As the NBA turns, the Phoenix Suns keep chugging along
By Kurt Streeter
Think about how the NBA is consumed these days. Think about what draws buzz and eyeballs, and social media clicks.
The league doubles as a soap opera and a business transaction wire. For many fans, that’s the allure: All the hype about who hates whom, what star player wants to force his way to another team, which front office executive has the boldest plan to resurrect a franchise and is willing to dish to reporters — without attribution, of course.
Hence this year’s fascination with James Harden’s trade demands, Joel Embiid’s beef with Ben Simmons, Zion Williamson’s injured foot and eating habits, and whether New York Mayor Eric Adams will allow unvaccinated Kyrie Irving to play home games in Brooklyn.
Hence the speculation about every member of the Los Angeles Lakers, the parsing of each utterance by LeBron James, the job security of coach Frank Vogel. What’s wrong with Russell Westbrook and Jeanie Buss? At this rate, it will not surprise me to see television hype merchants frothing about whether the Lakers should trade the team’s cook.
In a sports ecosystem that places such a high value on sizzle, where does this leave the Phoenix Suns? The NBA is investigating allegations of racism and misogyny against team owner Robert Sarver, a high-stakes conflict that seems to have been lost beneath the churn of minor dramas.
Amid all that, Phoenix’s fuss-free players and coaches have been impeccable. And underappreciated.
It would not have seemed odd if Phoenix had struggled to shake last season’s NBA Finals meltdown against the Milwaukee Bucks. Coughing up a two-game lead on the sport’s biggest stage isn’t exactly easy to put in the past. But Phoenix — led by the head-down coach Monty Williams, the unrelenting will of Chris Paul and the grit and grace of his mentee, Devin Booker — has done just that.
After hammering the Portland Trail Blazers by 30 points last week, the Suns became the first team in the league to reach 50 victories, which shouldn’t be a surprise since they’ve had winning streaks of 18 and 10 games this season and were undefeated in November.
Their 51-13 record through Sunday is 8 1/2 games better than the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat.
In the West, they stand 7 1/2 games better than the second-place Memphis Grizzlies.
Even with Paul sidelined most likely through the month with a broken thumb, even with their leading scorer, Booker, out with COVID-19 — and even after a rare, stumbling loss Sunday when the Suns were defeated, 132-122, by the Bucks — there appears little chance Phoenix will lose its grip on the top seed and home court advantage when the playoffs begin in April.
But unless you’re a die-hard NBA watcher, you probably are either unaware of how the Suns have dominated this season or you see them as a plucky team of overachievers with no way on earth to actually walk off with a championship.
We’re just over a month away from the start of the NBA playoffs, where we’ll find out if the Suns can puncture the public consciousness.
During last Tuesday’s game against the Trail Blazers in Phoenix, the Suns honored their longtime radio announcer, Al McCoy, the dean of NBA broadcasters, who at 88 has called Suns games since 1972. Think of all the memorable Suns players whose on-court brilliance he has witnessed: Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams, Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire on the “Seven Seconds or Less Suns,” who helped revolutionize the modern game.
Phoenix has come startlingly close to a championship, making the NBA Finals three times, beginning with the “Shot Heard Round the World” series against the Boston Celtics in 1976. (If you’re too young to remember, check YouTube for a treat.)
What other NBA franchise boasts Phoenix’s pedigree while lacking championship hardware? They are pro basketball’s version of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, destined always to come oh-so-terribly close to winning it all.
But this version of the Suns can write a new chapter. This squad has a special mojo.
“These guys all like one another and they just enjoy having fun playing the game together, and you just don’t see that in sports anymore,” McCoy said when we spoke last week. “A lot of teams, there’s always one or two guys that are upset about something — salary or playing time or something else. But these guys just hang together, and that’s the way they play.”
It’s the sports world’s natural order: Winning can undoubtedly draw attention even in today’s hype-besotted world, but that means winning it all. That’s part of the reason we know more about the Lakers this season than the Suns: 17 championship trophies can make a franchise important to people.
The same is true of Golden State, a titan of the 21st century grooved into our collective synapses on the strength of three NBA titles and five consecutive trips to the finals. (It doesn’t hurt to have must-see stars like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and a walking hype machine like Draymond Green, three players whose every other move and machination seem ready to go viral.)
Those championship squads each had a discernible style that each member seemed to uphold. To win it all, the Suns will need to stay true to theirs: a team-first style that Williams, a former Spurs player who learned to coach under the watchful eye of Gregg Popovich, could’ve cribbed straight from San Antonio’s glory years.
Like those Spurs, everyone on the Suns has a role, everyone follows the script. The ball moves and moves and moves some more. Seven Suns are averaging double digits in scoring this season. Two others are scoring 9 points per game.
Those Spurs of old weren’t flashy and filled with angst, drama and uncertainty. There was no soap opera narrative.
They just got the job done. Tellingly, the Spurs’ last championship was a stunning win over the Heat in 2014. It came the season after losing a heartbreaker to the Heat in the finals — courtesy of Ray Allen’s miracle step-back 3-pointer.
The Suns are now trying to do something similar to those title-winning Spurs. Capturing an NBA championship after suffering a searing loss is as tough a task as there is in sports.
Should the Suns finally win it all, don’t expect them to receive the attention and respect they are due. More likely, a week later, fans will talk more about Williamson’s weight, Harden’s nightlife and whether James will soon be taking his talents back to Cleveland.