The path to the starting five: How the Suns and Bucks built NBA Finals contenders

·11 min read

Not a single player on the Phoenix Suns or Milwaukee Bucks has ever won an NBA championship. It’s been a long time coming for players like Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, P.J. Tucker and Brook Lopez, who have waited more than 10 years to get to this point. It’s taken former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton a couple of seasons to back his top draft status, but in Game 1 he was the best big on the floor.

Both teams took different paths to get to the NBA Finals. The Suns built from draft picks like Ayton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, while the Bucks made key trades that paid off in a big way this season. The Suns are looking for their first title in franchise history; the Bucks have not won a title since 1971. 

Here’s a look at the history of how these teams' starting fives were formed.

Phoenix Suns

Chris Paul

No one has waited longer for a chance at a ring than Paul. He has spent 16 seasons in the league and has moved from team to team chasing a title. 

Paul, 36, was the fourth pick in the 2005 NBA draft to the New Orleans Hornets and spent five seasons there before voicing his unhappiness with the franchise. Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers where he was set to join Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest, essentially forming the first superteam of the NBA. NBA commissioner David Stern blocked the deal, and everyone knows what happened next. 

New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul defends Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in the 2011 Western Conference quarterfinals. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul defends Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in the 2011 Western Conference quarterfinals. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Paul joined the Clippers instead and had a few good Lob City years playing alongside DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. He then was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2017, where he chased a championship playing alongside James Harden, and his final stop before joining the Suns was the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 2019-20 season.

Paul was traded to the Suns on Nov. 16, 2020, and was in Phoenix working out in the gym with Booker two days later.

“We’re going to do something special this season, just watch. Chris Paul is the missing piece,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports in December.

Paul has been the floor general all season. He had an impressive 32 points and nine assists in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and looks locked in as an early Finals MVP favorite (BetMGM has him at -145 odds).

Devin Booker

Booker was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and chose Kentucky over Michigan, Michigan State and Missouri. He came off the bench during his one year at Kentucky and averaged only 10 points per game. 

The Suns selected Booker with the 13th pick in the 2015 draft, and he has quickly become the face of the franchise over the last six seasons. Booker is a two-time All-Star and became the youngest player in NBA history to score 70 points in a game on March 24, 2017 at just 20 years old. 

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker puts up a shot during his 70-point game against the Boston Celtics on March 24, 2017. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker puts up a shot during his 70-point game against the Boston Celtics on March 24, 2017. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

He’s averaging 27 points per game during the Suns’ playoff run, including two games where he scored 40 or more points.

“The thing that Devin doesn’t do that I’ve seen from the great one [in the league], he doesn’t make excuses after a tough night, he doesn’t back down from great matchups,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something he says but you can feel it when you’re around him. He feels like he’s the best, or one of the best players on the Earth, and that’s what I’ve felt from him since Day 1.”

Deandre Ayton

Ayton was the No. 1 player coming out of high school and played one season at Arizona before the Suns selected the 6-foot-11 center out of the Bahamas as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. 

It takes forwards and centers a little more time to adjust to the league, going head-to-head with stronger, bigger players. Ayton has adjusted well three seasons in and now has a huge presence in the lane for the Suns when catching lobs on the high-low option and blocking shots on the other end of the court. 

Ayton has recorded 12 double-doubles during the playoffs this season and leads the team in rebounds, averaging more than 12 boards per game.

Deandre Ayton greets NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the No. 1 overall pick to the Phoenix Suns at the 2018 NBA draft. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
Deandre Ayton greets NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the No. 1 overall pick to the Phoenix Suns at the 2018 NBA draft. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Mikal Bridges

The stars were all aligning on draft night in 2018 when Bridges, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, played at Villanova and his mom worked in human resources for the Philadelphia 76ers, was originally drafted to the 76ers but then traded to Phoenix shortly after for Zhaire Smith. 

If Bridges was disappointed at all on draft night, he hid it well. “I feel great about going to Phoenix,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I’m looking forward to playing with Deandre Ayton, and I’m just excited to get there and get to work.”

Bridges has improved on nearly every stat in his past three seasons and has become a reliable shooter on the wing, 42.5% from 3-point range and 54.3% from the field this season.

Jae Crowder

Crowder has had quite the journey to get to this point in his career. The 6-foot-6 forward from Georgia played his college career at three different universities (South Georgia Tech, Howard College and Marquette) before being the 34th pick in the 2012 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who traded him to the Dallas Mavericks.

Crowder has been on six different teams in eight seasons before the Suns picked him up in November 2020.

