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How the Suns broke out of a decade-long funk using the Warriors as a model

The West’s two best teams square off Tuesday, with one serving as a model for the other to follow.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns celebrate during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on November 19, 2021 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns meet Tuesday night in the first of two contests over four days between the two best teams in the West at the moment. The 18-2 Warriors are favorites to win the West at +300 according to DraftKings Sportsbook, while the 17-3 Suns are on a 16-game winning streak and are +450 to win the West. While the two meetings this week will set the stage for yet another December contest when the teams play on Christmas Day, it’s hard to escape how the Suns used the Warriors as a model to break out of a long postseason drought and emerge as title contenders.

Prior to the 2012-13 season, the Warriors had made the playoffs just once since 1994-95. This was when they famously upset the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round. After a few tough seasons following that run, Golden State made wholesale changes across the organization. New owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber brought in Bob Myers to be general manager, who already had a potential star in place in then-rookie sharpshooter Stephen Curry. Myers was responsible for hitting on Golden State’s subsequent high draft picks like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who were vital contributors. Grabbing Draymond Green in the second round proved to be a coup, as the Michigan State forward went on to be a consistent Defensive Player of the Year contender.

The draft track record is great, despite selecting Ekpe Udoh in 2010 with the sixth pick. But that’s not all the Warriors did. They made a trade for big man Andrew Bogut and signed Andre Iguodala as a free agent. They even made a coaching change after back-to-back playoff trips, because suddenly making the playoffs wasn’t enough. The Warriors recognized what they had and tried to capitalize on the moment. And when it looked like they were on the decline, they were able to add Kevin Durant. Three championships and five Finals trips later, Golden State’s dynasty looks to be back after a few down seasons.

The Suns had been mired in similar problems, last making the playoffs in 2009-10. Long-time owner Robert Sarver eventually had enough, and decided to take a chance on former player James Jones as the top basketball decision maker. Jones immediately made a coaching change, going with Monty Williams to lead the young group. Like Myers had Curry, Jones had a potential star already in Devin Booker. He missed on draft picks like Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender, but made some strong moves with Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Selecting Deandre Ayton first overall over Luka Doncic was considered questionable at the time but the big man has clearly turned into a player worthy of that pick. The Suns went 34-39 in Williams’ first season, including an 8-0 finish in the Orlando bubble. It wasn’t good enough but Jones decided it was a sign of things to come. Similar to Golden State’s pivot from Mark Jackson to Kerr, the general manager made one more move.

Unlike the Warriors, the Suns weren’t exactly a destination for marquee free agents. Phoenix hadn’t quite had the track record of Golden State to sell, despite the young core doing great things in the bubble. Jones had to get creative to raise the level of play without gutting the core of his roster. He added veteran point guard Chris Paul, who had bounced around the league a bit over the last few years and was on the back-end of his Hall of Fame career. Paul and Williams had familiarity in New Orleans, and the point guard had always found a way to take his teams to the playoffs.

It turned out Paul was the exact thing Phoenix needed, and the Suns made a run to the Finals in 2020-21. Now they’re trying to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Similar to how the Warriors faced criticism about their championship path, the Suns will also get questioned with the West’s best teams suffering some big injuries.

The Suns are hoping to prove they are here to stay as a force in the West. Tuesday’s game against the team they modeled themselves after will go a long way in determining how much staying power they have.