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NBA playoffs: Was the Suns’ roster construction doomed from the start? It’s complicated

Credit: Phoenix Suns

It doesn’t take a savvy executive to weigh the following decision. Would you like Kevin Durant on your team?

The answer would be a resounding yes. The Oklahoma City Thunder cherished him before feeling burned that he left them. The Golden State Warriors pursued him even after already winning an NBA title and breaking the league’s all-time regular-season record. The Brooklyn Nets welcomed him less than a month after he ruptured his right Achilles tendon that automatically sidelined him for the following season.

So to be clear, the Phoenix Suns should have no regrets on acquiring Durant before the trade deadline. You make that deal 10 times out of 10. Although the Suns gave up plenty of depth to pursue Durant, they had to make this move beyond his credentials as the NBA’s most lethal and efficient scorer when healthy. Before making the deal, the Suns ranked fifth in the Western Conference without offering much confidence they would finally make up ground.

It certainly seemed reasonable that acquiring Durant would be the necessary move both to shake things up and thrust the Suns back into championship contention after falling short in the 2021 NBA Finals to Milwaukee (4-2) and flaming out in the second-round the following year to Dallas (4-2). The Suns won eight regular-season games with Durant, who showed he doesn’t need much on-court time with the Suns’ core players both to play at his best and to fit in with the group.

But with the Suns facing an 0-2 second-round series deficit to the Denver Nuggets, it is fair to raise the following questions. Can the Suns absorb an injury to any of their star players? Are the Suns’ top-heavy talent enough to overcome their lack of depth?

The answer to both questions would be a resounding no. Suns guard Chris Paul missed most of the half of Game 2 with a left groin tightness. Even before the Athletic reported the Suns are preparing for Paul to miss games 3 through 5, they already seemed concerned ahead of time given his lengthy injury history during the playoffs with the LA Clippers, Houston Rockets and even the Suns. Booker has taken his game to a higher level during the postseason against the Clippers (37.2 points on 60.2%) and the Nuggets (31 points on 48.3%). Durant had been efficient against the Clippers (28.4 points on 51.8%) and in Game 1 against Denver (26.5 points on 63.2%) before having an off night in Game 2 (24 points on 37%).

Either setup puts Durant and Booker with the seemingly impossible position to need to average at least 35-40 points a game just for a chance to win.

In fairness, the Denver Nuggets represent the perfect team to expose the Suns’ lack of depth. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has posted more MVP-type performances in the series in points (31.5), shooting percentage (51%), rebounds (17.5) and assists (5.0). Denver guard Jamal Murray has played with the type of aggressiveness and crafty playmaking that made him so dangerous both in the NBA bubble and in general before injuring his ACL in his left knee at the end of the 2020-21 campaign. Michael Porter Jr finally looks healthy and efficient. Aaron Gordon has complemented Jokic well with additional scoring and hustle plays. Oh yeah, the Nuggets also have a few decent defensive perimeter options with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown.

But at any point in the playoffs, the Suns appeared possibly vulnerable with their lack of depth. Denver has exposed it very early.

Phoenix doesn’t have anyone outside of Durant, Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton averaging double figures. Cameron Payne has remained limited amid a recent lower back injury. Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie and Damion Lee have brought occasional scoring punch and defensive intensity, but in limited playing time. Phoenix coach Monty Williams tried to stretch his rotation against the LA Clippers in the first round while missing Paul George (sprained right knee) for the whole series and Kawhi Leonard (torn meniscus in right knee) for Games 3-5. Yet, Williams become uncomfortable with doing so because of how much the Suns needed their stars just to squeak past a resilient Clippers team.

“It’s something I’ve talked to the guys about as I’m watching and going over our rotation template,” Williams said during the Suns’ first-round series against the Clippers. “But at the end of the day, the goal is to win the game. There is a balance there, for sure. But I’m also mindful of it. We’re going to try to see where we can do it.”

The Suns have yet to see where they can. No doubt, Phoenix could sure use Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder in these moments. But that shouldn’t mean the Suns should regret dealing them in the Durant trade. Though Bridges stayed remarkably consistent with his durability, secondary scoring and perimeter defense, he did not help the Suns enough with absorbing overlapping injuries to Paul, Booker and Ayton earlier in the season. Though Crowder has helped any team he has played on with 3-point shooting and perimeter defense, Crowder and the Suns remained at odds over his role that he had no desire to return under any circumstance.

Nor should the Suns regret with investing in Paul. Despite his checkered post-season injury history, Paul has also shown surprising durability at times during the late stages of his career. He helped Booker take his game to another level. He held Ayton more accountable. With the Suns still experiencing learning curves, though, they still needed Paul around this season to manage everything. With Durant’s arrival, the Suns still needed a Hall-of-Fame caliber point guard that could ensure a balanced offense.

As much as the Suns made an excellent choice with acquiring Durant, they also did so because they lacked other good options. The Warriors landed Durant by brilliantly managing their cap flexibility just as the salary cap spiked. Though the Nets dealt D’Angelo Russell to Golden State to land Durant via sign-and-trade, Durant joined a Nets team with a talented albeit unpredictable point guard (Kyrie Irving) and a lot of depth they eventually squandered. As for Phoenix, it essentially gambled its car because it was the only way to retrieve the house back at the poker table.

There still is a chance for that scenario to happen. Durant can shake off a poor Game 2. Booker can maintain his strong play. Ayton can increase his aggressiveness. Paul still has a few days to heal his injury at least enough to feel comfortable to play. Williams can find at least one or two dependable reserves for more minutes. Still, the Nuggets have exposed the Suns already on an issue that can derail their NBA title hopes.

Phoenix currently has a top-heavy team equipped equipped to contend for an NBA title with talent, basketball smarts and complementary styles of play. But the Suns are only an off night or an injury away from being one of the league’s most vulnerable teams in the playoffs. It raises a red flag in and of itself that the Suns have raised this red flag this early in the postseason.

Mark Medina is a veteran NBA reporter who will be contributing to Aaron Torres Online and Aaron Torres Media throughout the NBA playoffs - follow him on Twitter @MarkG_Medina

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