When your season finishes with a 33 points home loss in a Game 7 as the #1 seed in the playoffs and includes a player/coach feud and an inexplicable malaise, its going to matter how you start the next season.
Welcome to the 2022-23 Phoenix Suns.
The honeymoon is officially over for the Suns. The new success smell the franchise had for the last two years is now stale and the Suns are facing the most adversity as a franchise since Robert Horry shoved Steve Nash.
Chris Paul is older. Deandre Ayton is officially a max player. Jae Crowder is gone. Cam Payne is not. The West is deeper. JaVale McGee is gone. Cam Payne is not. Devin Booker is still here.
So two years after coming within 2 games of an NBA championship and six months after getting humiliated in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, what's in store for this season? Here are three questions to help us figure it out.
- Can the Suns stay healthy enough to win enough?
- We know Mikal Bridges is going to be on the floor and so is Devin Booker. Will the Suns go conservative with Chris Paul's minutes at age 37 after watching him fall apart in the last two post seasons? Is Cam Johnson's body up for the task of starting and taking on a primary defensive assignment on the wing? The margin for error in the West is going to be razor thin. A few games will likely separate the play in teams from the non play in playoff teams. If the Suns are going to win 50+ games, they'll need to stay healthy on the court and stay healthy as a team off the court as well.
- Where's the bench?
- Cam Johnson is a starter, Jae Crowder is a ghost and Cam Payne is persona non grata to most Suns fans. The last two years the Suns bench has been a secret weapon. The primary job of any bench in the NBA is to keep things afloat until the stars have caught their breath. The Suns bench was particularly skilled at not only preserving leads while CP3/Booker/Mikal caught a breather but actually extending leads. They could score in a bunches and turn a 4 point game into a 13 point game in a matter of minutes. JaVale McGee is going to be sorely missed. For all his unforced errors, McGee took over more than a few games last year for small stretches and for a few minutes would look like a Hall of Fame talent until he dribbled the ball off his leg. We're on Cam Payne redemption story #4. Landry Shamet feels like a lost cause. Damion Lee is ok. Duane Washington might be the ultimate revenge on the Pacers. Dario Saric, Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo together equal one quality back up big. But does any of this help the Suns win games or erase a deficit? That seems very unlikely.
- Will Chris Paul finish the season as a member of the Suns?
- I saved the juiciest for last. CP3's legacy has been missing one thing and only one thing: a ring. For two years, it looked like Paul may able to do that here. Now that has changed. The Suns are not as good of a team as lost to the Mavericks and the West may be 10 deep this year. Winning four straight best of 7 playoff series with a 38 year old PG and a rotation that is 6 deep at the absolute most seems extremely unlikely. Sure, the Suns young players could all take steps forward and Devin Booker could still get to another level but the Suns would still likely be short of a title threshold. Is there a point this year where Paul recognizes this and tries to hitch a ride with another team? Could the Lakers or Clippers make a deal for the Point God? Would the Suns be willing to go down the Steve Nash Trade Route 2.0? Right now it may seem silly to even think about but if the season is infected with whatever the Suns caught in the Mavericks series, it might be the only question anyone is asking three months from now.
- Every team needs a player to over deliver and exceed expectations. The Suns roster is devoid of any high upside young players and didn't add any meaty new role players. With the NBA increasingly a wing dominated league, there's one player above all others that could be this year's x-factor: Torrey Craig. From a postseason afterthought to an indispensable role player, Craig will likely need to become a consistent double digit point scorer off the bench and a player capable of stepping in and help Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges defensively. Craig is 32 in December, has never averaged more than 6.6 points in a season and shoots 33% from 3 point land. And he's probably the Suns best hope off the bench on a night to night basis.