After breaking decade-long playoff drought with NBA Finals run, Suns still in thick of title contention

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The Suns – for reasons I didn’t understand even then – received way less championship consideration than other contenders last season. Phoenix entered the playoffs with just a 3% chance of winning a title, based on betting odds. The Nets (26%), Lakers (17%), Clippers (13%), Jazz (11%), 76ers (10%) each had at least triple the implied odds, and the eventual-champion Bucks (9%) nearly did. It wasn’t just because the Suns faced the perpetually bet-on Lakers in the first-round, either. Phoenix lagged behind other contenders well before playoff matchups were set.

Well, after winning the Western Conference and going up 2-0 in the NBA Finals, the Suns are getting far more respect this season.

After ending its 10-year playoff drought, Phoenix enters the season checking nearly every box. Chris Paul is a maestro. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges were already good and should still be growing, especially after gaining playoff experience. Jae Crowder is a dependable and well-fitting vet. The Suns’ depth is strong and allows for versatility in lineups. JaVale McGee plugged a hole at backup center with Dario Saric injured. Monty Williams is a quality coach.

The only problem: Other Western Conference teams are also good. The Lakers, Warriors and Jazz are bona fide contenders. The Clippers will be too once Kawhi Leonard gets healthy. Ditto the Nuggets with Jamal Murray.

Similar to last year, it might come down to which team is peaking at the right time.

Nobody can say with certainty Phoenix would have beaten the Lakers if LeBron James and Anthony Davis were fully healthy, would have beaten the Nuggets if Murray were healthy, would have beaten the Clippers if Leonard were healthy. Heck, Utah might have won if matched up with the Suns.

But the Suns had their own health issues, too. And Phoenix did win those series. That’s what counts most.

No team has established itself as the dominant force in the West since Golden State’s decline. It’s about getting into the mix, expanding margin for error and hoping to catch the right breaks.

The Suns are there.

Just like last year. And they will stay there as long as Paul, 36, remains in his prime.

It’s a little trickier to see how Phoenix keeps its window open once Paul declines. But Booker (24), Ayton (23) and Bridges (25) offer a bridge to a promising next era. There are possibilities whenever that time comes.

For now, though, the Suns should enjoy this moment. They enter the season with their highest expectations in many years – because that’s what a team of his caliber warrants.

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After breaking decade-long playoff drought with NBA Finals run, Suns still in thick of title contention originally appeared on NBCSports.com