After going up 2-0 in the NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns were outmatched against the Milwaukee Bucks in games three through six. This asks the question, will the Phoenix Suns return to the NBA Finals in 2022?
After the 2020 Finals, I put my faith in the Miami Heat to run back a championship-caliber roster and be in contention. They responded by earning the six seed and being swept by the future champion in the first round. This Suns team is tricky to evaluate due to the uncertainty of Chris Paul. But in this piece, I’ll propose a scenario where Paul returns, and one where he doesn’t. And answer the question of if the Phoenix Suns return to the NBA Finals in 2022.
Will The Phoenix Suns Return To The NBA Finals In 2022?
Scenario One: Paul Runs Back The Big Three
The likeliest way the Phoenix Suns return to the NBA Finals will be the return of Paul. Paul had a stellar regular season and was an extension of head coach Monty Williams on the floor. It can’t be overstated enough how much Paul’s intangibles pushed his young teammates to raise their ceiling. In the playoff series versus the Denver Nuggets, Paul’s numbers were staggering. In four games he averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists off a 61.8 field goal percentage.
And against the Los Angeles Clippers in game six, Paul had one of the vintage games of his career. Paul scored 41, had three steals and eight assists, and made seven threes. Paul just turned 36 and isn’t the most electrifying point guard in the league anymore. But his poise and basketball IQ remain off the chart and help his game age gracefully. Not to mention, he just put up his best field goal percentage since 2008-09.
Paul returning would keep the starting five from this year together. The big three of him, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton make the Phoenix Suns return to the NBA Finals far likelier than just Booker and Ayton.
Scenario Two: Paul Leaves For Elsewhere
There’ll be no shortage of teams wanting to acquire the 11-time all-star if he declines his player option. If Paul leaves, they’ll have 9.4 million dollars in cap space and a mid-level exception. They also have the 29th pick in the draft to try and package in a trade. I expect Cameron Payne to be brought back after finally finding a home in Phoenix. That’s with or without signing Paul. Finding a backup point guard would be a top priority, and in general, the bench needs re-tooled.
The ACL injury to Dario Saric in the Finals hurt the Suns because he was their most reliable backup big. No offense to Frank Kaminsky, but the Bucks were able to bully the Suns in the paint after Saric went down. Kaminsky is a free agent now and Saric will likely miss all of the 2021-22 season. Torrey Craig could be brought back for cheap on the wing for his defense. And Cameron Johnson is on breakout watch in year three as the team’s sixth man. But finding a reliable backup big should be near the top of the Suns’ to-do list this offseason.
If Paul leaves, it makes life for the Suns easier financially. They have looming extensions to Mikal Bridges and Ayton in the near future to consider. And as I just mentioned, their bench needs re-tooled. The more money they have, the better quality of depth players they can add. But if Paul leaves, their ceiling takes a hit in a Western Conference that’s only getting more competitive and star-studded by the year.
The Western Conference Is Loaded
Anyone who’s watched the NBA recently knows how deep the west has gotten. The dream of the Phoenix Suns return to the NBA Finals could be squashed by their competition, with or without Paul. The Los Angeles Lakers are always a threat and are looking to add big names. The Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets have the chemistry and talent to be right back at the top of the conference. And the Golden State Warriors will get Klay Thompson back and are in all sorts of trade rumors for star players.
Without Paul, the Suns can and should absolutely be a playoff team. Booker and Ayton still have room for growth and aren’t at their ceilings yet. Williams barely lost the coach of the year race, and he showed this postseason he has a bond that can’t be broken with his players. The Suns are naturally resilient as we learned during their 8-0 bubble run in 2020. But considering the top teams in the east they could face off against in the Finals, bringing back Paul is critical to get over the hump.
Phoenix Suns Return To The NBA Finals Rides On Paul
The Suns are almost exactly where the Toronto Raptors were two years ago after Kawhi Leonard won them a ring. Should he leave, Suns fans will either be grateful for the experience or upset he didn’t re-sign. The Suns could surprise and be a contender without Paul. But the Jazz, Nuggets, and Lakers, let alone the Eastern Conference offer too much competition. If Paul comes back, the Phoenix Suns’ return to the NBA Finals is a strong possibility. In the meantime, we’ll see what their first offseason move is with the 29th pick in the NBA Draft on July 29th.