The Phoenix Suns have already booked their spot in the 2021 NBA Finals. In the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks are vying to see which team goes to the Valley of the Sun for Game 1 of the Finals. In an NBA Playoffs full of surprises and a host of different teams advancing further than they have in many years, one of the much talked about advantages might not be an issue.
Analysts love to point to the NBA Finals experience of the teams that get there. Considering the three teams remaining, the Suns have the most recent trip to the Finals. But, to channel Rick Pitino, Charles Barkley isn’t walking through that door. Dan Majerle isn’t walking through that door. Kevin Johnson isn’t walking through that door. Phoenix playing in the Finals in 1993 is probably not all that relevant today.
As far as the most recent title between the three teams remaining, that belongs to the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1971. Hawks coach Nate McMillan was 6 years old, Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer had yet to celebrate his second birthday, and Suns coach Monty Williams hadn’t been born yet. Yeah, it was a long time ago.
The comparative value of NBA Finals experience for the Phoenix Suns and the two Eastern teams
There is an enormous gap in the NBA Finals experience the last six teams to win the NBA title had. Last year’s Los Angeles Lakers roster brought 123 previous Finals games to bear. None of that experience had been with the Lakers, but they had players that had been there before.
LA had the most Finals experience of any of the past six winners. From highest to lowest, here is the list:
- 2020 LA Lakers, 123 games
- 2018 Golden State Warriors, 118 games
- 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, 89 games
- 2017 Golden State Warriors, 77 games
- 2019 Toronto Raptors, 38 games
Then you have the first of the Warriors dynasty teams to claim the title. The 2015 Golden State squad entered the NBA Finals with zero experience there. No one on the roster had played a single minute in an NBA Finals. By that measure, two of this year’s possible teams are downright veterans at this.
If experience matters, score one for the Suns
The remaining team with the most playoff experience is also the one with the least experience coming in the NBA Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks are playoff veterans at this point, but five consecutive postseason berths have equaled (let me do the math) no games in the NBA Finals. No one on the roster has played in the big series at the end.
The Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns each have some Finals experience on their respective rosters. Just not, you know, a lot. Solomon Hill, who played for the Miami Heat last season, represents Atlanta’s Finals experience. All four games of it. Heck, Atlanta’s roster is so young that only five players had been in a playoff game before this year.
The Suns also have a veteran of that Heat team from the 2020 bubble, but Jae Crowder played in all six games in the series. Based on NBA Finals’ experience, then, the Phoenix Suns are locks to win the title. (Warning: This information probably should not send one scurrying to open the sportsbook app of one’s choice.)
What we do know about the NBA Finals: Someone ends a very long dry spell
The Milwaukee Bucks last won the NBA title in 1971. At least people could watch them win on color televisions. Fans of the last Hawks team to capture the crown were limited to black-and-white. Beyond that, the team wouldn’t be the “Atlanta Hawks” for another 10 years. However, the 1958 St. Louis Hawks were the only team to take down the Bill Russell Boston Celtics in the Finals, so there’s that.
The Phoenix Suns? The next championship they win will be their first. In 1976, Phoenix upset the defending champion Warriors by winning a road Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. But that team lost to the Celtics. The 1993 team had the NBA’s best record and the misfortune of running into Michael Jordan in the Finals.
Much has been made of Chris Paul’s long wait to get to the NBA Finals (and rightly so). But regardless of the matchup, the old standby of NBA Finals experience need not apply. It will be a new experience for almost everyone that’s there.
The traditional metrics used by analysts are comfortable. They fit easily, like a well-worn pair of slippers. But not this time around. Handicapping these Finals will take more digging than that.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.