Through Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Minutes after the Phoenix Suns had their return ticket to the NBA Final withdrawn by Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks — actually hours later, as the result was decided at halftime — Suns point guard Chris Paul spoke as if their trip had not been canceled but only postponed.
“We’ll be back next year, I’ll tell you,” he said defiantly after the Suns’ crushing 123-90 loss in Game 7 on their home floor ended the Western Conference semifinals.
A sample of GMs, scouts, and coaches I’ve talked to or texted with in the past 24 hours isn’t so sure. When asked which defending champion has the biggest challenge to return to the finals next season, the Suns of Milwaukee Bucks, who were also kicked out of the playoffs on Sunday with a decisive Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics, the answer was almost unanimous: Chris Paul’s team.
And Chris Paul was an almost unanimous choice as the primary reason.
What does Chris Paul’s future look like in Phoenix?
The Suns were taken out of the playoffs by the Mavericks on Sunday. Chris Paul finished with just 10 points in 31 minutes in Phoenix’s 123-90 Game 7 loss. This raises questions about whether it is time to move on from the “Point God”. Colin Cowherd explains why the suns “have to make a huge swing”.
For most of this season there has been more talk about how impressively Paul played at age 37, leading the league in assists and the Suns to the league’s best record (64-18). The applause continued through the first round as the Suns put down the pesky and youthful New Orleans Pelicans behind Paul’s efficient 22 points and 11 assists a night.
But then came the battle against the Mavs and their burgeoning superstar point guard, Luka Dončić, who proved much harder for Paul to outperform Pels’ CJ McCollum. After a promising start—19 and 28 points in a pair of Phoenix wins—Paul easily had the worst five-game spell of his 14 post-season visits, totaling 142 playoff games. In the last five games of the series, he had as many turnovers as field goals (18), shot a total of three free throws, had one game in which he had more errors (6) than points (5) and another game in which he had more turnovers (5) than assists (4).
If Dončić — 14 years younger, seven inches taller, 55 pounds heavier and just as much of an offensive maestro as Paul — could only be attributed to Paul’s struggles, they might have been more acceptable. But the Mavs’ backup point guard and Paul’s physical doppelganger, Jalen Brunson, were nearly as effective.
“Initially I wanted to say Milwaukee has the harder road,” said an Eastern Conference assistant coach, “but there are so many more questions about the Suns. Did CP3 have a bad run because he’s old or because they exposed him when he to work very hard?Chris gets [favorable] calling [from the officials] during the regular season, which he just didn’t get on this series. Those unknowns about Chris, and then where they are with DeAndre, make me go with Phoenix.”
That is DeAndre, as in DeAndre Ayton, the starting center of the Suns and a restricted free agent this summer. Ayton hoped to sign a long-term contract with Phoenix before the season, but according to reports, the team had failed to give him the maximum salary he wanted. Unfazed, Ayton produced arguably the most efficient performance of his four-year career, shooting and scoring with a career-high clip (63.4%, 17.4 PPG), despite a 29.5-minute average.
But in Game 7, which was thrashed by the Mavericks, Ayton played just 17 minutes and at one point had a bitter argument with head coach Monty Williams on the sidelines in which, a league source said, Williams yelled at Ayton: “You cost us !” It was not clear what that meant. There were also rumors that Ayton and assistant coach Mark Bryant were arguing before the game. All of this raises questions about how aggressive Ayton will be in finding an opponent’s offer form and how eager the Suns will exercise their right to match it and keep Ayton’s services.
Future of DeAndre Ayton in Phoenix in question
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But Paul’s poor performance and Ayton’s uncertain future aren’t the only questions Phoenix faces. There’s also shooting guard Devin Booker’s flat liner, which is expected to be a cornerstone of the franchise to compensate for the age-induced decline Paul is having. Booker and Paul were the first two reasons a Western Conference scout chose the Suns “by far” to take on a bigger challenge than the Bucks next season.
“CP3 will be older and no longer the alpha,” he said. “Booker has not yet shown that he can carry the team. The situation in Ayton is unsettled and he feels unappreciated.
“Who can score next? They need another reliable scorer or maker with legitimate dimensions for his position. They have some solid pieces…but it’s the spares with no turbos in the parts bin.”
A second Western Conference scout echoed that view, suggesting that Booker is a complementary star in a similar vein to Bucks shooting guard Khris Middleton, as opposed to their primary star, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Booker is a Middleton, not a Giannis,” he said. “They don’t have a franchise player and their fringe players don’t have much of an advantage. They are who they are.”
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To make things even harder for the Suns, NBA personnel expect a fiercer and deeper dogfight for league supremacy next year. And, unlike this year when the battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference was more intense, the consensus is that next season the Suns will have a lot more competition for the best record in the West.
The Eastern Conference could definitely be super competitive again. The assistant coach pointed to the Brooklyn Nets, with a healthy Ben Simmons and Joe Harris alongside Kevin Durant, Seth Curry and a presumably re-signed and available Kyrie Irving, who was as potentially formidable for the Bucks as the Celtics proved to be. But he also noted that the Bucks were their own worst enemy in the East Semifinals, challenging Boston to beat them by shooting open 3s and never adjusting anything, even after the Celtics proved that they that could.
“Next year is going to be crazy,” said a Western Conference GM. “I think 10 or 11 teams could be title contenders.”
It’s not that far-fetched. If the Nuggets, Lakers, Nets and Clippers all get back the stars that have missed most or all of this season, those teams could easily join this year’s top teams battling for a post-season top spot.
The Suns should still be one of them. If Paul can make a course correction on his post-season nosedive. If the Suns can make a course correction to their relationship with Ayton. And whether Booker can develop into as much of a floor leader and game winner as he is a shotmaker.
So perhaps Paul’s defiant confidence that the Suns will be “back next year” isn’t that far off. But even if he’s right, being back isn’t enough. The Suns need to get better.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He has previously written for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s struggle with young Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” , the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher†
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