A quick look at the Phoenix Suns’ recent history reveals something interesting for Orlando Magic fans. These two teams — one at the top of the standings and one at the very bottom — might be more similar than you would think.
Before last season’s NBA Finals appearance, the Suns had not made the playoffs since 2010, the same year the Magic last appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Since that season, both the Suns and Magic have been battling at the bottom of the league. The Magic have struggled even with four playoff appearances in those 12 years, including just two in the last decade. All were first-round exits.
The Suns struggled for any kind of relevancy, finding Devin Booker late in the Lottery. They did not have their breakout until an 8-0 run in the Bubble that fell just a game short of the promised land of the Play-In Game.
More often than not for the last decade, both the Suns and Magic were drafting in the lottery after they both appeared in the conference finals in 2010.
So how did the Suns pour gasoline on their rebuild while the Magic just finished with another bottom-three record in the league this season? Hitting on draft picks and making a couple deals at the right time.
The Phoenix Suns fell short in their chase for a title. But their rebuilding is a path the Orlando Magic can follow.
Looking down the Suns’ roster, they really are a perfect model for organic teambuilding.
They drafted Devin Booker 13th overall in 2015, eight picks after the Magic drafted Mario Hezonja. They were able to snag Deandre Ayton first overall in the great 2018 draft and traded for Mikal Bridges that same night, swapping their 16th overall pick, Zhaire Smith.
In the next year’s draft, they swapped Jarret Culver for Cameron Johnson on draft night, while also acquiring Dario Saric. This solidified their young core of players to grow around.
Then they got to work adding veterans to support them.
The team was then able to sign Jae Crowder in free agency and pick up Cam Payne for virtually nothing.
The biggest, and likely most important move in the Suns’ supercharged rebuild, was trading for Chris Paul in November 2020. The team really only parted ways with a couple tertiary players and one first-round pick to get him.
The Suns had shown promise in the Bubble, but his move immediately vaulted them into contention. We know how the rest played out, they went on to win 51 games the next season, finishing just two games away from an NBA championship. Then they run roughshod through the league to the best record in 2022 and the top seed in the Western Conference — perhaps injuries derailed them in their second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
So what can we take away from the Suns’ rebuild that applies to the Magic?
First, the team must hit on a couple of key draft picks. But you will not hit on them all.
For every Devin Booker, there is a Josh Jackson. The Suns have definitely missed on a few.
Just looking down the list, this is the same franchise that drafted Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Jalen Smith. Even the Deandre Ayton pick looks questionable now with Luka Doncic and Trae Young right behind him — not to mention the rumors Ayton is set to leave in restricted free agency with even the Magic proposed as a team that could chase the young big man with a max contract.
Secondly, finding your “star” may come easier than filling out the rest of the roster.
It was decently obvious that Devin Booker was “that guy” pretty quickly. But it just was not making much of a difference with wins and losses. It was not until the Suns struck gold with Paul that the ship really started to turn.
And most importantly, teams are always closer to contention than anyone may think.
If you had told a Suns fan in 2018 they would be in the Finals three years later — and disappointed with a second-round loss just four years later — they would have called you insane.
To go from 18 wins to 51 wins in two calendar years is wild. But it proves every team is a player or two away from being a real threat. Now albeit, that player was the ultimate floor-raiser in Paul. But there are other options out there that could have a similar impact.
After being only two games away from pay dirt last season, the Suns ran it back this year, added a couple of pieces, and cruised all the way to the promised land. Right?
Unfortunately, the NBA does not work that way and the Suns’ season surprisingly ended in a blowout home loss to the Mavericks in Game 7.
Now here is where the real lessons come into play for the Magic.
Building a competitive, contending team is the easy part. It is linear and there is a formula to it: Acquire building blocks, establish a culture, define roles, stay healthy and perform.
But winning a championship? There is no standard growth curve. Sometimes it happens a year before it was supposed to. Sometimes you find the window closed three seasons before you expected it.
But sometimes the perfect storm hits and things fall your way.
Finding that sweet spot is all about increasing your chances. It is safe to say the Suns’ chances would have been higher if they drafted Doncic instead of Ayton. Worrying about fit is never a good idea in the draft.
Then again, the Phoenix Suns would never have made the Finals in 2021 without Ayton’s Valley-Oop against the LA Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns need now to evolve and add another consistent offensive piece to their roster. The rebuild never really stops. There are always places to improve and tweaks to be made. If you look at just about every team that has extended their run throughout NBA history, they continually made changes around their nucleus to stay relevant.
There is no standing still in the NBA.
Getting better involves spending more money, which is something the Suns have not shown interest in doing over the years. Owner Robert Sarver has been hesitant to dip into the luxury tax, but there just is not a better way to put more talent on the floor.
The Magic will likely find themselves in a similar position as some of their young players near the end of their rookie deals. Right now the team is being careful with its money, especially with how it is managing the ample cap room the team has this offseason.
Now that we know the Magic will have the number one overall pick in this year’s upcoming draft, they can really go “star” chasing. Some combination of the top pick, Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz or Wendell Carter will be this team’s young core.
Just like the Suns did, the Magic really need to find that rock-solid veteran (or two) who can come in and help establish the team’s culture. If that happens, Orlando will be right back in the mix before we know it.
But like Phoenix will now need to do, we need to be prepared take some lumps, change course and adapt. The road to a championship is never smooth, but that is what makes it so sweet.