Phoenix Suns: Los Angeles Lakers and Others Gaining Ground in the West

Phoenix Suns (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The Phoenix Suns occupy quite an interesting position ahead the 2021 NBA free agency period, especially compared to their Western Conference counterparts.

Unless the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, or even New Orleans Pelicans make drastic roster improvements over the coming weeks, the Suns seem likely to enter the 2021-22 NBA season as a top two Western Conference squad. For those others teams, the market looks incredibly barren right now, playing to Phoenix’s advantage.

Warriors GM Bob Meyers basically put all his team’s title pressure on Klay Thompson while speaking to the press a few days ago. Thompson continues to work his way back from two potentially career-altering leg injuries, making this statement feel very unfair to him by my standards.

For Thompson to return to the exact same form as before, he needs to reestablish the speed and quickness he once carried, which primarily helped him to get to his spots off the ball, and lift correctly once in motion for jump shots. He also needs it to bring back that lateral quickness which once made him a widely feared defender.

All three components to this splash bro’s game will likely be affected given his injury’s nature. But the presumable dent in his lateral quickness will kill his ability to bother smaller players like he used to, making this the most difficult obstacle for him to rebound from.

This too makes the Warriors defense far more vulnerable in principle, with Thompson potentially unable able to take the pressure off Stephen Curry by guarding their opponent’s toughest cover each night. If Thompson was coming off only an ACL tear, I might hold more optimism on his behalf, but all signs make it seem very unlikely that he comes back as the same dead-eye scorer he once embodied, while remaining an elite defender at the same time.

He is “Klay Thompson” though, so he will always have an all-time hot hand, and will surely be similarly efficient due to the ever-moving Warriors offense—combined with his all-time great natural shooting skills.

But still, expecting him to come back and provide the exact same dynamic he once brought to the table is naive. On top of that, his consistent health going forwards remains questionable as well.

Players returning from achilles tears carry an ugly track record regarding their health after the fact. Even guys like Kevin Durant, who came back from the same injury looking amazing, still succumbed to lower body weaknesses from time to time across last year’s 82-game season. Durant played just 35 games due to related injuries, John Wall played 40, and DeMarcus Cousins only played 86 over three seasons.

Myers’s casting of Thompson into this “savior” role strikes one as even more alarming for the Dubs when you consider his open refusal last year to trade young assets for role players capable of immediately adding to their title pursuit.

The Warriors drafted 19-year old James Wiseman and hired assistant coach Vladan Milojevic, who formerly trained Nikola Jokic between last summer and this one. They also added Kenny Atkinson, who helped develop D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Spencer Dinwidde to help Jordan Poole and Moses Moody. The just drafted 18-year old Johnathan Kuminga as well, set with Jama Mahlalela set to attend to him, who helped develop Pascal Siakam.

In doing all this, the Warriors try to toe the line between contending with an aging superstar, and developing players for the post-Steph era. Last season it resulted in mediocrity due to the lack of ready talent and exaggerated mistakes expected from a young core.

It left Golden State in a position where they could swing for the fences to go all in on trying to get a secondary scorer. But they refused, consequently keeping themselves mostly out of the mix of top teams, at least for now.

The Mavs and Pelicans currently find themselves in an arms race to land Kyle Lowry. Funny enough, these two teams continue to essentially follow Phoenix’s blueprints—trying to replicate that Chris Paul effect by putting an older, All-Star level point guard alongside a young core.

Lowry will get a bag either way this summer, but who gives it too him will come down to whoever is more desperate, as long as the Miami Heat do not nab him first. But Dallas and New Orleans are clearly trying to make a push, especially the Pelicans who traded for Jonas Valanciunas a few days ago.

Now the reason I neglected to mention the Utah Jazz as a team to watch out for improvement-wise revolves around their little wiggle room this summer. Their regular season numbers will remain elite, but as long as Rudy Gobert stays as a centerpiece for the team surrounded by subpar perimeter defenders with unimpressive athletic tools, Utah’s opponents will continue to exploit them.

In their playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers a few months ago, we saw LA subject Gobert to several uncomfortable defensive situations due to his lacking versatility. He struggled to offer the proper help which a drop big like him needs to provide from start to finish. Reggie Jackson and Terrance Mann blew past the perimeter defenders every time down the floor, and either beat Gobert at the basket, or forced a rotation unable for him to keep up with.

We saw Gobert’s paint presence become minimized by small ball lineups which pulled him away from the basket as well, moving too slowly while failing to take advantage of his size. He also became unswitchable during isolations from the Clippers for the same reasons.

In contrast, we saw nearly the exact opposite play out during the NBA Finals, with Jrue Holiday able to fight over screens and keep players from dashing by him so that the bigs (Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez) could shade him and maintain their position at the rim. This dynamic with Holiday became the sole reason as to why Lopez and Portis became so instrumental to Milwaukee’s victories following Game 1.

The Jazz failing to replicate this is fundamental issue with their defense just makes them too easy to score on. When you actually examine the several Utah players who cannot slow down quick attackers, such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale, Derrick Favors, and Gobert—you start to realize that if they want to fix this issue, than they have to uproot their roster via trades, which remains an extensive task almost impossible to complete for several reasons.

But still,  I know I have yet to address the giant mammoth in the room that is the new big three for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As it stands right now, these guys embody the only true roadblock for the Suns. With the Lakers adding Russell Westbrook, they now commit themselves to the very controversial “talent over chemistry,” mold that could end up going any number of ways.

Two things are certain though: Russel Westbrook’s mania will make sure the Lakers never lack energy, and they will no longer look like a mess during non-LeBron minutes. However, LA poises to also walk along a very slippery slope all next season when it comes to their spacing and half court proficiency.

So where do the Suns fit amidst all this? Well, they need not to improve all too much to maintain their Western Conference crown given their young core’s likelihood to only get better. However, the looming threat of a fully functioning superteam still clouds things.

I think the improvements Phoenix indeed looks to make must occur at the internal level at this point. Deandre Ayton needs to take even greater strides and find more touches, Devin Booker needs the rock more, and Cameron Payne needs to continue to find confidence as a scorer if he resigns. Additionally, Mikal Bridges must keep developing that mid-range creation, while Cameron Johnson works to establish maintained consistency as a shooter.

Any free agents added would just be icing on the cake,  much like the Shamet trade that occurred on draft night. If the Suns acquire some athletic size off the bench for when Ayton sits, there is not really much else they can do to improve this offseason, outside of somehow going crazy and nabbing another star, which would be next to impossible without trading everything this organization has built.

Next. Phoenix Suns Disrespected by 2022 NBA Title Odds. dark

Retaining this core should be a top priority, but at this point I doubt it is enough to upset a fully healthy and functional Brooklyn Nets or Lakers team simply due to the amount of ungodly star power each team presents. However, only time will tell.