NBA

Can the Suns win a title without Deandre Ayton next season?

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At their dysfunctional worst, the Suns were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Owner Robert Sarver continued to give the Ferrari to teenagers with learner’s permits. He continued to hand over basketball operations to people who were young, inexperienced, controllable and approachable. Ultimately, they would be fired for everything they weren’t in the first place.

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At their dysfunctional worst, the Suns also made terrible decisions on the verge of a championship trophy. They wouldn’t pay Joe Johnson in 2005. They wouldn’t pay Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010. Either way, the Suns had just made the Western Conference Finals. They are never guilty of trying too hard or spending too much.

And now, Deandre Ayton.

During his four years with the Suns, Ayton was suspended 25 games by the NBA; raging fans with its high ceiling and low engine; outplayed everyone but Giannis in the 2021 playoffs; continued to improve each year; and was embroiled in a heated exchange with head coach Monty Williams after being benched in Game 7 of a blowout loss to the Mavericks.

The ups and downs have been absurd. But the question isn’t whether Ayton is worth $30 million a year. He is not.

The question is whether the Suns can compete for a championship next season without him. The answer?

Good luck.

Through a tapestry of unsourced anonymous reports, we’ve heard that Ayton is likely leaving Phoenix; that Williams is tired of Ayton’s waning focus; that Ayton has been tweeting for some time about his impending departure; and that rapper Lil Wayne overheard Williams telling Ayton that he “quickened us.”

Undoubtedly, there were internal issues towards the end. Something was clearly wrong. During a first-round series against the Pelicans, Williams made it clear he didn’t want to be part of a story that would glorify Ayton’s commitment to the group, for putting community success ahead of his contract.

Because it wasn’t true anymore.

But there are also a lot of scapegoats here. If the team were so tired of Ayton’s attitude down the stretch, would they have satisfied their desire to have their young son on the field during road warmups in the playoffs? The latter is something you do for the family, when there is a strong bond within the group.

It doesn’t make sense that a player as beloved and airy as Ayton would suddenly be consumed by individual glory and dollar signs just as the playoffs approached. But here is the biggest question of all:

Why and what were the Suns thinking when considering moving Ayton before the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline?

On trade deadline day, the Suns smoked the Bucks 131-107. Their record was 45-10 and they had won 15 of their previous 16 games. After Ayton’s transcendent post-season in 2021, why would the team consider replacing him at this stage of the season, if not to control costs?

Imagine if you’re Ayton, the only one not financially rewarded for the Suns’ magical run to the NBA Finals two years ago. The team even traded and paid Landry Shamet in advance, on sight. They effectively embarrassed Ayton among his peers, as he watched others in his draft class receive their contract extensions. They asked him to be patient, to be a good teammate, to accept his role and all the vicious internal criticism that comes with playing alongside Chris Paul.

And he seemed to grow. There was a time in that first-round series against the Pelicans when it seemed like every shot he took went to the basket, when he was the keystone to quick starts in the first quarter.

In the early years, many who felt indebted to the Suns comically defended Ayton at every turn. Because they knew the team slaughtered the No. 1 overall pick by not selecting Luka Doncic and they were doing the required damage control for the organization.

As the fiercest former critic, I find the turn of events staggering: I’ve come to love Ayton when many who claimed the same no longer seem so dedicated. He is no longer a hill worth dying on. Now that he’s due for a huge payday, of course.

For all the great culture shifts and stability of recent years, the Ayton saga feels too much like the rolling, burning, and constant whirlwind of drama that marked an earlier era. When it was always about money.

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