who also won the NBA title. The team before the Lakers with that kind of gap? The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won 72 games and the NBA title.
You get the picture, but discussing those three teams highlights another advantage that the Suns may have over past elite editions. When the 1975-76 team advanced to the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics were in the final stages of a dynasty led by Hall-of-Famers Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Jo Jo White. When the 1992-93 team advanced to the NBA Final, the Michael Jordan-led Bulls’ dynasty was in its prime. And when the 2004-05 team made it to the Western Conference Finals, the Tim Duncan-led Spurs dynasty was on the cusp of its third championship in seven seasons.
“I like to use the word dynasty more than talk about those teams’ superstars when discussing this topic,” said Adams, who faced those Celtics in the Finals. “Those teams were about more than one player. Those are some of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen.”
From that standpoint, the Suns have had lousy timing when crafting their best teams.
“You could even throw the Rockets in there,” Young added. “They weren’t a dynasty, but they were pretty doggone good for about a three- or four-year span with (Hakeem) Olajuwon.”
The Suns’ timing may be changing. The Warriors haven’t won a title since 2018 and their roster has been dogged by injuries and age. No other current team can lay claim to dynasty status in recent years.
“I wouldn’t write the Warriors off yet, but if you’re hoping that the Suns win a championship, let’s hope Milwaukee is not a dynasty,” Young said, laughing.
That fear aside, both Adams and Young believe that this is the best team the franchise has ever boasted. And both agree that this is the best opportunity that the Suns have ever enjoyed to win an NBA title.
“I have been itching for the playoffs for a month because I could see what was coming; that we were going to finish five or six or seven or eight games ahead of everybody else,” Adams said. “Nothing is guaranteed in sports but we are all very optimistic.
“I shouldn’t say, ‘See you in the Finals so instead I’ll just say, ‘See you on Sunday.’”