PHOENIX – A season ago, the Phoenix Suns looked like a completely different organization than it does today as the team prepares to take the court at the Chase Center in San Francisco to open the 2023-24 season Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors.
Robert Sarver was an embattled owner who had just been suspended for one year after an investigation commissioned by the NBA found he had engaged in conduct that “clearly violated command workplace standards,” including “racially insensitive language” and “sexually related statements and conduct.”
Monty Williams was beginning his fourth season as head coach. The roster included some of the Valley’s favorite Suns in recent years, led by guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Young forwards Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, dubbed “the twins,” were like brothers on and off the court. And center Deandre Ayton was still trying to establish himself on the court and with the Phoenix fan base.
Now as the Suns enter the 2023-24 NBA season, Booker is one of the few key pieces of the organization who remains from all of that, along with general manager James Jones and associate head coach Kevin Young.
Booker also is the only player remaining from the Suns squad that lost to Milwaukee in the NBA Finals just two seasons ago.
There is a new owner, a new head coach and a revamped roster that is studded with superstars, including Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.
There are even new Nike uniforms this season. It is a team a world away from what it looked like when the Suns were two victories away from a title in the 2021 NBA Finals against Milwaukee.
When new owner Mat Ishbia bought the Suns and Phoenix Mercury from Sarver and his partners in February, he made it clear his priority was building Phoenix into a champion on and off the floor.
Wasting no time in proving it, two days into his ownership he pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that landed Durant, giving the Suns a “Big Three” at the time of Booker, Paul and Durant.
However, during a pregame workout before his planned Suns debut against his first team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant attacked the basket from the mid-post area. Just as he sprung up to finish the basket with a layup or dunk, the left side of his left ankle turned to the floor. Durant collapsed on the court with an ankle sprain that would cause him to miss the next three weeks.
And when Paul left Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals with a groin injury, it epitomized a theme of the Suns’ second half of last season: injuries.
It also was the kind of break Phoenix fans have come to expect during the franchise’s star-crossed history. Despite some close calls, the Suns are still searching for their first NBA championship.
Undeterred, Ishbia kept his foot on the pedal during the offseason in an effort to leave those past misfortunes in the rearview mirror, aggressively continuing to retool the roster and coaching staff.
In a pair of three-team deals during the summer, the Suns sent Paul to the Washington Wizards (he was later moved to Golden State) and welcomed Beal. Then shortly before training camp opened, the Suns shipped Ayton, who was the No. 1-overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, to Portland as part of the blockbuster deal that sent All-Star Damian Lillard from Portland to Milwaukee.
Now wielding three of the top-scoring talents in the league, the Suns have reason to be confident going into a new season.
To appreciate the firepower the Suns now possess, consider that last season, Beal’s 23 points per game in Washington, Booker’s 27.8 in Phoenix, and Durant’s 29 points per game between Brooklyn and Phoenix would have accounted for 69 percent of the Suns’ scoring last season when they averaged 113 points per game.
“You can’t guard all of us at once,” Durant said about the Suns’ new Big Three. “Play fundamentally sound ball, don’t turn the ball over, rebound, and we’ll be in solid shape on offense.”
The Warriors probably won’t have to in tonight’s opener. Beal is listed as questionable with a back injury and reportedly is not expected to be in the lineup.
The Suns also have a mostly new coaching staff spearheaded by the highly respected Frank Vogel, who coached the Lakers to the 2020 NBA title and replaced Williams after consecutive Phoenix second-round exits.
Vogel arrives with a championship pedigree to go with a reputation for coaching up elite defenses.
However, despite his defensive mindset, this season could be unique for Vogel. The abundance of offense that fell into his lap will require a shift in philosophy for the veteran coach, with more emphasis on offense.
Don’t expect the Suns to neglect the defensive side of the ball, though; on the first day of training camp, Vogel said his two best defenders are Durant and Booker.
And newcomer Grayson Allen, who came to the Suns from Milwaukee as part of the three-team Lillard-Ayton deal, agreed.
“A lot of people think that guys that are good scorers and carry a heavy load offensively don’t really defend,” Allen said. “But KD’s a great defender; he defends all five positions. Book is a really good on-ball defender; he’s tough to screen because he’s really strong, and he’s got very good hands.
“So those guys are both good defenders, but they also have that mental focus on that side too; they’re not taking plays off.”
The season has yet to tip off, and Durant said Vogel already encourages the Suns’ Big Three to “be more aggressive” on offense as well.
Vogel said Booker and Beal will assume ball-handling roles since the Suns do not have a true point guard on the current roster. Durant also is capable of initiating offense. Booker has played point guard in the past with some success, but the Suns hope that with several players sharing the playmaking duties, the team will create high-percentage shots for all of them.
Vogel, a defensive specialist throughout his career, is leading a roster that is regarded as weak defensively and dynamic offensively, which means he might be adjusting as much as his players.
Jusuf Nurkic’s arrival in Phoenix to replace Ayton underscores the Suns’ effort to go all-in on offensively running teams off the floor.
Nurkic is a decent rim protector, but his impact will mostly be felt on the offensive side of the ball with his paint presence, passing ability and offensive rebounding ability. However, Vogel, who has a reputation for developing big men, knows Nurkic will have to excel on the boards for the Suns to be at their best.
“We’re going to force a lot of misses, and we got to board,” Vogel said. “We want to get out and be a running team. We need someone that’s going to go out and dominate the defensive boards, and he’s (Nurkic) elite at that.”
This season, depth and health will be critical to the Suns’ championship pursuit. Nevertheless, a team knows it’s in a good position when it enters the season with the biggest debate being who the fifth starter will be.
The Beal deal landed another two-way player, Allen, to pair with Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, two players who are being considered as options to start. But Beal said that Okogie would be the player tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player each night.
Adding veteran guard Eric Gordon gives the Suns another player with nuclear scoring capabilities to lead the bench and potentially start a few games in case of injury or scheme. But the Suns’ unique offensive firepower continues beyond there.
The addition of 7-foot-2 center-forward Bol Bol potentially gives the Suns a special weapon who can ball-handle, block shots and knock down perimeter jump shots while towering over defenders. Whether Bol progresses or not, Phoenix will be a match-up nightmare for opponents.
Despite the influx of considerable talent in the offseason, Phoenix will enter the 2023-24 season with the fourth-best odds of winning the NBA title behind Boston, Milwaukee and Denver, according to Caesar’s Sportsbook.
However, if the current roster avoids serious injuries, the Suns could have their best opportunity to win an NBA title this season. The Suns have reached the NBA Finals three times previously and lost each time.
Their trip to The Finals in 1976 was unexpected. Like this season, the Suns were among the league favorites in 1992-93 after Charles Barkley arrived by trade. And two years ago, despite Paul’s arrival, the Suns were again not expected to make a deep playoff run but advanced to The Finals, where they lost to Milwaukee.
Now, they’ll try to navigate through a Western Conference field that appears to be loaded. Denver is the defending NBA champion. The Lakers have revamped their roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And the Warriors won the championship in 2022 and appear ready to challenge again.
The Suns believe they’re up to the challenge.
“We just got to go play hard,” Booker said. “We don’t really measure (ourselves) against anybody. Obviously, Denver is the reigning champs, so everybody in the NBA should be chasing them. Outside of that, we’re focused on (ourselves). If we take care of that, it’ll put us in a good position.”
It won’t take long to get an idea of where the Suns stand. After opening against the Warriors, Phoenix travels to Los Angeles to face the Lakers. The Suns’ home opener is Saturday against the Utah Jazz at Footprint Center.