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Will Unlikely Suns-Bucks Finals Change How NBA Teams Operate?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IJuly 11, 2021

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) walks past Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo during the second half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

The Milwaukee Bucks haven't won an NBA title in 50 years.

And the Phoenix Suns?

Despite having the NBA's seventh-best franchise winning percentage of all time, Phoenix has seen the sun set on its season short of a title every year since its inception in 1968.

But for one of these clubs, that thirst for a championship will be sated in the coming days. 

And as league executives look on at the journey both took to get here, there are lessons learned for all.

Several executives and scouts point to the Suns as challenging the theory that building a championship-caliber team is an arduous process that requires postseason heartbreak before eventually breaking through.

"I guess they didn't get the memo," quipped an Eastern Conference executive. "I don't care what anyone tells you, nobody—nobody—saw the Suns getting this far, this soon."

For NBA clubs, team-building is often viewed as a four- or five-year process, which is one of the reasons most new coaches wind up with—you guessed it—four- or five-year deals. 

Might Phoenix's quicker-than-expected rise change the length franchises feel they need to take to build a title contender, or relieve the pressure to assemble an overnight superteam akin to the Brooklyn Nets this past season, the LeBron James-led squads in Miami or the Boston Celtics with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen?

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"Nah. I don't think so," said the Eastern Conference executive. "Not taking away from what those guys did this year, but so many things have to break right to get where they are, and that's what happened."

However, a Western Conference executive believes there will be organizations that will see Phoenix's fast rise as a reason to speed up title-contending expectations, which will put even more pressure on front offices to get it right with draft picks and free agents.

"Sure, there's some luck involved for them; for any team getting that far," said the Western Conference executive. "But look at their team. They have a young star, Devin Booker, who is talented and low-key tougher than most people thought before the playoffs started. They have multiple leaders, multiple guys that are young and on the rise, and multiple guys who are playing the redemption card after others gave up on them." 

The Western Conference executive added, "a lot of things broke their way, but those are breaks that they created for themselves because their leaders made moves that, give them credit, worked out really well for them."

          

Leadership's Impact

Matt York/Associated Press

Bucks forward P.J. Tucker is not one of Milwaukee's best scorers and doesn't have a deep-rooted past with the franchise. But league executives are in agreement that Tucker's presence as a leader in his first season with the team has been one of the more below-the-radar keys to Milwaukee's postseason success.

One of the most pivotal moments in the Bucks' journey came in Game 3 of their second-round series against Brooklyn, when Tucker and Kevin Durant, both standouts at the University of Texas, got into it before being separated by officials.

It resulted in double technical fouls. But more importantly, it sent a message to not just the Nets but also Tucker's teammates that he was not going to be bullied or let anyone talk down to him or the Bucks—not even Durant. 

"This is … I will die out there," Tucker said on the eve of Milwaukee's Game 7 win over the Nets. "I'm living my dream. I'm not backing down from nothing. I'm fighting for every inch."

An Eastern Conference scout added, "He's perfect for what the Bucks needed, and for us already looking ahead to next year, finding a glue guy like P.J. is something you just have to do."

For the Suns, Chris Paul's leadership has been largely credited for Phoenix's success. While no one will argue against that, multiple executives and scouts point to how the Phoenix "doubled down" on leadership's importance by bringing in both Paul and Jae Crowder. 

While the latter doesn't bring nearly as much cachet to the game as Paul, he has proved to be exactly what the Suns needed to get to the ultimate round, which for Crowder, is his second straight year in the Finals (last season he was with the Miami Heat, who lost to the Los Angeles Lakers).

"Jae's a dog, and I say that as a compliment," remarked the East scout. "He can shoot a little and guard lots of positions. But it's what he does in practice to push guys. It's the talking he does during games. Right after Chris and Devin, Jae's the biggest reason those guys are where they are."

The East scout pointed out how the biggest disappointments (Boston, Indiana, Portland and New Orleans, for example), all had leadership issues.

"You can win with a lot of questions about your team, but if leadership is one of them, you're done," the East scout said. "And it's not really about whether you have good leaders or not, but do you have the right ones? And are those who need to follow, willing to follow? Phoenix has the perfect blend of leaders. Chris Paul is the leader, Devin and Jae are next, and the rest of the team falls in line. Leadership for most teams is a little messier than that."

         

The Rest (for Players) Is History?

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Clippers once again went the load-management route with Kawhi Leonard, who missed 20 games during the campaign. 

In Boston, the Celtics kept Kemba Walker away from playing in back-to-back games all season. 

Those teams were among those in the postseason that had some of their best players in the role of spectator rather than starring on the biggest stage of them all, when the games mattered most.

It has raised some questions as to how much, if at all, load management has helped players and teams stay healthy.

"Resting is up over 100 percent this season from last season," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters when asked about load management's future use in the league. "And the issue which we're trying to get to the root of is—does resting work, frankly? Does load management work? And there are different theories out there on it.

He added:

"What's most surprising (is) it's not just about injuries up this season; we have seen this upward trend for several years. And you would like to believe that with the investment, the level of sophistication, the number of doctors, the amount of analytics we look at, the data that we collect that we couldn't in the old days, that putting the pandemic aside, we would have seen improvements. And we haven't seen that yet."

And while Paul has certainly had his share of injuries throughout his career, the 36-year-old has not embraced the load-management approach, missing just two games this season and just two a year ago. 

Will teams modify or tweak their use of load management?

"If it'll get you to the Finals, you're damn right teams will change," said the Eastern Conference scout. "But I don't think anyone knows for sure. I know CP3 has been good to go healthwise for the most part the last couple of years. But I think that has more to do with his diet [Paul has embraced a vegan diet since 2019-2020] than anything else."

Paul played in 70 of the Suns' 72 regular-season games this season. And while Giannis Antetokounmpo missed 11 games for the Bucks, he still averaged 33.0 minutes per contest—the most for the two-time MVP since 2017-2018.

Regardless of how much or how little players rest during the regular season, the pressure to perform is always great come playoff time. 

The Suns and the Bucks have shown themselves capable of handling that pressure, and more times than not, finding a way to emerge with a win. 

For one of those teams, that journey of self-discovery will end soon. 

And when it does, it will be no different than the other 28 NBA franchises that will take what they can from the Finals and use those lessons in hopes of building a title contender sooner rather than later.

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