A couple years ago, Bulls guard Zach LaVine and Phoenix counterpart Devin Booker were in the same boat. Now Booker will lead the Suns into the NBA Finals against Milwaukee. What can the Bulls learn from Phoenix' success?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) looks to pass against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals.

    Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) looks to pass against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals. ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
 
Updated 7/5/2021 2:33 PM

There was once an NBA franchise that had a high-scoring shooting guard with no history of team success, and then invested heavily in a talented center.

Hang on a second, checking the notes.

 

There are actually two NBA teams that meet the above criteria. One is the Bulls, who missed the playoff for the fourth straight year, despite the league making it easier to reach the postseason. The other is the Phoenix Suns, who will host Milwaukee for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday.

Why the discrepancy? In the case of the Suns, there is one obvious catalyst and several important details.

Simply put, veteran point guard Chris Paul joined the Suns and taught his younger teammates how to win. They not only ended a 10-year playoff drought, but are back in the Finals for the first time since Charles Barkley lost to the Bulls in '93.

This should give the current Bulls plenty of food for thought as they try to figure out the next step this summer. There's a tendency to add young pieces in a rebuild that can grow together, but there's no substitute for the veteran wisdom Paul brings.

Paul could be a free agent this summer, since he has a player option worth $44 million for next season. Luring Paul to Chicago for what would be his fourth team in four years is clearly a long shot. But maybe it makes sense for the Bulls to pursue Toronto's Kyle Lowry, who has won a championship and at 35 is a year younger than Paul.

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Look at it this way: A couple years ago, an argument could be made that Zach LaVine had a brighter future than the Suns' Devin Booker. Now, such an argument would seem ludicrous with Booker leading Phoenix into the Finals. But who knows where LaVine's game could go if he had a knowledgeable veteran playing next to him?

The Suns actually showed signs of a turnaround last year by going 8-0 in the Orlando bubble. One thing that seemed to help was losing Kelly Oubre to an injury. Instead of two young guys battling to post gaudy stats, the players started to fit into roles.

Besides trading for Paul, the Suns also added forward Jae Crowder, who went to the Finals in 2020 with Miami. Teams don't necessarily need a lot of winning experience on the roster. Two players were enough for Phoenix.

Another trait of the Suns is they play small. The minutes at the two forward spots are generally shared by 6-6 Mikal Bridges, 6-8 Cameron Johnson and the 6-6 Crowder.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That might bode well for the Bulls, since 6-7 Patrick Williams looked like he might be a better fit at power forward during his rookie year. But with Booker, Bridges, Crowder and Johnson, the Suns have bought into the positionless movement, where they can easily switch on screens with quality defenders.

The Bulls, well, Williams' defense was disappointing last season, one reason why he might need to play the four spot. And if Williams is a power forward, who plays small forward? And where do they fit in a guy with some winning experience?

Matching the Suns' success won't be easy. Phoenix center DeAndre Ayton has blossomed in the playoffs and is about to turn 23. Bulls center Nikola Vucevic will be 31 when next season begins.

When it comes to the NBA Finals, the analysis seems pretty straightforward. If Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo recovers from a hyperextended knee and is able to contribute, Milwaukee has a good chance. If he never plays, the Suns will be a heavy favorite.

For Bulls fans, they can relish in the Bobby Portis vs. Cameron Payne matchup. Benet Academy grad Frank Kaminsky is on the Suns, but didn't play in the Western Conference finals.

Just consider this a rematch of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coin flip in 1969. Bulls legend Johnny "Red" Kerr was coaching the expansion Suns at the time and might be looking down, waiting for revenge.

Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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