New NBA Season: Phoenix Suns Rise Amid Pandemic
2010. It was the year the controversial SB 1070 immigration bill was passed in Arizona. Jan Brewer was governor of the state. Barack Obama was in the second year of his first term. LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. And it was also the last time the Phoenix Suns made the NBA Playoffs.
In fact, that season — led by all-star players Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudimire — the Suns made it all the way to the conference finals before losing to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Since then, nothing.
More than a decade later, the Suns finally hope to emerge from basketball irrelevance and return to the storied days of the successful franchise that put the state on the pro sports map 52 years ago.
But it’ll be under unusual circumstances.
“This is gonna be a challenging season for us. We’re gonna do everything in our power to stay COVID free and stay healthy,” said Suns General Manager James Jones. “Seventy-two games in condensed season with more, or increased, back to backs means we’re going to have to manage our time appropriately.”
The team will at least start the frantic schedule with no fans to impress in a newly-renovated but lonely downtown arena.
“It’s a bubble environment. Outside of our on-court performance staff, the players and coaches that execute on game night, everyone else is on the outside looking in,” Jones added.
On the inside is a roster of raw talent that has perennially been the youngest in the league — until this season.
Jones and the Suns pulled off perhaps the biggest trade of the short off-season, acquiring 10-time all-star point guard Chris Paul in a multi-player deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
At 35, Paul is just about everyone’s much older brother.
“Sometimes it’s nice to have a young team, they don’t know nothing else but to hoop and to hoop hard. Whatever they want to know, I’m gonna tell ‘em, whether it be training, whether it be eating," Paul said.
Paul, also known as “CP3” and as star of those ubiquitous State Farm insurance TV commercials, is a 15-year NBA veteran who gives the Suns the experience and the point guard they’ve been lacking with a career average of nearly 10 assists per game. He says he still loves the job.
“This is fun! This is a whole lot of fun. To get a chance to say this is my way of life, like this is supposed to be work? It’s the competitiveness and with everything going on in the world, this is somewhat our escape," he said.
And it’s a lucrative escape. Paul will be paid $41 million this season and has an option for $44 million more in 2022.
All worth it to head coach Monty Williams.
“We added a first ballot hall of fame point guard to our team," Williams said.
Williams, entering his second season on the bench, had Paul as a rookie head coach in New Orleans.
“Chris has an ability to make everything around him better. I witnessed it as a rookie head coach. After that year, people thought I could coach, and a lot of that was Chris,” Williams said.
Perhaps no Suns player was happier about Paul’s acquisition than the 7-foot, third-year center DeAndre Ayton.
“We got CP3 in Arizona. Ya’ll trippin! We got Chris Paul in Phoenix. When I heard it was official, I wanted to do a backflip. You ever seen a (7) footy do a backflip? That’s how excited I was," Ayton said.
Ayton, still raw at 22 and often criticized for his lack of intensity and conditioning, says he welcomes a reality check from the savvy vet.
“We’ve got more to go. We’re gonna have those teammates that say yo, we ain't done nothin’, bro. Relax, you ain't done nothing. You know what I’m saying? We’re gonna have that maturity on the team that says we’re not there yet fellas," he said.
Alongside Paul in the backcourt will be Devin Booker, the young superstar shooting guard who exploded on the scene last summer, averaging over 30 points in leading the Suns to eight-straight wins in Orlando when the NBA resumed its schedule after a COVID-19 break. While they missed the postseason, Booker believes they gained confidence.
“We definitely had some great energy building throughout the bubble. And we took tremendous steps with the addition of the players that we added with a lot of IQ and guys that know how to play the game. So, I think everyone in this locker room is locked in," Booker said.
Another experienced veteran added via free agency was 30-year-old small forward Jae Crowder, fresh off playing big minutes as a member of a Miami Heat team that made the NBA finals.
The more the merrier, says Monty Williams in this strange season.
“You need depth. We have 72 games in a short period of time with the virus running rampant. You just never know who’s gonna be out a few days, a few games and so depth is going to be paramount”
As will patience — and the diligence to avoid infections that could put an already tenuous season at risk. An off-the-court reality for Paul, who is also president of the NBA Players Association.
“Everybody involved, the league, the players, the union, everybody with the teams ... everybody is working daily to figure things out. Again, this is uncharted territory," Paul said.
Ayton says the hardest part of playing during a pandemic may be doing it without the smiling faces of fans to cheer them on, at least initially.
“We’re also playing for the fans, and we know that. It’s like any artist — we want our fans to listen to our music, we want our fans to see us. We want our fans — to entertain our fans. We’re entertainers.”
This year’s Suns hope by the time the fans return and the virus is controlled, the franchise will be well on its way to breaking a decade-long playoff absence. And we can all party like it’s 2010 again.