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The Suns Lost to a Better Team. Now They Have Work to Do.

After an embarrassing blowout loss ended the first postseason of the Kevin Durant era, Phoenix is due for some considerable self-reflection to figure out what kind of team it wants to be

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The strangest, most chaotic season in Phoenix Suns history—marked by an explosive investigative report, the sale of the franchise, and a blockbuster trade that reconfigured the entire roster—ended with the team quietly playing out a blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night. By the end of the third quarter, so many fans had left the Footprint Center that traffic around the arena was fully gridlocked. The writing was on the wall. To a stunned silence in the arena, Phoenix had given up a 17-0 run in the final three minutes of the first quarter and trailed by 30 at halftime. When the game ended, 125-100, there wasn’t even room for animosity; some losses are so demonstrative, so far beyond doubt, that there’s no use in talking trash or sending a message with a hard foul. There’s really nothing left to say.

Maybe that’s why Devin Booker left the building without saying much of anything at all. The longest-tenured Sun took off without addressing the media on Thursday—a surprising turn for a player who usually takes accountability in just these sorts of moments. Ducking the media isn’t exactly a crisis (especially when Booker is likely to participate in exit interviews on Friday), and frankly, losing to the top-seeded Nuggets isn’t, either. The better, more complete team won. Yet Phoenix is due for some considerable self-reflection from its stars and other stakeholders in the coming months, as all involved figure out what kind of team they would like to be.

“It’s hard right now to see what the future will hold for our team,” Kevin Durant said after the game. “But we’ve got a good foundation, good infrastructure we can build on and move on from this—and learn from it and get better from it. It’s a hard question to answer right now. I’m sure as the summer and offseason starts to progress, we’ll figure that out a little bit more.”

In some ways, this version of the Suns—which gave up quality players and a ton of future draft picks to land KD in the first place—was never much more than a good foundation. The upcoming offseason will be the team’s first real opportunity to shape the roster around Durant and Booker, who even in a losing effort made it clear that they’re two of the most dangerous scorers in the world. Some of what’s needed around them is obvious; this team just didn’t have enough genuine, viable NBA players. By the end of this series, Phoenix—which was already without Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton due to injuries—had almost no way to compete. Circumstances elevated situational role players into the starting lineup, and even more painfully, they were replaced on the bench by outright liabilities who couldn’t hang in this series at all.

That has to be remedied. One of the most pressing matters facing the Suns is finding enough useful NBA talent to fill a proper playoff rotation—and preferably one that can win games without pushing Booker and Durant to the absolute limit. Yet Phoenix will need depth beyond that just to make it through a full regular season. Having Durant in the mix from the start and a full 82-game slate to iron out the kinks in the process should do wonders for the Suns. Managing that slate, however, means understanding that Durant has played only 46 games, on average, over his last three seasons. That if Paul is going to be the point guard, in name or in function, it will be with the understanding that the 38-year-old will need to limit his minutes and should still be expected to miss considerable time. That even Booker, while younger than his costars, tends to pick up nagging injuries that cost him 15 to 20 games every season.

Just getting back to the playoffs may require the kind of depth Phoenix doesn’t quite have yet. That’s OK; it’s a long offseason. The Suns might not have their own first-round pick because of the Durant trade, but there will be opportunities to flesh out the roster with cap exceptions and modest plays—not unlike the way Denver turned Monte Morris and Will Barton into the now-essential Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. And then there’s the potential for more dramatic moves, which should probably be the default expectation whenever a franchise changes hands.

Mat Ishbia didn’t shell out billions for an ownership stake in the Suns to continue business as usual. He did it so that he could trade for someone like Durant—to change not only how Phoenix plays, but also the vision of what it can be. The biggest swing has already been made, but other changes could easily follow. The more pertinent question is how significant those changes need to be to get Phoenix to the next level.

“We’ll see,” Durant said. “Obviously, you always want to make tweaks regardless. Whoever wins the championship this year, I’m sure they’re going to try to add to their team, too. I feel like every year, it’s a GM’s, coach’s, player’s job to find ways to get better and adapt and become a better team. I’m sure we’ll make adjustments.”

Phoenix will of course make adjustments to its roster—in part because Durant’s age creates an immediate and inescapable pressure to do so. By the start of next season, KD will be 35 years old. One playoff run of the Durant Era is already in the books, and those still to come might be too precious for the Suns to spend their offseason tweaking around the edges, crossing their fingers, and hoping they aren’t run off the floor by a team like the Nuggets this time next year. The reality of building a team around Durant and Booker is that the presence of every other player on the roster becomes negotiable. Is Ayton more valuable to this team than a few solid role players might be? Could they trade a Hall of Famer like Paul and bring in a cleaner fit, if nothing else?

The lesson of this series was that Durant and Booker don’t really need a ton of support to compete with the best teams in the league. Shot creation is the game’s great equalizer. The lesson in the way they were eliminated, however, is that the Suns unquestionably need more—more real options, more live threats, more players who can play and chew gum at the same time. More to work with, beyond the infrastructure. There’s a lot for the Suns to do in the next few months and not much left to say until they figure out what the more fully formed version of this roster might look like, and whether they have the assets and flexibility to build it. The season—with all its twists and turns—is finally over. Now it’s time to go to work.