It took less than four minutes into his Suns debut for Kevin Durant to show the world that, yes, he’s back and healthy ahead of the final five weeks of the NBA regular season.
And, yes, the rest of the league is in trouble.
Early in the first quarter of his first game action in nearly two months, Phoenix’s newly acquired superstar swatted Charlotte’s 7-foot center Mark Williams at the rim and casually jogged down the court to the left wing — where he’s drilled so many clutch shots in his 16-year career.
He nailed this one, too, the first 3-pointer of what promises to be many for his fourth franchise.
It looked as effortless as the rest of his 23 points in 26 minutes in Wednesday’s team debut, as he finished 10 of 15 from the floor — tied for his fifth-most efficient shooting display (66.7 percent) in 40 games this season.
It looked easy for his teammates, too, as the Suns coasted to a 105-91 win over the Hornets in the first glimpse of the Durant era.
And it all reignited the conversation that dominated NBA circles in the wake of February’s deadline deal: should the Suns be favored to win it all?
It’s an easy case to make, especially after nights like Wednesday.
You could see the seamless fit right away: Durant’s incredible gravity on the offensive end opened up the lane for Devin Booker — who finished with a game-high 37 points on 57.7 percent shooting — and drew the defense’s attention away from weakside actions even when Durant wasn’t involved in the play.
That’s to say nothing of Durant’s own skill set as an elite shot creator, which is something this team has sorely missed from the wing spot in each of its last two playoff runs.
His presence would have been a godsend in the 2021 NBA Finals, when Phoenix’s offense fell apart in the half court, and in last year’s conference semifinals, when the Mavericks’ switchable defense flummoxed the Suns’ star-studded backcourt.
Durant also masks some of the defensive issues that plagued those two previous teams.
In that Finals loss, the Suns simply didn’t have the size to contend with Giannis Antetokounmpo without forcing center Deandre Ayton into uncomfortable spots.
Now they do. And while Mikal Bridges was a stellar defender in his own right, he isn’t a 7-footer with the versatility to defend all five positions like his de facto replacement.
The biggest issue with this new-look group is depth.
Especially after trading Bridges and Cameron Johnson in the deal to acquire Durant, Phoenix is mighty thin across the entire roster with legitimate questions at the backup point guard and center positions and a dearth of defensive-minded wings in the rotation.
That’s especially concerning given this team’s well-documented injury history.
Durant has missed 157 of 287 possible games (54.7 percent) across the last four regular seasons; Booker has already missed 27 of 63 games (42.9 percent) this season; and Chris Paul has a tortured history with postseason injuries over the last decade.
Betting on the NBA?
A strong bench doesn’t raise a team’s ceiling as much as its floor, and that’s a major concern when the expectations are so high and the margin for error is so low.
Following Wednesday’s win, Phoenix was dealing at +450 at BetMGM and FanDuel — behind the favored Celtics but ahead of every other team in the Western Conference.
Make no mistake: at full strength, this team should be the favorite to come out of the West, and it has the upside to beat any team in the league.
Still, the Suns aren’t as invincible as, say, those Warriors teams were with Durant at the helm, and the NBA is as deep with contenders as it’s been in years.
So, should Phoenix be the favorite to win it all? In a word, yes.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t significant risk in paying such a short price, and this team’s weakest links — which won’t be tested unless disaster strikes — will ultimately prove whether it’s a price worth paying.