The Phoenix Suns have captured the imagination with their new core. But the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies still have everything they need.
Whenever an All-Star nucleus assembles, the expectation is that all other teams must acquiesce their fates. This is a mentality shaped by holding too dear to the tenets of empire-building. Neither history nor basketball is ever that simple. If trusting the process was ever a real thing, now would be the time to hold true.
By trading for Kevin Durant, the Phoenix Suns quickly vaulted to being favorites for the NBA title once again.
Whether the team truly is the favorite will most likely play out over the remainder of the regular season. The health status of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and even Kevin Durant is a concern, as is the motivation and focus of Deandre Ayton, but the obvious pieces are in play. Doubting the chemistry of it all is probably the most likely reason not to say, yeah, the Suns are the prohibitive favorite. The team gave up two good-for-the-locker-room guys in Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges, and recent history suggests lead in the groundwater. Not to mention Kevin Durant has been in this position before with a wide array of results.
But this should all work in ways that maybe the Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden never could. Are the Phoenix Suns a super team? They just added a top-five all-time per-game scorer to a core that includes a Point God and a third star who is every bit the offensive talent as Kyrie. Plus whatever Deandre Ayton is and will be.
Booker and Ayton were drafted by Phoenix. Paul and Durant joined the team via trades. This trajectory seems to align with an earlier model set a decade ago in Miami, or even a few years before that in Boston. Shout out to the Kobe and Shaq Lakers as well. The alternative runs in the direction of the aforementioned Brooklyn Nets, the Brooklyn Nets that predate the aforementioned Brooklyn Nets, the late 1990s Houston Rockets, and probably a whole host of other teams oft-forgotten. The factors that bend this team toward the light are likely Chris Paul’s urgency and Devin Booker’s youth. Oh, and Kevin Durant.
How do the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets deal with the Phoenix Suns?
Immediately following Phoenix’s acquisition of Durant fans of the Denver Nuggets took to self-deprecating. Jabs were also taken at Ja Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies for his having counted all his proverbial chickens before they hatched: “I’m fine in the West.”
I think Ja is correct on this even if he’s wrong. I think Nikola Jokić probably thinks this too even if he never said it. And Memphis and Denver as organizations kind of have to trust in what their main guys believe even if what their main guys believe cannot be validated for the time being. A similar pact has been made between the Portland Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard. Lillard is now 32. He and the organization perhaps made all the wrong decisions, but the right decisions were nearly impossible.
No way of building a team is ethically superior to any other at this level of play. To assume a moral high ground would be naivety. What teams must do is build through the best mechanisms available to them. For Denver and Memphis who are in large part young teams on the cusp, that mechanism has been the draft. As small market teams who have never reached the Finals, the underdog identity is a real one, making the play and fighting spirit of Jokić and Morant easy to embrace depending on one’s geography. And just as Phoenix’s quick fix is not without precedent neither is the road either Denver or Memphis is on.
The Golden State Warriors, while playing in a larger market, built through the draft. San Antonio is another obvious example, but so are Giannis’ Milwaukee Bucks and Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks before that. Whereas Golden State and San Antonio accumulated Hall of Famers with late-round draft picks, the Milwaukee and Dallas analogs are particularly interesting because each team drafted its Finals MVP and then through a series of calamitous events was forced to fill out its roster in a variety of clever moves and acquisitions. Neither team was in position to ever make the obvious move, but the crafty one that kept the team in a position to win: Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler.
Milwaukee grabbed an NBA title in a gap year between Golden State runs. Dallas took a title that was supposedly promised to the Miami Heat. San Antonio asserted itself as the Shaq and Kobe Lakers crumbled (as did the 2004 Detroit Pistons).
Even when super teams are successful, they leave titles on the table. Even as they are being assembled, they tend to crack. Teams like Denver and Memphis have to be at the ready to fill those voids. They have to believe the players they have assembled are what they say they are. The situation that’s more difficult to imagine is that they are both correct about their own identities.
But the only option is to stay the course and stare into the light.
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