The thought bubbles captured JaVale McGee’s frustrations with the Denver Nuggets’ playoff fortunes as well as his lack of consistent playing time. The thought bubbles also revealed McGee’s fascination with the Phoenix Suns, even as they swept the Nuggets.
“If I was there, it would’ve been crazy,” McGee told NBA.com. “If I was there, I would be excelling right now.”
Just over two months after the Suns eliminated the Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs, McGee received his wish.
He signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Suns last offseason in hopes to help them win an NBA title just as he did twice with the Golden State Warriors (2017, 2018) and once with the Los Angeles Lakers (2020). A good chance that might happen. The Suns (25–5) enter Thursday’s game (9 ET, NBA League Pass) against the Oklahoma City Thunder (10-19) with the NBA’s best record. They will then host the Warriors (25-6) on Christmas Day in what could become a preview of the Western Conference finals.
But back when the Suns lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in last season’s NBA Finals, McGee could not help but think his presence would have tilted the difference. The reasons?
The Suns had little answer for Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won Finals MVP after averaging 35.2 points on 61.1% shooting and 13.2 rebounds. Though Phoenix became encouraged with center Deandre Ayton’s play during his fourth NBA season, he became limited with five fouls during Phoenix’s losses in Games 3 and 6. And Suns backup center Dario Saric tore the ACL in his right knee in Game 1, which sidelined him for the remainder of The Finals and this season.
So what would have happened had the Suns had McGee? He answered as quickly as he runs up the court, throws down a dunk and blocks a shot.
“People aren’t shooting a high percentage at the rim when I’m in there,” McGee said. “The fact that they got DA in foul trouble in The Finals, there wouldn’t have been a drop off with me coming in as a backup.”
The Suns hardly have seen much of a dropoff this season.
Granted, plenty of that has hinged on other variables. Chris Paul runs the team with his crafty playmaking and demanding leadership. Devin Booker and Ayton are projected to be multi-year All-Stars. They have both a collaborative and commanding coach (Monty Williams). The Suns also have retained plenty of role players from last season’s Finals teams, including Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Cameron Payne and Elfrid Payton.
Yet, the Suns still went 7-1 when Ayton sat out with various ailments partly because of McGee’s presence. So much that Ayton described McGee as “the best backup I’ve ever had.” McGee has averaged 10.8 points on 66% shooting along with 7.6 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. If McGee maintains those numbers, the Suns said he would become the first player in NBA history to average at least 10 points and seven rebounds while playing fewer than 16 minutes per game in a season.
“My goal was to be the most efficient person in the league,” McGee said. “I try to be that and use up all of my minutes that I can to get as much impact as I can on the defensive and offensive end. I feel like I’m being very successful at that right now.”
How the Suns landed McGee
No wonder McGee admitted he “was salivating out of pure jealousy” when he watched the Suns dominate their series against Denver while he sat on the Nuggets’ bench.
“I saw the things that Deandre Ayton was doing out there and the way Chris Paul was facilitating the ball and controlling the team,” McGee said. “I felt like I was an easy plug in that backup spot. I could be just as relevant as DA in that role and helping it not be a drop-off from a starting center to the backup center.”
McGee maintained he did not talk with any Suns players until free agency officially started. But he hardly needed much of a sales pitch once the Suns expressed interest.
Consider the contrasting roles McGee said he outlined during separate talks between the Suns and the Atlanta Hawks.
“They weren’t guaranteeing that playing time,” McGee said of Atlanta. “They were saying if one of the players came back, they would have to experiment with that, too. I don’t want that iffy. I want somewhere where it’s guaranteed I’m going to get a solid 15 minutes.”
Was that the Suns’ message?
“Yeah, for sure,” McGee said.
Why McGee embraced Team USA stint despite limited playing time
McGee hardly received that message when he joined Team USA to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. He received an invitation as an alternate after Bradley Beal (COVID-19) and Kevin Love (right calf injury) withdrew. McGee averaged 6.3 points on 79.9% in only 5.0 minutes per game in four out of six possible appearances.
