clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Phoenix Suns are at a crossroads

Can this team recover from the Luka Special?

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As this is a Dallas Mavericks site, we mainly stick to covering the Mavericks. But since it’s the pre-season, we wanted to cover what we think about some of the other contending or playoff teams in the league. Now, we have the Phoenix Suns

When a championship window opens for a team, it can be tempting as a fan to think that it will stay open for several years. When that team also features several promising young players, it is even easier to be convinced there will be several bites at the proverbial apple.

The Phoenix Suns and many of their fans believed such a championship window opened two years ago when they ended the regular season on a heater. The Suns then proceeded to dispatch both LA teams in 6, sweep the MVP in Denver and win the first two games of the NBA Finals. Then, Giannis happened.

When a team gets that close to the mountaintop, the belief that they are on the cusp of a championship bleeds over to the next season. Phoenix galloped out to a substantial lead for first place in the Western Conference and held that pole position throughout the season.

The playoffs brought a tough matchup with a Pelicans team that matched up surprisingly well with the Suns. New Orleans gave Phoenix all they could handle in a tough six-game series.

The next series ended in frustration and dismay for the Suns. It started with such promise as Phoenix posted home wins in Games 1 and 2 - only to see the Mavericks adjust in two notable ways for Game 3 and beyond. Luka Doncic used a hedging technique to show on the ball handler rather than accept the switch. This prevented Luka from being hunted and exposed at will by the Suns' offense.

The Mavericks also adjusted their defense to take away Devin Booker’s midrange game. Willing to live with the corner threes that would open up, Dallas crowded Booker on the catch and trusted that his passing would not make them pay with skip passes nearly often enough - and they were right.

Playoffs are about adjustments and by Game 7 it was clear Phoenix was out of answers. What’s worse for their franchise moving into this season are the fractures that took shape in that final game and the resulting questions that portend future uncertainty.

Starting center Deandre Ayton was essentially benched in Game 7 by head coach Monty Williams and the two had a heated exchange that neither denies created a major rift between them. Watching it in real time felt as though we might be seeing the last of the former number-one overall pick in a Suns uniform.

How are things now? Monty Williams told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst after the first practice of training camp, “I haven’t spoken to him at all, ever since the game. I can show him better than I can tell him. It’s life. Nobody cares about the uncomfortable nature of it, it’s how you perform and what you bring to the table. What’s said is already said.”

Within the last few days, both Williams and Ayton have cleared the air in the press saying everything is back to normal. But what else are they supposed to do? Say how they really feel about each other in the clear? That’s not how professional sports work. Not while you are still on the roster at least.

Ayton almost wasn’t - still on the roster, that is. The Indiana Pacers - a franchise whose owner has been historically averse to signing restricted free agents to offer sheets - inked Ayton to a ginormous deal. 4 years, 133 mil, which gave Phoenix 48 hours to match - which they did. It also did something else that potentially reshaped the NBA timeline for this coming season and a few more to follow. Players signed to offer sheets cannot then be utilized in sign and trade deals. The Pacers essentially short-circuited any possibility Ayton could be the centerpiece of a trade for Kevin Durant.

The Suns matched because they simply could not afford to lose such an asset for nothing. The two sides are stuck with each other - for now. Even if the relationship is irreparably damaged, Williams and Ayton will grin and bear it. They'll say the right things in the media and keep the outward smile until the restrictions against moving Ayton fall away. Ayton cannot be traded by the Suns until at least mid-January. Even then, Ayton has veto power over any trade for a full calendar year which means there is a strong chance this is his last year in Phoenix.

Ayton isn’t the only unhappy camper in Phoenix. Jae Crowder has made it very clear he wants an exit, post-haste. Tweeting and then deleting “99 WON’T BE THERE”, Crowder is absent from training camp as his agents work to find him a new home. Rumored destinations include Atlanta and Milwaukee.

Another dynamic hamstringing the Suns is the impending change of ownership. Without a buyer in place to purchase the team from the disgraced Robert Sarver, there is understandable hesitancy toward taking on any long-term money. Keeping the books as clean as they can will help facilitate the ownership transaction but could hinder the Suns in trade talks and may have slowed their pursuits in free agency.

Cam Johnson has been designated the new starting power forward. He steps into a starting lineup featuring Ayton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and an aging Chris Paul.

Was Paul’s poor showing in the playoffs an aberration or a sign of drastic decline? Did we see the start of fall-off-a-cliff aging that impacts some athletes in the back end of their 30s? The 37-year-old is likely to see plenty of rest in the regular season as the Suns coaching staff balances the standings against protecting their hall-of-fame point guard.

More questions abound on the roster. Can Booker expand his game beyond elite scoring to include better passing out of traps? Can Bridges and Johnson flourish if given more of a scoring role in the offense? Will the loss of Crowder impact the depth Phoenix has relied on the last two seasons?

An ominous sign of possible chemistry and focus issues sprouted up in the Suns' first preseason game when they fell 134-124 to the Australian league Adelaide 36ers. The preseason games against foreign teams are supposed to be layups, especially at home. That game may well be nothing - just a preseason chuckle to be had by fans of other teams. Potentially, it could be a sign the hangover from the historic game 7 loss to the Mavericks still lingers.

Dallas Maverick fans don’t have to imagine what it feels like to win the first two games of an NBA Finals at home, only two lose four straight. We lived it.

We also know what it feels like to lose in the playoffs the next season to a team you believe you are better than. Sure, the 2007 Warriors ousting the 67-win Mavs isn’t completely analogous to the historic beatdown the Suns received in game 7 as a number one seed - yet the emotional impact may well be similar.

Humility, perseverance, and the passage of 5 years eventually led the Mavericks to the 2011 title - with an almost entirely different roster. An achievement the Suns are still yearning for.

The Ayton drama, the Sarver exit, and an aging Paul make it seem less likely that the Suns will make another deep run in an improved Western Conference. Instead, Jae Crowder may be onto something as he skedaddles out of town in search of a better chance at a ring.