The Phoenix Suns are up 2-1 over the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA Western Conference Finals right now. It’s an incredibly strange sentence to be writing, one that I don’t think anyone even in June of last year would have ever expected to write. It’s also one that is difficult to write, because as cool as it is to see the Suns thriving and no matter how happy I am to see joy in The Valley, it’s just another team that has surpassed the Portland Trail Blazers in the title race.
I’m not trying to be bitter by making the Suns’ success about the Blazers. I actually want them to win it all (or the Atlanta Hawks, because that would also just be strange). It’s just hard to believe. Just two years ago we were making fun of Phoenix because their GM had a goat defacate in his office. Now, they’re two wins away from heading to the NBA Finals. It’s an incredible turn of fortune that is rare in sports. It’s a jarring thing, especially when you realize that just two years ago it was the Blazers who were in the Western Conference Finals.
Looking at Phoenix, I can’t help but wonder how the Blazers weren’t the ones in their position. How did the Suns overtake the Blazers in such a short period of time? Well, it wasn’t just luck; it was because of their willingness to make the big move while hitting on the margins.
What Phoenix Did
The Suns traded for Chris Paul this offseason. It was the perfect move for Phoenix. They dumped Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, and Jalen Lecque, tacked a first round pick on to make Oklahoma City happy, and got in return the best pure point guard of the last 16 years (and Abdel Nader). They added Paul to a roster that struggled during the regular season but went 8-0 in the bubble and almost made the playoffs.
When Paul joined the Suns, he immediately transformed the team. They were projected to be a team that maybe makes the playoffs as a lower seed before the season. Instead, they finished with the second-best record in the NBA, with Paul and Devin Booker leading the way. With that elite backcourt, the development of DeAndre Ayton, a coach of the year-worthy season from Monty Williams, and contributions from several role players, the Suns have blossomed into a stellar franchise.
Paul was an aging star with an albatross contract just two years ago. When he was in Oklahoma City, most thought it was just a quick stop before he would get traded to some unknown team willing to take on his $40 million a year contract. Instead, he kept the Thunder a playoff team and was once again one of the best point guards in the league.
The Suns saw that and instead of banking on the success they experienced in the bubble, they made a move to get better. There was certainly risk involved. It could’ve easily been construed as a move made too early before this team was ready. Besides, how much would a 35-year-old point guard really help? The answer: It could make you one of the best teams in the NBA. Phoenix swung and hit a home run. Phoenix had a sliver of an opening, and they shot the gap.
As a Blazers writer, it’s hard to look at the Chris Paul trade and not think about the Blazers. The truth is that it’s the exact kind of move that president of basketball operations Neil Olshey would have never pulled off, because Olshey is so content with just filling out the margins, believing that the core of the roster (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum) is so solid that it’s not worth breaking up. That has proved to not be the case.
The Players Portland Missed
Let’s take a look at some possible moves Portland could’ve made. Let’s start with James Harden, not because it was the most likely move, but because the fact it was a possibility meant that Olshey should’ve done whatever he could to make it happen. A move for Harden is the kind of thing that could have absolutely changed the trajectory of the Blazers. It would have taken a king’s ransom and more to do it, but it would’ve been worth it. Instead, he ended up forming a superteam in Brooklyn.
The next player worth mentioning is Paul George. Back in 2017, the forward was traded to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted at the time how weak the offer for George was, saying it was “an indication of the weakness of offers to Indiana” due to the fear that he would’ve left the next season. He did not leave OKC that next year. He only left after Damian Lillard ruined an entire franchise. He was traded for much more than in the Indiana trade.
The last non-trade worth noting is the Jimmy Butler trade. Butler wanted out of Minnesotta badly in 2018, and was traded to the Philadephia 76ers later that year for a package that was not too substantial. That package is probably a result of the fact that Butler hated the Timberwolves so much that he would’ve done just about anything to leave, but still, as we’ll touch on in a bit, it just means it was feasible for Portland.
