GQ: The NBA team of the year is the Phoenix Suns. (Yes, Phoenix)
BY BETHLEHEM SHOALS, GQ MAGAZINE
There’s no such thing as a Team of the Year award in the NBA. The team that wins the Finals is by default the NBA’s _best _team, and gets the Larry O’Brien Trophy for their troubles. But Team of the Year is something altogether different, closer in spirit to the MVP, that sad, troubled beast. MVP goes to the individual with the most potent combination of narrative, competence, and intangibles—the deliberately vague term that’s usually just a means of throwing shade at other candidates. Team of the Year would a way of acknowledging a squad for doing something other than straight-up winning the league.
For the 2013–14 NBA season, my Team of the Year is the Phoenix Suns. It remains to be seen whether the Suns will make the playoffs, but that’s almost beside the point. What the Suns did this year, other than put together a winning campaign that no one saw coming, was deliver a wake-up call to NBA observers: You don’t know everything, you don’t have to know everything, and sometimes, it’s a blast to sit back and just let the game take you places. To call the Suns unpredictable or unexpected misses the point. They were a reminder that basketball isn’t an attempt to pin down absolute truth, but to watch a game—or a season—play out in all its half-chaotic grandeur.
The Suns began the year inauspiciously, as a curio shop that mattered most to fantasy basketball columnists. Eric Bledsoe, the marauding guard who had tired of serving as Chris Paul’s understudy in Los Angeles, was expected to put up numbers. Goran Dragic could play and would, ahem, put up numbers. And on a team that looked to run like crazy and had very little to lose (other than possibly a lot of games), randoms like athletic rookie Archie Goodwin were popular late-round fliers. They were a team that, in a less sophisticated era, might have been looked at as colorful or entertaining despite their gaping flaws. In today’s rigorous climate, where even casual fans are expected to watch every game and monitor every relevant player and team, the Suns were grist for fantasy ball. There had to be a reason to bother. And that was all it could be.
As it turned out, the Suns forced us to take the time. The team did indeed play an up-tempo style seemingly borne out of desperation or necessity. They indeed put up numbers. But as it turned out, their efforts were anything but meaningless data production. Phoenix turned out to have a remarkable level of control even in wild, back-and-forth contests, or maybe only in them, as other teams struggled to keep up or keep from getting dragged down by their own excess. The star of the team turned out to be not Bledsoe but the electric Dragic, who ping-ponged around the lane and knifed through defenses, getting stronger and faster with every step forward. Dragic never quite seemed to know where he was going next or how he would get there, and that was the thrill of watching him play.
The Suns also had their share of sleepers, though not only to the benefit of fantasy owners. Gerald Green, the one-time dunk contest champion whose jaw-dropping athleticism has somehow not diminished with age, went on a scoring rampage after Bledsoe went down. Green was the thinking man’s J.R. Smith, a weapon that gave the Suns some traditional explosiveness (even Bledsoe, a point guard who blocks shots regularly, could be a bit of an enigma). It could’ve been a redemption tale, since Green has spent the last decade wandering the globe in search of a stable NBA contract. But Green didn’t exactly clip his wings or tone down his act, instead finding in Phoenix a place where that kind of game could add texture to a fluid, run-and-gun attack.
There were also key contributions from Miles Plumlee, a workmanlike big man who balled like an All-Star to start the year, and P.J. Tucker, a former University of Texas standout who never found a niche for himself in the NBA. As the Suns fought valiantly to hold onto a playoff spot, Tucker emerged as a defensive force and the kind of artful bully who brings some half-court grit to a wide-open philosophy. That is, if you could even describe the Suns as having one. Under Jeff Hornacek, the Suns often seemed to be figuring out their style as they went along, a work-in-process without any one player willing to serve as the center of gravity. They were built like a lottery team and yet played with real purpose—the Headless Horseman of the 2013–14 NBA season.
But I’m not just writjng about the Suns because they were zany, refreshing and an undying joy to watch. The reason I welcomed the Suns into my home whenever possible, is that they took me back to a very different time for NBA fandom. Or for my version of it, at least. They were, by their very nature, always just out of reach, unknowable, and in a constant state of discovery. To call them a revelation suggests that they ever felt settled. They were more like an open question that never stopped giving. There were other must-see players and teams this year—on any given night, you could hardly go wrong watching Kevin Durant or Steph Curry light up the opposition. Despite this season having seen its share of injuries, or maybe because of it, I found myself watching a handful of players or teams over and over again, the kind of selective viewing that presumes taste, not authority. Besides KD and Curry, Anthony Davis was also always in heavy rotation, as were the Sacramento Kings. Portland was sublime when things were going well for them, the Rockets weird combination of swagger and rationalism. There was something about Milwaukee, even if I couldn’t quite explain what it was (no, not just Giannis). But the Suns didn’t give us a known quantity to marvel at. They assumed that we had no idea. And that was half the fun.
A decade ago, when NBA League Pass first became popular, I championed the concept of “Liberated Fandom.” The idea was a simple one: Watch, enjoy, and pull for the teams that move you, the players you want to have a stake in. It was, in many ways, a reaction to League Pass, to the feeling that all of a sudden the entire league was out there to discover. No longer being limited to the few teams given national exposure was, well, liberating, as was the idea that one could watch teams that weren’t necessarily contending, or stacked with famous names.
To us, “League Pass Teams” were those that flew under the radar or offered some new perspective on the game. Not the ones that basketball fans had some moral obligation to monitor. Not the ones whose strategic importance made them required viewing. League Pass Teams were a reason to love the game more, not a symptom of the ways in which following the NBA had been reduced to a ceaseless flow of information and knee-jerk reactions.
Most people just get old and irrelevant. Times passes them by. But some go from left to right, liberal to conservative, revolutionary to reactionary. They’re still in the conversation; they’ve just shifted sides without even meaning to. The joke is on them. Maybe they never believed in the first place. Maybe they believed for the wrong reasons, or had picked the wrong reasons to care. The only thing worse than irrelevance is feeling like a fraud. I had thought that had happened to me, or at least the basketball-watching part of me. As long as there’s a team like the Suns, though, I feel secure in my belief that watching basketball with the goal of knowing less, not more, is its own kind of reward.