The Phoenix Suns have a case as the most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA over the last 10 years this side of the Knicks. This was the team that saw live goats defecate all over the GM’s office, cycled through different head coaches every year, couldn’t even pull off a grocery store autograph signing without controversy, and — just when it looked like they had turned the corner — lost their franchise center to a 25-game suspension for diuretics.
For the last decade, if something could go wrong for the Suns, it probably did. That’s part of the reason why their flawless run in the NBA’s restart bubble felt so inspiring.
The Suns were the only team to finish a perfect 8-0 in the bubble. Phoenix still missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season, but for the first time since the heyday of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, it feels like the fanbase has something to get excited about.
Anyone who watched Phoenix play in the bubble can see how bright their future will be. This is why it’s a good time to be a Suns fan for the first time in a decade.
Devin Booker finally played like a legitimate star
If Damian Lillard is the Bubble MVP, Booker certainly finished as a close second. Booker was electric in the season restart, averaging 30.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field while dishing out six assists per game during the Suns’ perfect 8-0 stretch. After years of being viewed as an empty calories scorer, Booker looks like a legitimate star.
Booker’s run started to feel like something special by his third game in the bubble against the mighty Los Angeles Clippers. Booker went off for 35 points and eight assists, and hit a game-winning buzzer-beater over the outstretched arms of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
It’s wild to think Booker is still only 23 years old. Every losing season in Phoenix has felt like a referendum on his career to this point, but he’s finally showing how unfair that is. With a better supporting cast around him, Booker has increased his scoring efficiency, developed into a better playmaker, cut down on his turnovers, and stopped feeling like he had to take on NBA defenses 1-on-5.
Read the great Mike Prada for a thorough breakdown on how Booker finally ascended to superstar status. Booker was named an All-Star for the first time in his career this season, and it feels like an honor he should be achieving with regularity from here on out.
Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are emerging pieces next to him
While Booker’s play drew most of the headlines, it wouldn’t have been possible without an improved roster around him. The two most promising pieces are center Deandre Ayton and wing Mikal Bridges.
Ayton may never live down being taken in front of Luka Doncic in the NBA draft, but he still projects as one of the best young big men in the league. Ayton has always had elite physical tools and been an efficient scorer dating back to his college days at Arizona, but this season he made tangible strides in the weaker areas of his game, especially defensively. For all of the points and rebounds Ayton put up this season, it’s plays like this one that should really get Phoenix fans excited.
THIS SEQUENCE BY DEANDRE AYTON pic.twitter.com/BYb5MQfykR— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) August 6, 2020
Speaking of defense, let’s talk about Mikal Bridges. The Suns tabbed Bridges with the No. 10 pick in the 2018 draft out of Villanova hoping he could develop into the type of 3-and-D wing every team covets. Phoenix fully saw that vision of Bridges in the bubble.
Bridges smothers opposing offensive players with his quick feet and 7’1 wingspan. He was pretty much the only defender to lock down T.J. Warren in the bubble. He’s also made strides with his three-point shot, eliminating a hitch he showed early in his pro career to make better than 36 percent of his attempts from deep in the bubble.
I’ve been a fan of Bridges’ game dating back to his college days, and it was a joy to see him put it all together in the bubble. Phoenix doesn’t need Bridges to be a creator to be impactful — he just has be a star in his role. Just ask the Bucks how valuable really good 3-and-D guys are.
With a superstar guard in Booker in place, the Suns now also have an emerging defensive force on the wing and a stud center. That’s a good start, but the Suns deserve credit for the rest of the roster, too.
The Suns have a complete roster around their core pieces
It’s no coincidence that the needle finally started trending up for the Suns after they signed Ricky Rubio. Phoenix’s point guard play had been dreadful the last few seasons, but Rubio immediately provided a steady hand in his first season with the Suns after signing as a free agent. The Suns were simply a better team with Rubio on the floor running the offense, which was proven by his team-best net rating.
The Suns made another move in the offseason that drew less attention than the Rubio signing but had a similarly big impact. That would be the trade for veteran center Aron Baynes. Baynes was unbelievably good for the Suns in the first half of the year, providing newfound three-point shooting on offense and enough rim protection on defense to keep Phoenix afloat. There aren’t many better backup centers in the league. Baynes just seemed to professionalize Phoenix in all the ways they fell short before, which is the goal of any team when they acquire a new veteran.
It doesn’t stop there. The Suns were panned for picking Cameron Johnson at No. 13 overall in the NBA draft, but he looks like a valuable role player as a 6’8 shooter. I would like to apologize for not having him on my list of the best rookies this season — he deserved to be there. Kelly Oubre was having a career-year before he suffered a season-ending meniscus tear. Dario Saric was a solid veteran addition to the front court. Phoenix even pulled Cameron Payne out of China and made him a productive backup point guard in the bubble.
Phoenix’s typically maligned front office deserves real credit for what they did with this roster. Their best decision might have been who they decided to hire as head coach.
Monty Williams is the perfect coach for the young Suns
I wrote my glowing review of the Suns’ decision to hire Monty Williams back in December. If there was any doubt about how much respect he commanded from his team, just watch the speech he delivered after the Suns won their final game in the bubble:
The Suns have a star in Booker. They have two impressive starters next to him in Bridges and Ayton. The overall talent level on the rest of the roster is significantly improved. And they have a great coach.
The Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but they still showed how bright their future is at the bubble. After 10 straight years of missing the postseason, it finally feels like Phoenix is ready for a new chapter of sustained respectability.