The Phoenix Suns haven't made the playoffs in a decade, but they came close in 2013-14. No one saw that team coming, since Phoenix was widely assumed to be tanking before the season started. Led by Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, the Suns went 48-34, finishing just one game out of eighth place in a particularly stacked Western Conference.
Dragic made All-NBA and won Most Improved Player. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek finished second in Coach of the Year voting. Phoenix appeared to be rising, and everything went off the rails from there.
The Suns' three-PG experiment with Isaiah Thomas made all involved miserable, so they tried pairing Bledsoe with Brandon Knight. They finished 39-43 in 2014-15, then signed Tyson Chandler and brought him and the newly re-signed Knight into their meeting with free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. The gambit almost worked, but Aldridge chose San Antonio, setting Phoenix up to flail around for the first four years of Devin Booker's career, cycling from Hornacek to Earl Watson to Jay Triano to Igor Kokoskov, winning between 19 and 24 games each season.
In this context, Monty Williams' first season at the helm was a triumph. The Suns went 34-39, but their 8-0 run through the seeding games in the bubble gave the franchise some momentum for the first time in six years. Without that momentum, they wouldn't have been a realistic destination for Chris Paul, their new point guard, acquired in November.
Paul's job is to elevate Phoenix, to help its young players reach the playoffs for the first time. Ideally, he will turn the Suns into the best crunch-time team in the league, like he did for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. But he will have help.
During free agency, Paul called stretch forward Jae Crowder and recruited him to Phoenix. Veteran guards Langston Galloway and E'Twaun Moore followed. The Suns also re-signed 26-year-old Dario Saric and 25-year-old guard Jevon Carter, important parts of the second unit that thrived in the bubble. Now they are deep, with tons of shooting and a mix of vets and young talent that brings to mind the Miami Heat team that just went to the NBA Finals. Maybe this time they can keep this thing moving in the right direction.
Taking the temperature
Suns believer: Imagine how happy Booker must be. CP3 is going to teach him some more tricks, and the front office was smart to add some more vets. I absolutely loved the Bubble Suns, but these Suns are going to be so much better. Mikal Bridges is becoming more than a 3-and-D guy, and he should have made All-Defense last season. The Crowder signing put Cameron Johnson in the perfect role.
Paul is going to get the absolute most out of Ayton, too. This is a real squad. Anything is possible!
Suns skeptic: I'm sure Booker is happy, but that doesn't mean I have to believe the hype. Paul is an upgrade over Ricky Rubio, but he's 35 years old! Adding him and a few rotation players doesn't make this team an immediate contender, and I'm not going to bet on him duplicating the season he had last year.
The Suns didn't need to rush things, raise expectations and remove their financial flexibility. Don't dismiss the downside.
Suns believer: It's not like they're paying Paul a zillion dollars a year until he's 40. This is one of the best and smartest point guards of all time, and it cost them Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and spare parts. Since Oubre was going to be squeezed out anyway, this is a borderline miraculous turn of events for a team that was considered a laughingstock until recently.
I get the idea that Paul doesn't perfectly fit their timeline. It would have been preferable to add a younger first-ballot Hall of Famer, but those typically aren't available -- and definitely aren't available for that trade package. Sometimes, you need to make the kind of move that tells your core players that you're serious about winning. Sometimes, you need to go for it.
Suns skeptic: What does "going for it" look like, though? The Suns aren't in the same tier as the Lakers and Clippers. Maybe they've differentiated themselves from New Orleans, Memphis and San Antonio, but at best they're hoping they'll be among the handful of teams fighting for home-court advantage toward the end of the regular season. They could have competed for a playoff spot or at least an appearance in the play-in tournament without Paul.
Suns believer: I'm not going to put a ceiling on this team, and I don't think "they're probably not going to win a championship" is some kind of damning criticism. The Suns are trying to build something sustainable and get their core players some playoff experience. They've threaded that needle well, and their competition is too good to justify simply running it back.
I understand that you'll never agree that this is a good plan. Will you at least admit that they executed the plan well?
Suns skeptic: They executed it pretty well, sure, but I'm not sold on the Suns' defense. At this stage of his career, Paul is a defensive downgrade from Rubio. I do not expect Booker to turn into a stopper. The real problem, though, is Ayton, who has never been much of a rim protector and is now backed up by Saric, Damian Jones and the raw Jalen Smith. They're going to miss Aron Baynes more than their bubble run would suggest, and they're not getting out of the first round without a better-than-average defense.
Suns believer: Ayton is just 22, and we've already seen him improve defensively. That should continue, if only because Paul will be barking at him all the time. He doesn't need to be Bam Adebayo on that end for the Suns to be successful, particularly because he'll have Bridges and Crowder next to him in the frontcourt.
I'm glad you made that point, though, because I want to address that line of thinking. It's too simplistic, too black-and-white, just like the notion that the Suns shouldn't have traded for Paul. Ayton is not exactly an old-school big man, nor is he a new-age one. The Suns are no longer rebuilding, but they're not exactly contenders. Both of these things are perfectly fine!
Eye on: Cameron Payne
Payne was something of a savior in the bubble, solidifying the backup point guard position for a team that was searching for an answer all season. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 17.1 points on 61.2 percent true shooting, with 4.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds (!) and 1.6 steals in eight games.
Nobody expects Payne to shoot 51.7 percent from 3-point range again, but that could turn out to be the start of his career's stable second act. He worked well next to Carter, a defense-first combo guard, and built on a strong season with the G League's Texas Legends. I've always been intrigued by Payne, the No. 14 pick in the 2015 draft, and now I want to see if he can hold onto his role with Moore and Galloway in the mix.