With the final regular-season games coming to an end this weekend, it’s time to take a look back at one of the major surprises of the NBA Bubble: The Phoenix Suns. The Suns came into the bubble as the 13th seed in the Western Conference, posting a 26-39 record. Inside the bubble they went a perfect 8-0 en route to finishing tied for 9th place in the conference, narrowly missing out on playoffs due to a tiebreaker with the Memphis Grizzlies. As Head Coach Monty Williams said after the game, “This is special. Don’t let anybody take this away from you. You gained the respect of the league.”
That respect made the two favorites for the No. 8 seed, Memphis and the Portland Trail Blazers, sweat to the very end.
When the plans for a restart came to fruition in early June, many experts and analysts were curious as to why teams like the Suns would be asked to join the rest of the playoff-eligible teams in Orlando. Many power rankings pre-bubble had the Suns listed as the second-worst team, only behind the Washington Wizards of the Eastern Conference.
Phoenix was led by their young superstar Devin Booker, who is the preemptive favorite for Bubble MVP alongside the likes of Damian Lillard and T.J. Warren. Booker finished averaging over 30 points per game and over six assists during this eight-game stretch. His best performance came against the Clippers where he scored 35 points including a game-winning shot as time expired over Paul George for a 117-115 win.
“That’s life, man,” Booker said to ESPN’s Nick Friedell when asked about 8-0 being not good enough. “We’re controlling what we can control. That’s the eight games that we play in. So I’m proud of my guys regardless. We came in here with the right mindset, and it could have been different. People could have been frustrated, coming off of a four-month hiatus straight to basketball and leaving your family.”
This showing in Orlando is a great sign of things to come for Phoenix, who have a young core that will look to build upon their successes into next season. In addition to Booker, the Suns have a roster full of players and contributors under the age of 25, including the former number one overall pick Deandre Ayton and 2020 first-round pick Cameron Johnson. Ayton has averaged a double-double in his first two seasons and finished in the top three in votes for the 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year. Johnson began the 2020 season with a slow start, averaging less than seven points a game, but inside the bubble, he has averaged over 11 points per game and is shooting roughly 44% from behind the arc.
For head coach Monty Williams, his team earned his respect.
“You saw our DNA on display,” Williams said on Thursday. “That’s who we are, from the first day of practice in training camp we’ve been playing that way. And we understood all along for us to win that’s the way we’d have to play. I’m proud of the guys that have played that hard for us all season long.”
His appreciation for his squad spilled out in an emotional post-game speech following the Suns win over the Mavericks.
With a lottery pick coming up for the 2020 Draft, the Suns will look to add more talent to their young roster via the draft or a draft-night trade to acquire a proven veteran. Phoenix traded away the sixth overall pick (Jarrett Culver) in the 2019 draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves for forward Dario Saric and the rights to the 11th overall pick (Cameron Johnson). In his first season with the Suns, Saric averaged over 10 points and six rebounds per game. One position that the Suns may consider looking at would be a point guard, a pass-first option to compliment the shooting of Booker as well as the pick and roll game for Ayton.
With their season coming to an end, there are many positives that the Suns’ staff can take from their time in the bubble and they can use this momentum towards making the playoffs for the first time since losing the Western Conference Finals in 2010.