Sports

The New Team to Beat in the Western Conference

With LeBron’s Lakers out, it seems like anyone left could make the Finals—but one squad stands apart.

The Suns' Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder high-five each other
The Suns’ Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder during the second half of Game Two of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on May 25, in Phoenix, Arizona. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Dating back to LeBron James’ first season in Miami—the 2010–11 campaign that saw his Heat’s big three fall in six games to Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks—there has been a simple rule by which each subsequent NBA postseason has followed: The league and the road to the Finals runs through whichever team the King plays for. It was true in Miami, then in Cleveland, and most recently, in Los Angeles.

For eight consecutive seasons, and nine of the past 10, James played in the NBA Finals—his only previous absence coming in 2019, when his listless pre–Anthony Davis Lakers faltered while LeBron recovered from injury. Last year, James’ Showtime 2.0 squad bulldozed through the COVID-19 bubble in Orlando, en route to his fourth championship and the team’s 17th.

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Despite an up-and-down regular season that saw both him and Davis spend significant time in the trainer’s office, it looked likely that, if healthy, the Lakers would recover from their seventh-seed billing and march back to the NBA Finals.

They did not stay healthy. Last week, the Phoenix Suns eliminated the Lakers in six games, after Davis went out with a groin injury in Game 4 and only returned briefly in the first quarter of Game 6 before sitting out the remainder of the night. Before Davis’ injury, with both megastars playing for Los Angeles, Phoenix trailed in the series 2–1. Then the Suns won the final three games by a combined 51 points—including a 30-point blowout win in Game 5.

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So now, thanks to a combination of injury, bad timing, and—depending on who you root for—a run of either good or bad luck, the Western Conference has again emerged from out under the shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers. It appears wide open. The Suns, the top-ranked Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers could all conceivably end up in the Finals.

Over the past 37 years, dating back to the Boston Celtics’ victory over the Lakers in 1984, only 11 teams have been crowned NBA champions. But with the Clippers’ Game 7 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, each of those 11 former winners have been eliminated from contention; this year’s winner will be someone new.

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In the East, where nontraditional powers like the Bucks, Nets, and Sixers have reigned supreme, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. (The Sixers’ last championship came with Dr. J and Moses Malone in 1983. The Bucks last won a ring 50 years ago, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. The Nets have never won a title.) And while those clubs will surely breathe a sigh of relief that they will not see LeBron James and friends staring down at them with the Larry O’Brien trophy on the line, the real winners of the Lakers’ early postseason exit are the West’s four remaining contenders.

The Suns, Jazz, Nuggets, and Clippers combine for a whopping zero NBA titles, and have collectively reached just six Western Conference finals since the turn of the century. And while the Jazz enter the second round coming off an annihilation of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Nuggets and Clippers—who both eliminated one-man armies in tough series against the Portland Trail Blazers and Mavericks, respectively—are formidable, it’s the Phoenix Suns who are the new team to beat out West.

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It’s strange to be surprised that a No. 2 seed would win their first round matchup. Especially this one: The Suns finished the regular season with a .708 winning percentage, they employ as their guards one of the best young scorers in the sport (Devin Booker) and a veteran future Hall of Famer (Chris Paul), and those two are supported by a slew of impressive contributors. And yet, Phoenix has been overlooked. In part, that stems from the sheer might that James and Davis have when their bodies are working properly. But some of it also arises from Phoenix’s narrative stature relative to Los Angeles over the past two decades.

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Even at the peak of the last time the Suns were real contenders—coach Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less teams of the mid-2000s—Phoenix played second fiddle to Los Angeles and San Antonio in the West. No amount of Amar’e Stoudemire dunks or flashy Steve Nash passes could overcome Shaq and Kobe, on the floor or in the conversation surrounding their showdowns. And the Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker Spurs always seemed a step ahead of Phoenix, using their highly efficient offense and historically effective defense to suffocate foes en route to a handful of rings. Perhaps no image sums up the Suns’ struggles against their Texan foes than the sight of Steve Nash’s bloodied face.

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But this Suns team is different than those fast-paced mid-aughts squads that filled up the stat sheet and treated defense as an unnecessary pursuit.

Head coach Monty Williams’s Suns have been on a tear since winning their final eight games of the bubble season, and after adding Paul this year, only got better. The team posted the seventh-best offensive rating and sixth-best defensive rating in the NBA this season, en route to a 51–21 record. Phoenix also outscored opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions—good for third in the league—and their defense has stepped up further in the playoffs, dropping from 110.4 points allowed per 100 opponent possessions to 102.6 points allowed in their dominant first round win over the Lakers.

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At the heart of the Suns’ success is their dynamic backcourt duo. Booker, now 24, provides Phoenix with an All NBA–caliber offensive presence. His 25.6 points per game in the regular season was 13th highest in the league—tucked between Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Atlanta’s Trae Young—and was his fourth consecutive season averaging at least 24.9 points per frame. Put another way, he’s now one of the best scorers in the league.

While Booker gives Phoenix a go-to option, it’s been obvious all season that it’s his new running mate who helped elevate the Suns to contenders.

Critics counting rings aside, at this point, it’s hard to argue with Chris Paul’s resume. From New Orleans to Los Angeles to Houston to Oklahoma City and now to Phoenix, Paul has served as his squad’s on-court general, and every team whose jersey he dons sees marked improvement. This season, the perennial All-Star point guard became the verbal commander of a team that was desperate for veteran leadership. And the stats back up his importance. Paul is the second leading scorer and top passer on the streaking Suns’ offense, and he is the team’s defensive anchor. Phoenix was a point worse on defense per 100 possessions when Paul sat on the bench than when he played during the regular season, and two points worse on offense. Suffice to say, those differences are significant.

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But the Suns have benefited from a handful of consistent contributors beyond their two stars. Though he may not live up to the high standards set by his draftmates Luka Doncic and Trae Young, center Deandre Ayton is beginning to flash the talent that made him worthy of the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Now playing with a true distributor in Paul, the former Arizona Wildcat big man has become a more efficient scorer than ever while leading the team in defensive win shares (a stat that estimates how many wins a player’s defense produces).

Ayton has always been able to use his size to impose his will in the paint, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s been able to refine his skills. Among players with at least 1800 minutes played this season, Ayton is collecting the fifth highest rate of contested rebounds in the league, just behind Zion Williamson, and ahead of the Nuggets’ MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic. Ayton is also an elite offensive rebounder, giving other playmakers like Booker, Paul, newcomer Jae Crowder, and up-and-coming wing Mikal Bridges extra chances to make defenses pay.

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The emergence of Bridges and consistent production from fellow former first-rounders Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne gives Phoenix plenty of options to pair with their stars. Payne and Bridges lead the team in three-point shooting—knocking down 44 and 42.5 percent of their chances from deep, respectively—and Johnson is a threat to make it rain as well.

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The result is a Phoenix offense that can score from anywhere, be it a Bridges or Payne dagger, Booker slashing at the rim, or Paul setting up the big man for a score down low after cashing in for a few buckets of his own. The Suns’ offensive versatility should give them a leg up on the Nuggets in the Western Conference semis. Denver boasts Jokic and another young potential star in Michael Porter Jr., but since losing backcourt wizard Jamal Murray to injury late in the regular season, and his backups Will Barton and Monte Morris sporadically after that, they’ve looked shakier than expected.

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The Nuggets escaped Portland in the opening round despite Damian Lillard’s career performances thanks to the Trail Blazers’ abysmal defense. Denver won’t have the same luxury against the Suns, who are formidable on both sides of the ball. Barton might return at some point in Denver’s second round series, but until he does, head coach Mike Malone is stuck with a combination of Morris, Austin Rivers, and Facundo Campazzo to try to slow down Paul and Booker.

If they get by Denver, Phoenix would then take on either the Jazz—a team the Suns swept in the regular season—or the Clippers, who at times in their seven-game series against Dallas looked like they’d be watching this round from home. The Clippers gained the upper hand on the Mavericks when they started playing smaller to take advantage of Kristaps Porzingis, who had no answer for defending or attacking a shorter foe. The same won’t be true of Ayton, whose back-to-the-basket game and interior shot-blocking prowess should translate to a mismatch Los Angeles might throw at him.

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Phoenix has only reached the NBA Finals twice in its history, and not since the Charles Barkley–led 1992–93 Suns fell to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in six games. Hanging its first banner in franchise history won’t be easy, but with LeBron’s Lakers out of contention, and a marvelous combination of stars and role players, there might not be a better opportunity for the Suns to make history.

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