Winner Stays: Suns or the field?

Round four of our weekly debate column discusses who should be the favorite to win the NBA title.

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) celebrates a blocked shot with guard Devin Booker (1) and forward Jae Crowder during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 17, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“Winner Stays” is a sports debate column.

There are few types of sports content as engaging as a good debate, and that’s exactly what “Winner Stays” is all about. Here’s how it works: Each week, two of Annenberg Media’s many excellent sports journalists will go head-to-head in debate over a certain topic. When we tweet the article from the @ANNMediaSports account, we’ll let you — the readers — decide who argued their point better via a simple Twitter poll. You’ll have 24 hours to cast your ballots. That week’s winner will stay on and debate someone new the following week. And so the cycle continues.

Returning columnist Sam Reno and Matthew Andrade bring you the much-belated edition No. 4.

Topic: Should you pick the Phoenix Suns or the field to win it all?

Sam Reno: Eight games.

That was the gap between the Suns and the rest of the NBA this season.

Phoenix finished with the league’s third-best defensive rating and fourth-best offensive rating this season. Only one other team finished top five in both — the young Memphis Grizzlies, who slotted in at fourth and fifth respectively.

The Valley Boys were just two wins away from getting their hands on the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien a season ago, and they returned all but one of their top 10 in minutes per game from that team.

Six of them are shooting 35% or better from beyond the arc on at least four attempts per game while seven are scoring in double figures on a nightly basis. Three are doing both: Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker.

Devin Booker.

The now three-time All-Star’s game somehow took another step forward this year, as he set career-highs in points, rebounds and steals as well as 3-point percentage and attempts.

Booker’s final per game averages come out to 26.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists. Only 12 other players in NBA history have averaged 25/5/5 on the team with the league’s best record … all 12 won the MVP.

The Suns came within inches — the difference between Giannis Antetokounmpo blocking Deandre Ayton in Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals or not — of the mountaintop in 2021.

Booker is now officially a bonafide superstar, perhaps the slight jump Phoenix needs to get across the finish line.

He leads this Suns team loaded with continuity, consistency and Finals experience, a combination none of the other long list of the league’s contenders can boast. It’s the Valley Boys and everyone else in the race for the 2022 NBA title.

Matthew Andrade: It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.

An eight-game lead at the end of the regular season is great, but does it really matter?

In the last five years, how many teams have won the title after finishing with the best record in the regular season?

None. The Suns could break that streak, but there’s no reason to limit your options to one team. There’s even less of a reason to limit yourself to a team struggling to beat 36-46 New Orleans in the first round.

Though the Suns made it past the roaring Pelicans, it’s hard to be confident with Phoenix even making it out of their own conference.

Example: the Warriors. You mentioned Devin Booker is having a career year. Golden State didn’t need its already proven stars to get better. Instead, the Warriors added another Splash Brother to the mix in Jordan Poole who already scored 30, 29, and 27 points in his first three playoff games.

The rest of Golden State’s starters didn’t miss a beat either. The team’s starters combined for at least 45% on 3-pointers in each of their first three playoff games.

Add in Stephen Curry coming off the bench (shooting 44% from beyond the arc) and I’d take the combined 3-point shooting from those six Warriors over the six Suns shooting over 35% individually.

Phoenix went 2-2 against the Warriors and Curry was out for the second Suns win. Just putting that out there.

Should the Suns even make it out of the West, they’ll likely find a potential two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo waiting for them. The Bucks look just as tough as they did last season when — you said it — they took down Phoenix in six games.

The Bucks are playing without Khris Middleton whose injury timeline will play a role in how deep of a run the team can make, but Milwaukee boat-raced the Bulls by 30 in Game 3 and Giannis wasn’t even the team’s highest scorer. Analysis: The Bucks will be fine with or without Middleton.

Another Finals matchup between Phoenix and Milwaukee won’t end much differently than last year’s.

I didn’t even mention Philadelphia. Or Memphis. Or Boston. Or Miami.

The rest of the league has more than enough talent to hang with the Suns.

Sam: You say the eight-game edge is hardly an indicator of potential playoff success, but history would beg to differ.

Since the merger, only four other teams have ever finished at least eight games clear of the rest of the league: The 1983-84 Celtics, the 1991-92 Bulls, the 1995-96 Bulls and the 1999-00 Lakers.

If you hadn’t picked up on it yet, all four of those teams went on to win the championship.

And sure, this Pelicans team is making the Suns earn it in this series, but there’s some important context missing.

That 36-46 record is hardly indicative of what the Pelicans have become since the C.J. McCollum trade, and Phoenix has been without Devin Booker — his importance was well outlined above.

In 2019, the Warriors, before injuries derailed their title run, got pushed to six games in the opening round by a young, scrappy Los Angeles Clippers team.

Sometimes eight seeds punch above their weight, and sometimes champions have to take a punch early on. Long story short: this series against New Orleans is not a long-term concern for the Valley Boys.

Booker’s and the Suns’ greatness should not be discounted just because it’s a result of his year-after-year improvement. Golden State didn’t need a leap from Curry because there wasn’t one to be made from a 34-year-old who’s already a two-time MVP.

Phoenix is in a better position this season because Booker took his game to a new level. Whether or not his leap was necessary to elevate the Suns’ contender status is irrelevant.

Oh by the way, Booker played just 15 minutes in one of the Suns wins in the season series with Golden State. Just putting that out there.

The regular season proved that Phoenix is in a different class than the rest of the West behind them, and last year’s postseason proved that the Suns can translate it to the games that matter.

As for a potential Finals rematch with the Bucks, P.J. Tucker, who now plays in South Beach, started every game of the 2021 edition for Milwaukee.

That combined with Booker’s continual ascension tip the scales slightly back toward the desert. And with as close as that series was, it’s all it will take to send Larry O’Brien to Phoenix for the first time.

Matthew: If you want to compare this Suns team to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, be my guest.

We both know Devin Booker is not Michael Jordan, Deandre Ayton is not Dennis Rodman and Mikal Bridges is not Scottie Pippen. Regular season records do not matter, and the last five years are more relevant to how this season will play out than the years of the legendary Bulls, Celtics and Lakers teams from decades ago.

If you still want to grasp on to that eight-game lead as evidence for the greatness of this Suns team, some important context is missing from that stat.

The Warriors played 18 games without Curry and went 8-10 in that span. Based on the team’s 45-19 record with Curry, Golden State was on pace to win five more games than they did.

That brings the differential between the Valley Boys and the W’s down from 11 to six. Suddenly not such a large — or historic — gap.

Now Curry is healthy and back to doing Curry things.

On the flip side, Booker is playing fewer minutes.

Booker was on the court for 32 minutes and accounted for just 13 points in the Suns’ series-clinching victory over the Pelicans.

Chris Paul had to carry the burden of the team’s scoring with his 33 points on perfect 14-of-14 shooting.

Paul may be able to erupt for that kind of offensive performance against a team from the Play-In Tournament, but Paul will not do the same against the Mavericks in the next round and certainly not against the Warriors or Bucks if the Suns continue to advance.

Booker will need to be healthy for a deep Phoenix run since he is as important as you outlined above. He’s clearly not there yet and that creates far too much uncertainty for me to place all of my chips on the Suns.

I’ll hedge my bets and keep my money on the other seven teams still in contention.