Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
The NBA Finals open Tuesday night, in a city long forsaken by the Basketball Gods, with two franchises long ignored by the basketball public—one led by a perpetually undersold star, the other by a confounding two-time MVP, and every piece of this still boggles the mind in strange and delightful ways.
No one saw Chris Paul and the Suns coming, probably not even Paul and Phoenix—not after a decade of flailing and face-palming. Not after all the times Paul flopped in Houston and L.A.
Few expected a Bucks title run—not after their ghastly flameout last year, when Giannis Antetokounmpo saw his MVP talents again muted by a superior defense. Not with all the still-simmering doubts about their coaching and supporting cast.
And not with sexier teams seemingly blocking the paths in both conferences.
Out West, the Lakers and Clippers had flashier stars than the Suns; the Jazz, the flashier record; and the Nuggets, the flashy new MVP. In the East, the Nets had a sizzling new Big Three, the Sixers a stout Big Two and still no one knew what to make of the Guys Who Play With Giannis.
As of Jan. 31, the Suns had a 1% chance of winning the championship, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR algorithm. Milwaukee? A 10% chance. (Update: There is a 100% chance one of them will win the 2021 championship.)
Oh, did we mention that Antetokounmpo missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals because of an injured knee, leaving it to second banana Khris Middleton to close out the series?
Did we mention Paul’s shoulder injury in the first round, and his two-game COVID-19 quarantine in the conference finals? Or Devin Booker’s broken nose in that last series against the Clippers? Did we mention that no team had ever made the Finals after a 10-year playoff drought until these guys?
Did we mention Phoenix hasn’t made a Finals since 1993, and Milwaukee since '74?
And yet, here they are, the Suns and the Bucks, ready to tip off the Finals Absolutely No One Predicted. Which should teach us all a few lessons, such as …
CP3 is an all-time great, no caveats
It’s frankly weird that this needs to be discussed at all. But our ringzzz obsession—along with some untimely playoff mishaps—has long muddied Paul’s legacy. He is, was and will forever be one of the greatest point guards in history. He did not need this Finals appearance (or the ring that might be coming) to validate it.
The fixation has long been on Paul’s failure to make deep playoff runs: Before this season he’d made just one conference finals in 15 years. But legacy discussions require context. And in Paul’s case, that context includes untimely injuries (both his and teammates’) and the rise of the Warriors' empire.
Those Clippers teams featuring Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan marginally qualified as a superteam, but Jordan was never a third star on the level of, say, a Chris Bosh with the Heat, or Klay Thompson with Golden State. And someone—Paul or Griffin—was always getting hurt at a critical moment.
In Houston, Paul and James Harden propelled the Rockets to a 3–2 lead in the 2018 conference finals against the Warriors. They lost in seven, but we’ll never know how things might have unfolded had Paul not injured his hamstring in Game 5.
There’s a newfound respect for Paul now, owing to this Finals run and his inspiring season with the Thunder a year ago. A ring would surely help certify it all. And postseason success does matter in assessing the all-time greats. But Paul had already secured his place—Finals or no Finals.
Speaking of context …
This term (or empty calories) gets slapped on every player with good numbers on a losing team. It might even be warranted, if a player’s scoring is due to high-volume, low-efficiency shooting and/or indifferent defense and/or indifferent playmaking.
Booker isn’t any of those things. He’s basically the same player this season that he was last year (and the year before), though perhaps a more refined and mature version at age 24 than at age 21. But Booker’s stats and his efficiency have been consistent for three years running. The only thing that changed this season was his teammates: the arrivals of Paul and Jae Crowder, the continued evolution of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne.
Sure, Booker lost a lot of games from 2016 to ’20, even as he put up big numbers. But Phoenix was also stealth-tanking, losing enough to draft young talents like Ayton and Bridges, while saddling Booker with substandard lineups.
His stats matter. He just needed better teammates to make the calories count.
You can contend without a top 10 pick!
The Bucks’ franchise star was taken 15th in the 2013 draft. Their No. 2 star, Middleton, was a second-round pick in '12. Their third-best player, Jrue Holiday, was the 17th pick in '09. There isn’t a single top 10 draftee on the Bucks' roster.
In an era defined by tanking (see Philadelphia) and microwaved superteams (see Brooklyn), the Bucks took the road rarely traveled: They drafted a star outside the lottery, built methodically, developed their players and made opportunistic acquisitions (Holiday, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton) along the way. (The one year the Bucks did draft high, they whiffed—Jabari Parker, No. 2 in 2014.)
It’s still easier in today’s NBA to build a contender with high picks (see the Sixers and Celtics) or by poaching other teams’ stars (see the Nets, Lakers, Clippers). But the Bucks’ organic build, in one of the league’s smallest markets, shows it can be done another way—and offers hope to teams in every nonglamour market.
The same can be said about the Suns, who play in a midsize market but haven’t been a free-agent destination for years. Although Ayton was the No. 1 pick in 2018, he is not—at least right now—a certified star. Paul is a future Hall of Famer, but he’s 36 and was acquired via trade. Their franchise centerpiece is Booker, taken 13th in '15. The rest of the roster is composed of shrewd acquisitions (Crowder, Payne, Dario Šarić) and lower draft picks (Bridges, Johnson).
The Hawks, who just lost in six games to the Bucks, were also built through multiple drafts and opportunistic signings, and are clearly a team on the rise.
So take heart, teams that aren’t in L.A. or New York or Miami or San Francisco: You, too, can build a contender—with a little patience and a little luck.
When in doubt, go all-in
Did the Bucks give up too much to get Jrue Holiday? That was a legitimate question in November, when the Bucks surrendered two first-round picks and two pick swaps, plus Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and the draft rights to R.J. Hampton to acquire Holiday from the Pelicans.
Yes, Holiday was an upgrade from Bledsoe and Hill, but he was also a 30-year-old guard who had made just one All-Star team in 11 seasons. Did he make the Bucks better than the Sixers, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid? Or better than the Nets, who had Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (and would later add James Harden)? Or better than the Celtics (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), or the Heat (Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo), who had smoked the Bucks in the playoffs last summer?
We can definitively say yes today. But nothing seemed certain seven months ago. Skeptics will point to the injuries that sunk Brooklyn and Philadelphia this spring, or the various other misfortunes that sunk Miami and Boston. But that’s precisely the point: You go all in, because you never know how a season will unfold. Injuries and bad luck are always part of the equation. If the superteam standing in your way stumbles, you’d better be ready to strike.
The Suns’ acquisition of Paul last November also seemed risky. He was 35, with a ton of miles, a considerable injury history and a massive contract. Yes, he only cost the Suns Ricky Rubio, a first-round pick and some lesser pieces. But adding Paul to a 34-win team didn’t scream championship contender at the time. Most projections pegged Phoenix as a second-tier playoff team.
Would Paul still be an elite player by the time the Suns were ready to contend—whenever that day arrived? That was the question in November. It was answered in June.
And sure, you can point to the injuries that derailed the Lakers (Anthony Davis and LeBron James), or the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard) or Denver (Jamal Murray), and say the path was cleared. But the Suns can’t even reach that path without Paul leading the way.
This wasn’t the Finals anyone expected. But it’s way more interesting because of it.
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