The reason why the Phoenix Suns’ mission failed depends on the history of how championship teams are built
Let’s jump to a very early conclusion, as it will be as true in June as it is now: The Phoenix Suns will pose no real threat in the West.
It’s not just because the Denver Nuggets are clearly superior to everyone else in the conference, although they are.
The sun’s problem is deeper.
The recent past has shown that NBA teams that hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June rarely do so by executing a strategy of amassing a collection of stars and winning it all in the previous 12 months. The only recent exception — and he tends to be the exception to many NBA realities — belongs to LeBron James.
They are the local teams that have been champions by and large, and significant additions and recalibrations are often mixed into the mix. The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors come to mind as the team with the most exciting lineup, but that was still an addition to something that was there rather than a throwback on the fly.
The much-heralded Suns team, so far, is 3-4, and there is a malaise and general feeling of doubt outside Phoenix about the team’s chances this season.
Yes, the sun has set. Yes, Bradley Beal has yet to make his debut in Phoenix, an important fact that could change Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls. And yes, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant may be two of the top 10 players in the game, a fact that always gives teams a fighting chance in the playoffs.
But there’s an inherent fallacy at the core of this team: that in the NBA you can build a successful contender the way Suns owner Mat Isbhia tried, by assembling as many stars together as possible.
And that’s before you count the Suns’ defensive shortcomings, the uncertain fit of the KD-Booker-Beal trio, the lack of depth, legitimate injury concerns and the history associated with each of those three stars.
And then there’s trying to put a bunch of stars together and assuming that equals a hero.
This approach didn’t work in Brooklyn with KD, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. It didn’t work out for the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and there are no guarantees things will improve now that Russell Westbrook and Harden are well-involved. It didn’t work in Philly with Joel Embiid and Harden, in Houston or Oklahoma City when they tried it with some Harden-Westbrook, Harden-CP3 or George Westbrook combination. It won’t work in Phoenix either.
“You have to build teams,” said one executive who was part of the championship front office. “You need stars, but you need a team around them, a culture and an identity. Phoenix (this year)? No way. They put them together. It’s not going to work.”
The Warriors and their four championships are homegrown. Durant was a big part of a couple of them — earning two Finals MVP awards for his efforts — but he was an important complement, a supporter of an already well-made machine, not a creator of something new and great. He went to warriors to help them stay up the mountain, not to help them get up for the first time.
The Celtics are clearly the best team in the East right now, and they’re largely a homegrown team as well, even if this incarnation is ringless, at least for now.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were drafted there and spent years in the Celtics Green, and now that front office has been replaced with new players, most notably Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, to try to get over the hump. But the core of this team has not changed, and the project has been under construction for years.
The Nuggets won last year with a plethora of players they drafted and a core that learned to lose, win, suffer and play together. This also took years. The Milwaukee Bucks had a similar run two years ago. The Raptors team that beat the Warriors in the 2019 Finals brought Leonard, himself a previous Finals MVP, to glory.
But unlike Phoenix, Toronto didn’t blow things up and start over with one local star. They had a group that played together, made it to the conference finals, and then traded Leonard for DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs dynasty has been fueled by home-grown talent and a clear culture built over the years, not dinner recruitment. The Heat’s championships were a result of that Heat culture and — in 2012 and 2013 — the exception of LeBron James.
LeBron is the exception to this rule in the modern game. He put together a superlative team in Miami and reached four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them. He also learned to win there. He then returned to Cleveland, where they shipped out Andrew Wiggins to bring in Kevin Love, and had more success and another championship in a “cook now, win now” atmosphere. He then introduced more of the right-passing approach to the team’s build-up in Los Angeles, this time with Anthony Davis as his co-star.
But LeBron is a generational talent and a generational exception to all of these rules. The last team without LeBron to collect stars and win was the Boston Celtics in 2008. They only got one ring, which is a very poor accomplishment considering that roster.
Durant is an exciting player, but he’s no LeBron James. If KD was enough to carry poorly built but extremely talented teams to championship glory, as LeBron did, he would have won in Brooklyn. And Oklahoma City. And somewhere other than Golden State when he left the Thunder.
It’s okay to not be LeBron James. Only one man. But if you don’t, you’ll want to build your team the way they do in Denver or Boston or Golden State or Milwaukee or Miami: patiently, with some skill and luck, and with as much of an eye toward culture and identity as simply assembling massive talent and hoping it works.
The sun is very talented. The Suns will be a lot of fun to watch. And the Suns, once healthy and completely in the swing of things, will likely be exactly what they are now: the latest superteam to fail.
Does anyone want to tell Carrie his window is closed?
One thing you hear a lot across the NBA is that the Golden State Warriors window has closed irrevocably.
Tell that to Stephen Curry.
It’s early, but the Warriors already look smart and dangerous. They’re 6-2, their defense looks better than last season, and there’s no clear contender for the Nuggets in the West, giving Golden State plenty of room to fill that void.
And they have Steve.
An average of 31 points per game. He’s shooting 53 percent from the field and an impressive 47.5 percent on three-pointers. He led the Warriors in goals per game earlier this season.
There are certainly chinks in the armor in Golden State, and a lot of NBA scouts and executives will get poetic if you ask them why the Warriors aren’t building to win now: how they wasted previous draft picks, and how Klay Thompson and Draymond Green can’t help carrying this team when Steph gets tired or simply needs help, why the win-now approach failed during the rebuild-on-the-go approach attempted by former GM Bob Myers, and why over-relying on Curry is such a risky plan given that he will turn 36 later this season.
But, at least so far, the counterpoint has worked well: Golden State has Steph Curry, and that’s simply enough.
My MVP ballot is the battle of the big boys
You’ve been voted official MVP for the past few seasons, and several over the past decade. This season, as promised, we’ll be checking in on my ever-evolving ballot. Here’s a look at roughly 10 games.
- Nikola Jokic. Up one place from the pre-season rankings. Denver has the best record in the NBA at 8-1. He’s still a beast, and the award he should have won last year may not be so out of reach this time around.
- Joel Embiid. On the list for the first time. The Sixers have looked just fine, thank you very much, without Harden, and Embiid has been a big part of the reason. His 48 points against the Wizards that night was also very poignant — a blatant “I’m the man” moment like so many that held him back last year.
- Stephen Curry. Also for the first time on this list after being left out of the preseason projections. More than ever — and that’s saying something — Curry’s value to the Warriors will define the team’s season. Their window, closed or otherwise, revolves around him more and more. So far so good.
- Luka Doncic. He’s probably ranked unfairly low here, having dropped from third place last time out. He’s certainly the main reason the Dallas Mavericks won 6-1 and made Dallas doubters (myself included) blush.
- Jayson Tatum. Down from fourth place. The Celtics and Nuggets are the best players in the NBA right now, and Tatum is the best player in Boston. His new teammate, Porzingis, stole a little thunder this time, but it’s still Team Tatum.
Deleted from the list: Durant. On the sidelines and new to the mix: Porzingis, Tyrese Maxey and Anthony Edwards.