Traditionally, for an NBA team to become beloved and fun, a certain gestation period is necessary. There is an era of trial and error, a sequence of peaks and valleys that we may call “bonding” or “building chemistry,” which endear them to both us as fans, and each other as teammates. Frustration along the way is assured, and if it’s the good kind, so is the sweet release into something more free and cohesive. Love may come at first sight, sometimes, but it doesn’t work at first sight.
The Phoenix Suns have gone through a lot of these interpersonal obstacle courses together: Devin Booker has taken on many of Chris Paul’s best qualities; Deandre Ayton and head coach Monty Williams have made their weirdly cold relationship work, somehow. External foes remain, some of whom have seemed unbeatable—too big, too strong—despite their growth.
That’s why, this February, they traded for Kevin Durant. He came at a great cost, and they sent a good amount of their identity out the door when they brought Durant in through it. It is as if, after building a great house, the Suns won the lottery and decided to tear half of it down to build one bigger, more grand. It could end up looking super sweet when it’s finally all put together, but it could also look like so many cautionary tales before it, about a guy who got rich and then got too excited, did some bad math, and accidentally burned it all down. Either way, in trading for Durant, the Suns have begun testing a popular—and undefeated—thesis about what a team needs, spiritually, to win a title.
As such, their loaded balloon-trial predicament does not inspire joy, or at least not the kind that known basketball narratives have conditioned us to anticipate. We don’t have real experiences with them, and their crowning is not inevitable—yet, if they fall short of winning the 2023 NBA title, disappointment probably is. Welcome to a climax without a build-up; a character epic with incoherent coming-of-age roots. If the Suns lose, we will not be able to say that it was really about the friends made along the way, because they haven’t been around each other for long enough for such sentiment to take hold. Durant has played just eight games with Phoenix, and largely against teams injured enough that they resembled preseason foes, incapable of providing enough of a test to show us anything about them. Now they have just two months to turn that tenuous familiarity into a team that no one can beat.
This is not typically how it works in the NBA. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had to get knocked out by the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons three times before finally breaking through for their first championship in 1991. LeBron James took his lumps with the Cleveland Cavaliers and fell short in his first bid for a title with his Miami Heat superteam before breaking through the next year to finally earn a ring. Even Steph Curry’s Golden State Warrior had to overcome Mark Jackson’s coaching. If the Suns get their ring this year, it will feel like they did it while skipping a step.
Maybe, you might be saying, it’s next year that they really take form. But there is one big and simple fact saying otherwise, and making this season’s opportunity unduly important for Phoenix: Chris Paul is turning 38 years old this May. His most recent season has been his worst as a Sun, and one of the least productive of his long career. As a manager of two world-class scoring options, he is still a strong point guard option—what with his Fort Knox level ball-protection—but he is visibly without burst, and usually not capable of much more than shrewd administration these days. And the Suns do not have the depth to survive too paltry a version of Paul. They lost that in the trade. It’s possible that Paul is saving what’s left of his best physical self for a title run, but far less so that he could do it again a year from now.
Like the Nets squad that Durant came from, these Suns are a referendum on the machinations of the contemporary NBA as much as anything. Watching their story unfold will not be like the construction of a typical gourmet meal, prepared all day, but instead closer to the experience of tossing a Peep into the microwave and seeing how quickly it gives in to the postseason radiation. New owner Matt Ishbia follows in the steps of Joe Tsai’s brash 2019 takeover in Brooklyn: similarly determined to make a splash on the scene, he has also quickly exchanged compelling youth projects for the immediate excellence—and expectations—of Durant. And Durant is, yet again, here after another “superteam” project led to dissatisfaction. In putting it all together, the Suns are repeating the Nets’ bet that you can crash-course past classical values about how to reach the top if you’re bold enough to take the biggest possible swing.
The closest thing to a successful modern parallel would be the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors, featuring a mercenary Kawhi Leonard who left after just one season following their championship run. The team also had a first-year head coach in Nick Nurse, and added starting center Marc Gasol toward the end of the season at the trade deadline. They were, in many ways, a microwaved champion. But the main ingredient, Leonard, got to play 60 games with those Raptors, which is a long way from eight. The Raptors provide a certain blueprint, but they are still no real model for what these Suns would represent if they end up winning it all. Such a suddenly composed crown-wearer simply doesn’t compute.
Historical odds are against it; the Suns were a 45-win team this regular season, and no one has won the championship with fewer than 50 victories since 1995, when the Houston Rockets notched 47 wins before defending their title. While the art of the deal helps to build championship rosters, rings are generally won through the thresher that is the 82-game gauntlet of the regular season. Phoenix could break that mold, but it also seems that they have to, in order to vindicate their now-or-never makeup—for Durant, they traded two awesome young players, and nearly all the draft equity they could use to get any more. That is a precipitous place to be, and a circumstance that tends to breed more tightness and sorrow than organic hardwood glory.
If Durant’s Suns show us otherwise, their achievement will be a wholly new kind of story, too fast to savor like we have all champions before them. And if not, they will stand as yet another case study in an age of hastily assembled star squads, who skipped so many of the steps that make it possible to remember them.