Charles Barkley and the Inside the NBA crew is on hiatus until the fall, but that hasn’t stopped Barkley from continuing to weigh in on topics. The 2021 NBA Finals are near and dear to Barkley because of his connection to the Phoenix Suns. Because of that, he’s been quick to defend both the Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks from one common criticism being tossed around during this year’s playoffs.
This year’s NBA Playoffs have been a battle of attrition, to be sure. More All-Stars — a total of 10 — have missed games during this postseason than any previous year. Some declared the path to the Finals was somehow easier for Phoenix and Milwaukee than any past champion in the game’s history. Is that ridiculous? Of course, it is. But ridiculous seems to be what a large segment of sports media deals in these days.
But it’s worth asking why Charles Barkley is so close to the Suns.
The last time the Suns were in the NBA Finals, Charles Barkley was their centerpiece
In June 1992, the Phoenix Suns made a franchise-altering trade, sending fan-favorite Jeff Hornacek and big men Andrew Lang and Tim Perry to the Philadelphia 76ers for Charles Barkley. Barkley was unhappy in Philadelphia following a 35–47 season that included Philly missing the playoffs for just the second time since 1976. The Suns, meanwhile, had put together four consecutive 50-win seasons under Cotton Fitzsimmons but had fallen short of the NBA Finals.
Barkley and the Suns turned out to be a perfect fit. New coach Paul Westphal turned Barkley loose, and the Suns won a franchise-record 62 games to finish with the NBA’s best record. Barkley was named the NBA MVP, and Phoenix averted a first-round disaster before it held off the Seattle SuperSonics to reach the franchise’s second NBA Finals.
The disaster the Suns avoided was becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in the first round. The Los Angeles Lakers won the first two games of the best-of-five series in Phoenix before the Suns bounced back with three straight wins. The Sonics would gain the dubious distinction the following year with a loss to the Denver Nuggets.
The NBA Finals didn’t go the way Barkley and the Suns hoped. Phoenix won two games at the old Chicago Stadium but lost all three games at their brand-new America West Arena and fell in six games to the Chicago Bulls. Over the years, Charles Barkley has had time to reflect on how hard it is to win a title.
No asterisks needed, Barkley says
Charles Barkley only got one shot at the NBA Finals and felt like he let the Phoenix Suns down. He’s gotten frustrated over the years at criticism for never winning a title. He’s particularly baffled this year as the Suns and Bucks are each taking heat for somehow having an easy path to the Finals due to injuries.
He told Sam Amick of The Athletic that the premise is flawed from the start:
“We don’t put an asterisk by the Toronto Raptors because (Golden State) didn’t have KD (Kevin Durant) and Klay Thompson (in the 2019 Finals), do we?
“So anybody who thinks that just don’t know — I mean, c’mon. That’s crazy. Seriously. The Golden State Warriors won the championship (in 2015) with no Kyrie (Irving) and Kevin Love (for Cleveland), and we don’t put an asterisk on them, do we?”Charles Barkley
It’s also worth pointing out that Phoenix star Chris Paul missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals while in COVID-19 protocols. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, the two-time MVP, sat out the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals with a hyperextended knee.
While Barkley is correct about what he cites, he doesn’t always follow his own rules.
Charles Barkley critical of Lakers’ 2020 win in the bubbled NBA Finals
The pandemic forced a lot of changes to the 2020–21 NBA season. There was a late start to the season, which was compressed to 72 games as a result.
However, the 2019–20 season was put on hold for four months before resuming in a bubble environment in Orlando. The Los Angeles Lakers came through the bubble playoffs, beating the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals played entirely on the same court. During an appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz, Barkley said the bubble title doesn’t count.
So, playing teams missing players with injuries are just part of the game. But if you’re in a bubble? Nah. That championship is tainted.
Charles Barkley continues to be a wonderful contradiction, even when his season is already over.
Historical data courtesy of Basketball Reference.