Crowder started 42 regular-season games and all 17 in the postseason for the Suns. He had one of the best plays in playoff history in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals where he inbounded the ball from the baseline with 0.9 seconds remaining in regulation to a cutting Ayton for a buzzer-beating, game-winning dunk to secure a 104-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks drafted a wide-eyed, skinny Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. Little was known about that lanky 6-foot-11 forward out of Greece. The Bucks were coming off a losing season (38-44) and were hoping Antetokounmpo would be the player to turn the franchise around. 

Milwaukee Bucks guard Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to get around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Corey Brewer during a preseason game in 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)
Milwaukee Bucks guard Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to get around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Corey Brewer during a preseason game in 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

He was named to the NBA All-Rookie second team and recorded the first triple-double of his career on Feb. 22, 2016 against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant had high praise and great advice for the young forward coming up in the league.

"He has the potential to be a franchise-changing player,” Bryant told reporters after the game. “He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it's just a matter of believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”

Antetokounmpo went on to win back-to-back MVP honors in 2019 and 2020 and has led the Bucks to their first Finals appearance since 1974.

Khris Middleton

Middleton was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and had only five Division I offers before committing to Texas A&M. Middleton declared for the 2012 NBA draft and was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 39th overall pick. Middleton spent most of his rookie season in the G League playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and played in only 27 games for the Pistons. 

Middleton was traded to the Bucks in 2013, and in 2015, the 6-foot-7 guard signed a five-year, $70 million contract. Middleton has started 510 out of 558 games in Milwaukee and has averaged more than 20 points per game in the last two seasons.

Brook Lopez

Lopez’s journey to the NBA Finals has been a long one. 

He was a top-10 recruit coming out of high school in 2006 and chose to play at Stanford (alongside his twin brother, Robin). After two seasons, the 7-footer entered the draft and was the 10th pick in the 2008 draft by the then-New Jersey Nets. 

Brook Lopez, left, with twin brother, Robin, during Stanford's run at the 2008 NCAA tournament. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Brook Lopez, left, with twin brother, Robin, during Stanford's run at the 2008 NCAA tournament. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Lopez spent nine seasons with the Nets before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, along with Kyle Kuzma, for D’Angelo Russell. Before the 2018 season, Lopez signed with the Bucks and has been a solid contributor in the frontcourt alongside Antetokounmpo. Lopez had a playoff career-high 33 points (with Antetokounmpo out with an injury) in a Game 5 win against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals.

“I’m just trying to go out there and help my teammates as much as possible. Whether it’s playing the three-ball, new-era game, a four-stretch game or being inside,” Lopez said after the win. “We’ve just kind of kept building from the preseason, to the regular season to now and just having that confidence in ourselves as players and as a team, we can go out there and excel in our role.”

Jrue Holiday

This is Holiday’s first season with the Bucks, and he’s proving to be the missing piece the Bucks needed to get over the early-exit playoff hump the team has endured the last four seasons. 

Holiday was the 17th pick out of UCLA in the 2009 draft, selected by the Philadelphia 76ers. In July 2013, Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nerlens Noel and a first-round draft pick. He averaged more than 17 points per game in seven seasons with the Pelicans. He's one of the best defenders in the NBA being named to the All-Defensive team twice (2018, 2021). Holiday was traded to the Bucks in November 2020 as part of a four-team deal.

Holiday was the difference maker in Antetokounmpo's absence during the Eastern Conference finals against the Hawks. He scored 25 points and dished out 13 assists in Game 5 and followed up with 27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in Game 6 that closed out the series.

“I’m here to win,” Holiday said. “None of that stuff really matters to me. I think being put in this position to win and to have a chance to make it to the Finals and take advantage of that is what I’m here for.”

P.J. Tucker

Tucker is the newest addition to the Bucks squad, joining in March 2021 in a trade that sent D.J. Augustin and D.J. Wilson to the Houston Rockets. He’s had a long career with several different teams, including playing overseas from 2007-12. 

Tucker played for the Phoenix Suns' summer league team in 2012 and signed a two-year contract shortly afterward. He had a brief stint in Toronto before being traded to the Rockets in July 2017 where he played nearly four seasons.

The biggest impact Tucker has had on this Bucks playoff team is his defense. He was able to disrupt Kevin Durant in the first series against the favored Brooklyn Nets and has made the team more versatile defensively with his knack for switching on every player. With Tucker entering the starting lineup, the average age of the starting five is 31. There’s a lot of experience on this team and much more depth than teams in the past.

More from Yahoo Sports:

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.
Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting