Legendary Green Bay Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Alas, some of the greatest performers in the history of sports have been notoriously hard to deal with after a loss. John McEnroe’s meltdown at the 1981 Wimbledon Championships is still talked about to this day. Michael Jordan is said to have broken chalkboards in the locker room after disappointing regular season losses. Even as far back as 216 B.C., when Hannibal led the Carthaginians to a victory in battle over a Roman Unit, the surviving Roman soldiers were punished by being exiled to a deserted portion of Sicily. Such strict standards eventually led Rome to emerge victorious in The Punic Wars. Alas, failure is a part of success; but only when failure is deemed deplorable and success is deemed the only suitable outcome.
In the summer of 2021, two of the NBA’s notoriously bad attitudes, who happened to occupy the same backcourt, suffered a devastating six-game loss in the NBA Finals. Chris Paul and Devin Booker are both known to possess a win-at-all-cost frame of mind; the fact that they’d manage to relinquish a two-game lead was almost unthinkable. However, the prevailing thought was that Chris Paul’s career had been given a resurgence during his first season in Phoenix and that the rest of the league had finally recognized Devin Booker for the superstar that he had become. “Next year,” was the cry from the Suns’ fanbase. “We’ll finally have our moment next year.”
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in the World of Sports. Although Phoenix managed to end the 2022 regular season with a league-best 64 wins, they were ousted in the 2nd round of the Western Conference Playoffs. The meltdown that the team experienced in Game Seven of the series, being blown out in front of their hometown fans, was one of the most embarrassing scenes in recent NBA history. Sure, Jalen Brunson’s emergence as an All-Star caliber point guard and an excellent playoff performer was a contributing factor. Of course, Luka Dončić executed like the best player in the series; but the surprise factor was not the outcome of the game. It was Phoenix’s perceived lack of effort and desire. After that shocking defeat, fans have asked themselves the entire off-season, “What’s next for the Phoenix Suns?”
The first issue that management had to address was the status of restricted free agent DeAndre Ayton. Initially, it was said by many that Phoenix’s front office did not see Ayton as being worthy of the max contract extension his agent desired. However, plenty of teams would love to have a 24-year-old seven-footer on their roster. When a 24-year-old Shaquille O’Neal left the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers, it forever changed the course of the history of the NBA. The Indiana Pacers remembered this and extended Ayton an offer sheet worthy of “backing up the Brinks truck.”
Ultimately, Phoenix’s front office decided that letting a player as young and talented as Ayton walk away would be a bad idea. They matched Indiana’s offer sheet and kept their promising young center in the only NBA uniform he’s ever worn, the purple and orange. However, one unforeseen side effect of this decision was the Suns’ removal from the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. Durant had unexpectedly demanded a trade out of Brooklyn not long after the conclusion of the NBA Finals. Among the short list of locations he preferred to be traded to was the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix would have loved to have K.D. in uniform next to CP3 and D-Book, but they couldn’t afford to re-sign Ayton and acquire Durant’s services. In the end, they decided that keeping a core together that had already made a trip to the NBA Finals was a better move than realigning the roster.
So, the question remains, “What’s in store for the Phoenix Suns next season?” Will an aging Chris Paul have a less than All-Star caliber season? Will Devin Booker once again become a First Team All-NBA selection? What about DeAndre Ayton? Will he be able to silence the critics who say he is supremely talented but lacks the physicality and aggression to become a truly dominant center?
All these are valid questions for Suns fans as training camp for next season draws nearer by the day. The Western Conference is not only filled with talented teams; there are multiple franchises with compelling narratives that could fuel their rosters to overperform. The Los Angeles Lakers are hungry to prove the doubters wrong after failing to make the playoffs despite having four future Hall of Famers on the roster. Luka Dončić and Spencer Dinwiddie want to show the world that they are capable of a deep playoff run without Jalen Brunson. The Memphis Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant, are among the most exciting young teams the NBA has seen in years. And, of course, there are the defending champion Golden State Warriors; as they proved in this year’s NBA Finals, they will not go away quietly or easily.
The Phoenix Suns are still capable of advancing to the NBA Finals; if they can make it to the league’s championship round, it is hard to imagine that they would let history repeat itself. The feeling of being two wins away from the Larry O’Brien trophy before ultimately watching the Milwaukee Bucks and the Deer District celebrate victory was something Phoenix’s core group of leaders will never forget. The embarrassment of getting blown out in front of their home crowd during a deciding Game Seven the next year has only added fuel to their fire. In addition to Paul, Booker, and Ayton, the Suns roster still contains key veterans like Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson. Ask any head coach if he would accept a job given those six players as the foundation of the roster; the answer would be “yes” without hesitation.
Henry Ford, one of the greatest innovators in history, once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” The Phoenix Suns have made mistakes during their past two post-season runs. During this off-season, the front office decided to keep the key components of the roster together. This reveals the franchise’s philosophy; the winning pieces are in place, and the priority moving forward will come down to execution. Phoenix is home to a loyal fanbase, and the Suns have become a respectable and proud franchise. The ability to become champions is within their grasp; the only thing left for this team to do is learn from the past and turn their dreams into a reality.
TJ Brown is a certified personal trainer and a member of the National Sports Media Association, as well as the National Association of Black Journalists. His work is often humorous and insightful and always original.