“I understood I was the last addition. So, I was just excited to be there,” McGee said. “I was excited to be there with my teammates. Some of the greatest players that have ever played the game, I got to be in that conglomerate.”
Not only did McGee join a gold-medal team that included Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Booker. McGee became part of the first son-and-mother duo to win Olympic gold as his mother (Pamela) helped the U.S women’s basketball team to a gold-medal finish in the 1984 Games. During the latter part of McGee’s career, he has become used to being around accomplished players. He won two NBA titles in Golden State with Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. He won another NBA title with the Lakers with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo.
“My resume is going to be so crazy from this,” McGee said. “It’s a crazy concept when you think about all the championships I’ve won and who I’ve won it with. Now I can say I won an Olympic gold medal with all of those guys around that team? It’s amazing.”
How McGee has helped the Suns
Because of that limited playing time, McGee did not subscribe to the old adage that playing on Team USA has helped him this season with his conditioning and on-court chemistry.
“I was locked in before I would even go to USA, to tell you the truth,” McGee said.
It did not take long for the Suns to notice that. Phoenix coach Monty Williams became impressed immediately with McGee’s work ethics when he attended offseason workouts in L.A. Then, McGee trained with Paul and Payton, which included games of one-on-one against each.
Since then, Williams observed that McGee completes more drill work with Ayton following every morning shootaround. Williams observed that has “had a huge affect on DA.”
A telling revelation about McGee’s ongoing development. He spent the early part of his NBA career in Washington (2008-2012) and Denver (2012-15) fielding questions about his professionalism and work ethic.
“It’s just more professional things than anything,” McGee said of Ayton. “You got to remember he’s a young guy. Some things, he just doesn’t know. Some of the stuff is personal. I don’t really want to say it, but there’s some things you tell him with some tidbits here and there.”
The Suns have already marveled at Ayton’s quick learning habits, work ethic and willingness to take constructive criticism. So, the advice involves helping more with tactics than attitude.
“JaVale does a great job with rolling,” Ayton said. “You see how he gets his points early — he runs the floor pretty well and is just ‘o boarding.’ I’m learning to just keep crashing because he crashes the glass relentlessly. Sometimes I leak out just to get back on defense early. But he sometimes is telling me to try to muck the game up with another board or another possession for us.”
This job description might seem similar to what McGee fulfilled with the Warriors and Lakers. But there are some subtle differences. McGee played sporadically with the Warriors both as a starter and reserve, depending on matchups. McGee started more consistently for the Lakers in the regular season, only to become susceptible to changed roles for matchup purposes during the playoffs.
And with the Suns? He may not start barring an Ayton injury. Yet, the Suns are showing more investment in McGee as a reserve both with his minutes and his role. McGee did not experience such stability last season in Cleveland and Denver.
“The difference now is he’s counted on every night,” Williams said of McGee. “I don’t know if he was counted on every night with the teams he was on the last few years. I think that’s brought the best out of him and has allowed him to use that experience that he’s had with us.”
Not only has that resulted in McGee becoming what Williams called “an above average rim protector” because of his stellar athleticism and communication. It has resulted in the Suns straying away from the modern NBA and putting more emphasis on their frontcourt play instead of just focusing on outside shooting.That could give the Suns a distinguishable advantage against smaller teams and ensure the Suns have a speedbump against the NBA’s other top big men
“We get it to Chris, and he’s going to mentally get us into some screen and rolls and something that will get the ball to where it needs to be,” McGee said. “It’s really team ball with us and plug-and-play. Anybody can step up for everybody. There might be a little bit of a knockoff. But it’s definitely still consistent on winning basketball.”
No surprise then that McGee believed the Suns’ title fortunes would have been different last season had he joined the roster. This summer, McGee might find the answer he wants.
“I felt like I was going to fit in perfectly before I came here,” McGee said. “We’re definitely in the right spot.”
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NBA Digital Sr. Analyst Mark Medina will be answering questions each week in his NBA Mailbag.