The NBA’s 75th anniversary gave way to a variety of changes both off and on the court. The latest one dealt with trophies though, and it left the Phoenix Suns somewhat on the short end of the stick.
For the first time in league history, the NBA handed out Conference Finals MVP awards, named after legends and rivals Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. This year’s winners included Stephen Curry and Jayson Tatum.
Although these awards carry little significance in the grand scheme of things, their creation just one year after the Suns conquered the West naturally feels somewhat unlucky for the Valley Boys. Had the league come up with this idea one year earlier, a Phoenix player would have a new notch on his playing career’s resume.
Thinking about “what if that happened” or “if only this existed” scenarios can get you in trouble, but at this point, what’s left for Suns fans to do? The rationale behind who would have won—and should have won goes as such.
Phoenix Suns 2021 WCF Would-Be MVPs: Honorable Mentions
You might remember the heroism displayed by one or two guys more than others when first recalling last year’s Conference Finals, but no matter how you chop it up, it was a team effort that got Phoenix to its first Finals since 1993 rather than anything else.
For his efforts during Games 1 and 2, Cameron Payne deserves a special nod. He filled in almost like a Chris Pau clone, as the Point God missed those games while stuck in COVID-19 protocols. Payne tallied 40 points and 18 assists between those two contests to help Phoenix leap ahead 2-0 in the series.
When talking about those first two games, you need to mention Deandre Ayton as well. He not only scored more than 20 points in each contest, but almost singlehandedly stole Game 2 away from the Clippers with his buzzer-beating “Valley Oop” dunk.
He ended up averaging 17.8 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game all while shooting a hyper-efficient 69.3 percent from the field.
Cameron Johnson too enjoyed something of a “coming out party” during this series which would rage on into the NBA Finals soon after. He averaged 10.8 points per game on scolding .700/.529 shooting splits.
Phoenix Suns 2021 WCF Would-Be MVPs: The Two Candidates
When re-watching the games and reading through each one’s box score though, two players belong on an entirely different tier than the others. Those players both hail from Phoenix’s backcourt in Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
- Chris Paul: 24.0 PPG, 8.8 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.8 SPG (.417/.375/.895)
- Devin Booker: 25.5 PPG, 4.7 APG, 5.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG (.382/.286/.907)
While each player’s averages during the Western Conference Finals balance each other out for the most part, Paul clearly takes the cake when you look at how efficiently these two shot the ball. Although he remained stoic at the charity stripe, Booker did not hit from the field at a high clip, struggling especially from Games 2 to 4 when he shot just 18-59 on field goals.
However, things grow complicated when you acknowledge the fact that Paul did not suit up for Games 1 and 2. Even with his inefficient shooting numbers throughout the series, Booker’s consistent availability, even playing through a broken nose, has to earn him something.
But given how recency bias works, Chris Paul would have likely earned the MVP award for this series last year. Rather than Booker, who came through with his best performance of the series in Game 1 via a 40-point outburst, Paul took over the wheel when closing things out.
To finish off the Clippers on the road, Paul dropped 41 points and dished out eight assists. He hit from the field at a red-hot 66.7 percent clip and went 7-8 from beyond the arc. If you’re asked to vote on an MVP and you’re choosing between two players with relatively even stats, you’re going to pick the guy who just put on a performance like that a few minutes ago, rather than the one who did so weeks ago.
However, as for who should win the award, my vote goes to Booker. At the end of the day, especially on the playoff stage, efficiency stats matter far less. It’s about being there for your team, and hitting the shots when it matters most.
Although Paul did that as well, I cannot ignore the fact that he missed two games, which the Suns both won with Booker at the helm. He deserves this hypothetical nod as the Magic Johnson MVP award winner even if it’s not worth much at this point.