“The Last Two Wins”
The Phoenix Suns were up 2-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals.
The Phoenix Suns were up 2-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals.
Every couple of days for the last few months, I remember this and fall into despair. The Phoenix Suns were up 2-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals. To get that close to the ultimate goal but still fail was brutal to watch as a fan, and I imagine it was even worse for the players.
Conversely, I also have moments when I look back at last season and I am just really proud of how the Suns performed throughout the season and into the playoffs. Even in those last four games, the Suns were almost always in it. The team accomplished so much over the course of the season, and that’s something to be happy about. Being proud of what you’ve done is not the same, however, as being content.
I know that the players on the Suns are not happy just to be a fun story that got pretty far.
Suns coach Monty Williams is a master motivator, and I know he is not content. Two of his “Montyisms” come to mind when thinking about the team staying focused. Ever since the team went 8-0 in the bubble, Coach Williams constantly reminded his players “Don’t get happy on the farm.” In other words, don’t be satisfied with what you’ve done, there’s always more work to do. The players took that mantra to heart and continued their momentum into the next season.
The other quote is a new one that came up just recently in the Suns’ media day: “Put the ax to the root”, which he then clarified as meaning “chop the freaking tree down.” He wants his players to continue to work and work hard. He knows that if the Suns want to take the next step of actually winning the championship, it will require a tireless work ethic and focus.
“The Taste of it”
To get so close to the championship and come up short was disheartening, but the hope is that getting a taste of playoff success will move the team to work even harder. Chris Paul certainly feels that way. After making the NBA Finals for the first time at age 36, he said, “Now that I’ve got a taste of what that experience is like, I’m sort of addicted.” He doesn’t want one failed run to the Finals to be the end of this team’s story.
Studying NBA history shows that for some teams, a failed Finals run was their peak, but for others, it was just the beginning. Every year there is a team that loses in the Finals, and I wanted to know what the most common futures are for those teams to see what the possibilities are for Phoenix this season. I looked at every team that lost the NBA Finals since 1980 and recorded how they did in both the regular season and the playoffs in the next season. How did these runners up bounce back after coming so close yet falling short?
If you want to see specifically how each team did, you can look at this spreadsheet. For everyone else, here’s a summary. Since 1980, the average regular-season wins for all teams the season after losing in the Finals is 52.9. Of those 42 Finals losing teams, 9 went on to win the championship in the next season. Of the other 33 teams, 4 lost again in the Finals, 7 lost in the Conference Finals, 10 lost in the second round, and 12 either lost in the first round or didn’t make the playoffs.
Based on just this data, it looks pretty likely that the 2021-22 Suns will win over 50 games, but once they make the playoffs, anything can happen. Given that the data is for every single team that lost in the Finals over the last 42 years, some of those teams are outliers bringing down the averages.
For instance, in 2019 the Warriors lost in the Finals. In the next season, Golden State had lost Kevin Durant in free agency, and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both had major injuries. It’s not very helpful to compare the 2021-22 Suns, who brought back all their key players and look to be fully healthy, to that team.
Due to outliers like those Warriors, I narrowed down the teams to try to only include those that brought back the same roster the year after losing in the Finals. I experimented with several ways of tracking teams that were trying to “run it back”. The criterion I settled on was simply whether the 3 players with the most Win Shares from the season they went to the Finals with were still on the roster the next year. With this rule, I eliminated 9 of the 42 teams from the original data set since they did not have the same continuity as the current Suns.
Looking at this set of 33 teams who lost in the Finals and then brought the same team back is even more encouraging. The average regular-season wins for those teams goes up to 57.1. All but six of the teams who ran it back won over 50 games in the next regular season, and more than half made it at least to the Conference Finals in the postseason.
The prospects for the Suns are very good when compared to other teams who brought back the same roster after making the Finals. Why, then, do the Suns still have so many doubters? A big reason is probably recency bias. The last team to lose in the Finals and then run it back was the Miami Heat last season. That team mightily underperformed, finishing the regular season on a 46-win pace and getting swept in the first round of the playoffs.
That team was an outlier, however, not the norm. 82% of teams in this sample won at least 50 games, and 85% got at least to the second round of the playoffs. Even though they’re the most recent example, the 2020-21 Heat were much worse than the typical runner-up.
In fact, other than that Miami team, recent history is extremely favorable towards teams who tried again after losing in the Finals. Before the 2020-21 Heat, each of the last 4 teams to bring back their top players after losing in the Finals went on to win the championship the next year.
In fairness, one of those is not a good comparison for the Suns, given that the 2016-17 Warriors added Kevin Durant after losing in the Finals. However, the other 3, the 2015-16 Cavaliers, the 2013-14 Spurs, and the 2011-12 Heat are all teams that the Suns should aspire towards.
The 2013-14 Spurs are the team that intrigues me the most as a comparison. Like the current Suns, they were a dominant team despite not having a top-5 player and made up for it with elite passing, execution, and depth.
Phoenix led the NBA in Assist Ratio for each of the last two seasons, as did those Spurs teams did in the years they lost and then won the Finals. When San Antonio lost the 2013 Finals, their players came into the next season on a mission. They were absolutely possessed to redeem their failures from the last season, and they dominated the entire league from start to finish in 2013-14.
That is the attitude the Suns need to have if they want to meet their goal of a championship this season. The Phoenix Suns were up 2-0 in the 2021 Finals. They can’t be satisfied with just that. They know what it takes to succeed at the highest level, now it’s up to them to put in the work and get those last two wins.
Follow Cody on Twitter: @Co_dhunt