New-look Suns come out of bubble, into spotlight

Guard Chris Paul, left, who the Suns acquired from the Thunder this month, has elevated many players around him. Phoenix hopes he’ll do the same for Devin Booker, right, and the rest of the team. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – After a disrupted 2019-20 season that ended in a bubble at Walt Disney World, the Phoenix Suns have undergone an offseason makeover that they hope will build on their surprising 8-0 run in Orlando that followed the COVID-19 interruption.

The Suns pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul. They made a splash in free agency, signing big man Jae Crowder. They opened a new practice facility, the $45-million Verizon 5G Performance Center.

They even broke out new NBA City Edition alternative “The Valley” jerseys.

And earlier this month, the National Basketball Players Association and the NBA agreed to start a shortened and condensed 72-game schedule on Dec. 22.

The new-look Suns are set to start this week in a one-on-one bubble setting at the practice facility, with group workouts beginning Dec. 4, according to General Manager James Jones, who spoke with reporters in a Zoom media conference Monday.

Jones anticipates a challenging season amid the continuing spread of COVID-19, but believes the team can prosper if time is properly managed. Among other challenges, he said the 72-game season will be played in a shorter span, requiring more back-to-back games.

“We look forward to this week, where our guys can be on the court – one coach, one player,” he said. “(And) try to get ourselves back into game rhythm and shape, and then we’ll build up to our five-on-five group activities heading into next week.”

Jones said he feels good about what the club has added to its roster, and is confident new key players will fit right into a group that includes All-Star guard Devin Booker and center Deandre Ayton, who was the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and figures to benefit from the arrival of the 35-year-old Paul.

“I’m excited for them because this is a competitive environment, I’m looking forward to watching our guys compete. I know that we did some things this summer, as far as improving the team,” Jones said.

“Just adding guys to the team is never, and has never been, the goal. The goal for us is winning, the goal for us is … creating a playoff atmosphere and bringing a playoff approach to every single game.”

After the changes, the Suns are now regarded as a playoff contender. They have not appeared in the postseason since 2010, when they lost in the Western Conference finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers went on to win the NBA championship that season, and they won again last season. But the Lakers, Eastern Conference champion Miami and every other NBA team are faced with one of the shortest offseasons in NBA history, with only a seven week break for the two finals teams.

Important matters like salaries, COVID-19 testing, and other health and safety issues are still being negotiated. Jones said Monday that he isn’t privy to discussions regarding vaccinating players for COVID-19, and hasn’t heard that taking a vaccine will be mandatory.

Providing athletes with a vaccine, once one is available, and with a healthy environment is a priority for Jones as the Suns prepare to tip off the preseason with a pair of games in Utah Dec. 12-13.

“The guys aren’t obligated to take it,” Jones said of a vaccine. “We will do whatever we can to make sure that we keep our guys healthy and safe, and administer it if we can for those who want it.

“Our best course of action is to continue to adhere to the NBA’s protocols, to isolate as much as we can, maintain distance. We will still have to interact with other teams and players. The hope is that, collectively as a league, we can keep this thing under control and try to mitigate the damage that will come from the positive test that eventually will happen.”

According to the Associated Press, the NBA saw revenues drop by 10% last season because of the pandemic, coming in $1.5-billion short of revenue projections.

The upcoming season is likely to have challenges as well.

Although the Suns have not yet made an official statement saying they will not allow any fans during their games, the Los Angeles Lakers and others have announced that they will not allow fans to attend games until further notice, noting the importance of health and safety for their fans, and working together in hopes to bring them back.

“We appreciate your continued support and look forward to coming together, when it is safe to do so, to celebrate the raising of our banner and the quest for another NBA championship,” the Lakers said in an announcement.

The NBA’s goal is to complete the 2020-21 season before the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start July 23rd, allowing them to return to their regular season in October.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Frida Mata was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and expects to graduate in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in communication. Mata likes to dig up stories and bring light to key issues.