The arena and the practice facility.
Those were basically the only two places in Phoenix that Chris Paul said he actually saw during his first year in the Valley. With his family in Los Angeles and COVID-19 protocols restricting the movement of every NBA team, Paul didn’t have the opportunity to set up the bowling nights or group dinners he typically would to help build the Suns’ chemistry. And he didn’t have years of playoff experience with his teammates under his belt to fall back on in place of those team-building moments.
Instead, Paul, Monty Williams, Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker had to seemingly figure everything out on the fly. Candid conversations about how to best utilize everyone’s talents had to happen early in the season. Paul, Booker and Ayton would even sit down by themselves to figure out how the offense needed to run, getting as granular as telling Ayton the angle at which he should be setting his screens. A rocky 8–8 start to the regular season ultimately gave way to a 32–8 stretch of dominance. And until the last four games of the Finals, Phoenix had pushed the right button almost every single step of the way.
The magical run finally ended at the hands of a hungry Bucks team and a dominant, rising megastar in Giannis Antetokounmpo. And now the questions begin. Did the Suns catch lightning in a bottle? Or was their 2021 season a sign of things to come?
Up 2–0 in the Finals, the last person who wanted to talk about the Suns’ lead was Chris Paul. He’s half-joked in the past when leading a series not to bring up the score, a not-so-subtle reference to some of the playoff defeats from earlier in his career. If CP’s season in Oklahoma City was about redemption, then this one was about asserting himself as one of the game’s greats. He was credited over and over again within the building for the example he set for the young Suns. Teammates speak fondly of the way he competes every single day, as well as the way he challenges players, whether it’s during a drill or a post-practice free throw contest. When the 2021 MVP ballots were revealed, Paul finished only one spot behind eventual Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not necessarily because his stats were so overwhelming, but because of how his command of the game elevated the Suns to new heights.
Paul took his own career to a new plateau also, reaching the Finals for the first time in his career. It’s perhaps a testament to his talent that his series at times felt like a disappointment, even after he raised his scoring average from the regular season in the championship round. Paul, who once said he would treat a game of Connect Four like it was the championship, at least finally got a taste of the real thing.
A large motivating factor for Paul to join Phoenix in the first place was Williams, who coached him for one season in New Orleans. Both were a little more headstrong in those days. Williams demanded more from Paul during their initial time together, back when the coach used to see things as more black and white as opposed to shades of gray. These days, he has a new mantra: “I’d rather be effective than right.” Williams is a special coach and even more special person. The 49-year-old loves to fish and golf when he’s not trying to corral his five kids. He’s self-deprecating, asking a reporter during the Finals if they wrote for “boring.com” when they inquired about what he did in his spare time.
But Williams’s journey has been anything but boring. He parlayed his playing career into a coaching spot with the Spurs, tasting championship success before taking the head job with the Hornets/Pelicans, where he lasted five seasons. In 2016, while an assistant coach with the Thunder, Williams lost his wife unexpectedly in a car accident, and would eventually take a couple seasons off before returning to the bench to assist Brett Brown in Philadelphia in 2018.
When Suns GM James Jones hired Williams to coach the Suns in 2019, he did so with two goals in mind, to raise the floor of a franchise mired in a long playoff drought, and bring in somebody who could be part of a great team. Williams demanded not only that his players have respect for their craft, but after all that he’d been through, that they also have gratitude for the position they were in. When the Finals ended in bitter defeat for the Suns, Williams did something maybe no other coach before him has done. He went to the Bucks locker room and congratulated them, adding, “I’m thankful for this experience.”
After a basketball season ends, it’s not long until the unromantic side of the game takes over. The Suns have big business decisions to make this summer. It starts with Paul, who can either opt in to the final year of his contract or opt out and explore a longer deal with either Phoenix or someone else. There will be suitors for Paul after his fifth-place MVP finish, and it’s not 100% that he remains in the Valley.
That’s in part because of the decisions Jones has to make on some of his young stars. Ayton, who took his game to another level during the playoffs, and swingman Mikal Bridges are both extension eligible this offseason. Both make sense to keep around. Ayton will likely command a max contract, while Bridges should also command a large sum because of how coveted his skill set is around the league. In an ideal world, Jones keeps Paul, Ayton, and Bridges no matter what. In the real one, the cost of what it would take to keep this team together will definitely be a conversation among Phoenix's front office.
And the front office will have to do its best to keep those conversations unemotional after falling only two games short of the franchise’s first championship. Will they be caught up in the glow of the 2021 run? Or will Jones have to be calculated in how he keeps Phoenix's championship window open for the long run?
It should be noted the Suns’ Finals opponent had to go through multiple disappointments before even making the Finals. The Bucks blew their own 2–0 lead in the conference finals in 2019 before losing in the second round in the bubble. Most champions, save for the most super of super teams, deal with difficult playoff defeats before reaching the top of the mountain. In that regard, the Suns are further along than most after experiencing a run to the Finals in only one season together.
Hopefully this group gets to see much more of each other in the years to come.
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