So were these non-trades even doable? Let’s break it down. With the James Harden trade, Portland didn’t have the best trade package. As much as it was fun to dream of a scenario where Lillard and Harden existed in the same backcourt, there was no package that Portland could put together that would match what came out of the multi-team deal. This one might’ve been a pipe dream, asset-wise
The potential Paul George deal is a different story. Sabonis and Oladipo did both develop into all-stars, but they looked nothing like that during their time in Oklahoma City. The Blazers could have absolutely packaged CJ McCollum, some picks, and maybe another player to get George on the Blazers. There was absolutely a way to attain George, who despite being a favorite target of NBA Twitter, is still one of the best players in the association.
The Jimmy Butler deal would’ve been similar to the George one. Minnesota received Jeryyd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a 2022 second-round draft pick all for Butler and Justin Patton. Is that package really one that is much better than one centered around CJ McCollum and draft picks? I don’t think so. But that’s another thing Blazers fans will be left wondering about.
There are one, maybe two trades that Olshey can attempt to swing the franchise. The first is the Jusuf Nurkic trade. That was a huge get for very little cost, and despite the numerous injuries suffered throughout his time here in Portland, he’s been great for the team. But as much as he transformed Portland’s defense this season, we saw in the playoffs that with this current iteration of the Blazers he isn’t going to lift them out of a playoff series.
The second trade that could be argued as “big” for Portland was the move to acquire Robert Covington. RoCo was the exact kind of player that the Blazers have needed since forever — a reliable three-point shooter who provides excellent defense. He did just that for most of this season, providing excellent team defense and shooting almost 38% from three this year. But while Covington filled a need, it wasn’t the only need. It didn’t change the fact that Portland still needed a point-of-attack defender or a quality backup point guard or just flatly more defenders. As we saw, adding Covington was no panacea.
As Eric Griffith pointed out in his piece for the Willamette Week, Damian Lillard shoulders some of the blame here. His trademark loyalty is commendable, but certainly has played a role in shaping the roster. Lillard wants to win with McCollum; he’s made that much clear. That doesn’t mean that he’s right to think that, however. If anything, this last playoff series showed that, even after McCollum put together a career year, the shooting guard has his limitations. When it comes to partners for Lillard, McCollum simply isn’t it, but Lillard hasn’t wanted to admit that.
Trading for Paul wasn’t the only move that Phoenix made. Trading for Mikal Bridges on draft night back in 2018 was a huge boon to their team. Ayton is becoming an all-star center on both ends of the floor. The two Cams — Cam Johnson and Cam Payne — have been awesome in their roles, with Johnson providing that sweet three-and-D that the NBA craves right from the start and Payne transforming from an unplayable guard into a necessary backcourt staple. Jae Crowder has also, once again, proved to be an excellent free-agent signing.
Olshey and company haven’t even hit on the margins as well as Suns executive James Jones. Let’s start with the summer of 2016, an egregious example of GM malpractice. Signing Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe to deals with annual salaries of $10 million, $15 million, and $19 million respectively was incredibly bad. Signing Festus Ezeli that summer was also terrible. Moves like that are essentially ones where you’re bidding against yourself, which almost always lead to disappointment.
Beyond the summer of 2016, you have other misfires also. There’s the Aaron Afflalo trade in 2015, the MLE used on Derrick Jones Jr., the Mario Hezonja and Hassan Whiteside experiments (although Whiteside was admittedly a stopgap more than anything), and several other moves made it so that the Blazers would never reach the heights they’ve wanted to attain.
The reality is that the Suns are primed to make the NBA Finals just two years after being a laughing stock of the league. Meanwhile, the Blazers are facing an identity crisis just two years removed from making the Western Conference Finals without their starting center. It’s a stark contrast, with one team showing a willingness to take swings and another displaying the perils of passivity.
The big lesson that the Blazers should take away from what the Suns have accomplished is that making a big move matters. It’s a scary thing to do. The big trade is always a franchise-altering move, and it doesn’t always alter things for the better. But the chance to do something more and to not squander away the prime years of your best player’s career is more than worth the risk. The Suns aren’t letting that happen with Devin Booker. The Blazers are letting it happen with Lillard.
Phoenix figured out the importance of making swings. It’s time for Portland to learn too.