PHOENIX (AP) — There were many things Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams enjoyed about his lengthy offseason, particularly the opportunity to relax for a long period for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic condensed the league’s schedule in 2020.
But the reasons for that extended rest led to a nagging question.
“Why am I cutting down trees in Texas, when I should be practicing?” Williams said.
It’s safe to say the Phoenix Suns haven’t completely gotten over last year’s Game 7 debacle against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. The 123-90 loss was one of the most embarrassing playoff defeats — particularly at home — in NBA history. It was a shocking and sudden end after a 64-win regular season, which led the NBA and was the best mark in franchise history.
Now the Suns are back to try for a happier ending.
“We have some unfinished business around here,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said. “That’s what we’re working towards.”
The Suns have been one of the NBA’s best teams over the past few years, making the Finals in 2021 before losing to the Bucks in six games. The franchise was very good again last season, but flirted with big changes over the summer before ultimately deciding to bring back the majority of the nucleus.
That means Booker, fellow All-Star guard Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges are back. So is starting center Deandre Ayton, who signed a $133 million, four-year, deal during the offseason after the Suns matched an offer sheet from the Pacers.
Booker signed a $224 million, four-year supermax deal during the offseason, cementing the guard’s place as the face of the franchise. The 25-year-old has grown into one of the NBA’s top scorers, averaging more than 25 points over the past five seasons.
This is Booker’s eighth NBA season — all in Phoenix — and he’s helped lift the Suns from one of the league’s worst to one of the best.
“Everything that I’ve always dreamed of, the chance to play meaningful basketball, playoff basketball, chances to compete for an NBA title, that’s my goal,” Booker said. “I’m not going to stop until I get it.”
Suns owner Robert Sarver has said he has started the process of selling the Suns and Phoenix Mercury.
The move came barely a week after he was suspended by the NBA for a year over workplace misconduct that included racist speech and hostile behavior toward employees.
The Suns have faced many questions about Sarver’s misconduct. Paul — now in his 18th NBA season — said he’s tried to make sure his teammates know that he has their back.
“You’re in a locker room where it ranges from 19 to 37 and everyone wants to put a microphone in their face and ask them how they feel about things they can’t control,” Paul said. “So my first instinct is to be protective, because I was worried about my guys and how people take a sound bite.”
It’s fair to wonder how much the 37-year-old Paul has left in the tank.
He played like he was a decade younger for much of last season, averaging 14.7 points and an NBA-high 10.8 assists per game. But he faded some in the playoffs — particularly in the Mavericks series — and there’s little doubt Williams will want to manage Paul’s workload during the regular season.
The one major contributor from last season that probably won’t be on this year’s roster is Jae Crowder.
The 32-year-old Crowder has averaged about 10 points per game for the Suns the past two seasons, but was most valuable for the defense, rebounding and toughness he provided.
Even so, Crowder was likely going to lose his starting spot this season to Cam Johnson, who was one of the finalists for NBA Sixth Man of the Year last season. The Suns and Crowder agreed that he would not come to training camp while the team explored the possibility of a trade.
The Suns will look very similar in their starting five, but the bench had a significant makeover during the offseason.
General manager James Jones added guards Duane Washington Jr., Damion Lee, Frank Jackson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, along with forwards Jock Landale and Josh Okogie. All of them could have some sort of role.