Raise your hand if you picked the Phoenix Suns to be the Western Conference champions before the season started.
Yeah, didn’t think so.
But it wasn’t unreasonable to doubt Phoenix. After all, the Suns entered the season as perpetual cellar dwellers who had gone 121-280 (.302) in the previous five seasons and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009-10. They have been objectively worse than the Charlotte Hornets in recent years. But despite that dismal track record, the Suns made the NBA Finals this year. Let’s look at Phoenix’s template for success and how it matches up with the Hornets current rebuild.
The highly-paid veteran All-Star: Chris Paul / Gordon Hayward
Some of you might not remember this, but Chris Paul failed to make the All-Star team for three consecutive seasons from 2016-17 through 2018-19, his age 31 through 33 seasons. He was still really good but he looked past his prime and had just signed a 4-year, $160 million contract. As CP3’s age increased and his productivity declined, his contract in 2018 was called “nearly untradable” by The Ringer, “an anvil” by Vice Sports, and “concerning” by ESPN. Fast forward a couple of seasons and Chris Paul is once again an All-Star and the veteran leader who propelled the Suns to prominence.
Hornets fans can hope Gordon Hayward can do the same. Hayward turned 31 in March and is coming off an injury-hampered season in which he averaged 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, putting him in elite company. Look, Gordon Hayward isn’t Chris Paul. Paul is a surefire Hall of Famer while Hayward belongs in the “Hall of the Very Good”. But if Hayward can stay healthy and have a Chris Paul-like All-Star level resurgence over the next couple of seasons, his 4-year, $120 million contract will be money well spent.
The difference-making Top 3 pick: Deandre Ayton / LaMelo Ball
Rebuilding teams need to nail high draft picks. Phoenix invested the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 in Deandre Ayton and he has been good through three seasons (16.0 PPG, 10.6 RPG) but not transcendent. Then in this year’s playoffs he elevated his game and flashed All-Star potential.
Speaking of All-Star potential...the Hornets absolutely nailed this year’s No. 3 pick in LaMelo Ball, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Ball clearly has more upside and ability to impact the game than Ayton, so the advantage here goes to Charlotte.
The No. 12-13 pick who makes the leap: Devin Booker / Miles Bridges
The Suns drafted Devin Booker No. 13 overall in 2015. He spent the first four years of his career trying to shed the dreaded “good stats, bad team” label. He continued elevating his game each season resulting in back-to-back All-Star selections over the last two years while establishing himself among the NBA’s elite players in this year’s playoff run.
Miles Bridges was selected No. 12 overall in 2018 by the Hornets. While his stats aren’t nearly as flashy as Booker’s through three seasons, Bridges absolutely busted out at the end of this past year. Over his last 19 games he averaged a solid 20.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists. He shot 51.6% from the floor and an eye-popping 43.6% from the 3-point line on seven attempts per game. While Bridges doesn’t have Booker’s elite upside, he has at least proven to have the ability to be an effective No. 1 option when his team needs him. Don’t be surprised to see Bridges among the leading candidates for Most Improved Player next year.
The “good enough” younger players: Mikal Bridges / PJ Washington & Devonte’ Graham
Mikal Bridges, the No. 10 pick in 2018, just finished his third season with the Suns and averaged 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.9 3-pointers per game.
PJ Washington, the No. 12 pick in 2019, just completed his second season in Charlotte and averaged 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.8 3-pointers per outing.
But the Hornets get a bonus in this category in Devonte’ Graham. He regressed a little in his third NBA season by averaging 14.8 points (on just 37.7% shooting) and 5.4 assists per game. His role will continue to shift as LaMelo Ball will take even more control of the offense next year, but Graham is a legitimate starter, scorer, and distributor. He will be a restricted free agent this coming offseason.
While none of these guys are true difference makers, they all know their roles and perform them well.
The veteran X-factors: Jae Crowder / Terry Rozier
Neither of these guys get enough credit for what they bring to the table. While they play different positions, both Crowder and Rozier provide veteran toughness, savvy, and effectiveness in spades. Terry brings more potency on the offensive end (he averaged 20.4 points and 4.2 assists this season) while Jae is a decent enough scorer (10.1 PPG) but an elite defender who can cover multiple positions.
In some ways, the Hornets are following a similar path as the Phoenix Suns. The mix of veterans, youth, and role players somewhat mirror each other. But if Charlotte wants to replicate the magic Phoenix captured this season, a number of “ifs” will need to go their way. The Hornets can contend within the next two years if Gordon Hayward recaptures his previous All-Star form (like Chris Paul did), if LaMelo Ball elevates his game (like Deandre Ayton), and if Miles Bridges “makes the leap” over the next season or two (like Devin Booker). The rest of the Hornets players will also need to capably fill their roles and form a team where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, which is exactly what Phoenix did this year.
The 2020-21 Phoenix Suns taught us any team can pivot from cellar-dweller to championship contender almost overnight.
Why not the Hornets?