Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton didn't duck addressing the narrative that their road to the NBA Finals was aided by injuries to their playoff opponents.
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"I know people talk about injuries of other teams and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, we playing ball," Ayton said after losing Game 6 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
One of those "teams," the 2020 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, whose two best players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis battled injuries in the first round series against the Suns, made a major move Thursday in trading for 2016-17 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook.
First reported by ESPN, the Lakers are trading Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and 22nd overall pick in Thursday's draft to the Washington Wizards for Westbrook, who set the all-time record for most career triple-doubles (184) during his one season with the Wizards this year.© Nick Wass, AP Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook (4) dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass).
The Lakers must still construct a roster as they would have only have four players under contract in James, Davis, Westbrook and center Marc Gasol, but they now have a legitimate Big 3.
The question is should Phoenix be worried about the eventual new-look Lakers?
With a healthy James and Davis, the Lakers were going to challenge for an NBA title this season, anyway. Adding Westbrook gives them a legit third scorer who can take over the game and is as competitive as anyone in the league.
However, they don't have a lot of time to put together a roster.
Teams can begin negotiating with free agents starting Monday and start signing them Friday, Aug. 6. The Lakers will explore veteran minimum deals to help fill out the roster.
The Miami Heat did it when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosch joined forces and made four straight trips to the finals as they won back-to-back (2012, 2013), but they were much younger and in their primes.
James is now 36 and entering his 19th NBA season, Westbrook will turn 33 in October and the 28-year-old Davis has battled injuries for a large amount of his NBA career.
Training camps are scheduled to start Sept. 28 with a full 82-game regular season beginning Oct. 19 after playing 72 last season amid COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Lakers will be trying to find their chemistry as James and Westbrook have been ball-dominant players, the Suns will have much of their core back in Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson.
The key will be retaining Paul, who has a player option of $44.2 million.
With him, the Suns still have the overall better team that will be able to build off reaching the finals with Paul being the essential ingredient.
Booker is the franchise player, but Paul was the catalyst to Phoenix's success.
What the Suns proved last year was chemistry can overcome a team filled with talent. That'll help them maintain an edge over the Lakers, especially if Paul stays.© Michael Chow/The Republic Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) is defended by Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during the first quarter of the Western Conference first round playoff series in Phoenix June 1, 2021.
Video: Shams Charania: Wizards Trading Russell Westbrook to Lakers (Stadium)
Payne's role was key, but will he stay?
Re-signing Cameron Payne would lessen the loss of Paul if he weren't to stay, but Payne will be in the running for a darn good deal as an unrestricted free agent after two solid seasons with the Suns.
Joining Phoenix right before the bubble, Payne averaged 10.9 points during that 8-0 run in Orlando a year ago and posted 8.4 points a game as Paul's backup this past season.
The 6-1 guard took his game to an even higher level in the postseason.
Averaging 9.3 points in the playoffs, Payne came up huge in the conference finals against the Clippers when Paul missed Games 1 and 2 under NBA's health and safety protocols as he tested positive for COVID-19.
Payne set playoff career highs in points (29) and assists (nine) in Phoenix's Game 2 win to give the Suns a 2-0 series lead.© Michael Chow-Arizona Republic Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne (15) and forward Mikal Bridges (25) laugh during practice at Phoenix Suns Arena July 5, 2021. The Phoenix Suns will play against the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals.
"We're excited for what he has done," Suns General Manager James Jones said during the second round of Thursday night's NBA Draft. "Looking forward to talking to him soon to keep him with us because we know how valuable he was to us. I still believe there is a lot more growth to his game that Coach (Monty Williams) can unlock."
If the Suns can keep Paul and Payne, get Dario Saric back healthy after he suffered a torn right ACL in Game 1 of the finals and big Jalen Smith becomes a contributor after hardly playing as a rookie this past season, they'll contend for a title again in 2021-22.
"Their players, amazing players led by Devin Booker, Chris Paul," said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer after winning the finals. "Their whole roster. Amazing coach, Monty Williams. The entire organization. So much respect for them as competitors. I just have so much respect for Monty and his team."
Matching up with L.A.
The Lakers looked as if they were going to end Phoenix's playoff run early in going up 2-1 after taking Games 2 and 3.
Then injuries caught up with Davis.© Ashley Landis, AP Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) is checked out for injury during the first quarter of Game 6 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Thursday, Jun 3, 2021, in Los Angeles. Davis let the court. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
The All-Star big had back-to-back 34-point games in those wins, but hyperextended his left knee after landing awkwardly following a chasedown block on Booker in Game 3.
Compensating for the knee, Davis strained his left groin in the first half of Game 4 and didn't return, missed Game 5 and reaggravated the groin in Game 6.
The Lakers lost all three games in being eliminated by the Suns.
Phoenix continued their run to the finals by sweeping the third-seeded Denver Nuggets and dispatching the fourth-seeded Clippers in six, but both opponents were without key players in each series in Jamal Murray (knee) and Kawhi Leonard (knee).
While neither the Nuggets or Clippers have made any major offseason moves, the Lakers did in trading for one of the game's best players to join Davis and James.© Patrick Breen/The Republic May 23, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Suns' Jae Crowder (99) defends Lakers' Lebron James (23) during the first quarter of game 1 against the Lakers at Phoenix Rising Stadium. Patrick Breen-Arizona Republic
They'll be formidable, but the Suns can actually match up with the Lakers' Big 3.
Ayton continues to improve as a defender. He needs to get the stronger, but Ayton has had defensive success on Davis in forcing perimeter shots by staying in front.
Bridges is a versatile defender who has the length and athleticism to defend Westbrook.
As for James, Crowder took it personal when the four-time NBA MVP was having fun at his expense in Game 3, as he got the last laugh with his salsa dance to mock James' Mountain Dew commercial late in the Game 6 closeout win.
In between that, Crowder played solid defense on James. Again, tall order for Crowder, but the prideful veteran forward will battle in that matchup.
So yes, the Suns should be worried about the Lakers, but the feeling should be mutual, especially if Paul stays in Phoenix.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Should Los Angeles Lakers worry Phoenix Suns after trading for Russell Westbrook?
Source : https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/nba/should-los-angeles-lakers-worry-phoenix-suns-after-trading-for-russell-westbrook/ar-AAMLz0M6451