NBA

The offseason has become Kevin Durant or the bust of the Phoenix Suns

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After two missed swings at an NBA championship, there’s a distinct scare on Planet Orange:

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The Suns will be left with the bag. The one they should have given Deandre Ayton a long time ago.

Strike three. We went out.

If you feel like our basketball future hangs in the balance, welcome to Arizona, where the Suns are considering an impending divorce from a former No. 1 draft pick; where Kevin Durant is the Durantidote, an iconic, moody player who would complete a deadly dangerous Super Team in the Valley; and anything less will represent an inglorious end to a short-lived era of dominance.

The stakes are dizzying. You are forgiven for feeling the effects of vertigo.

Exactly one year ago on Monday — July 11, 2021 — the Suns were leading 2-1 in the NBA Finals. A lot has happened in a calendar year. We were energized by the additions of JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet; we saw the best regular season in franchise history; and we celebrated the awards and recognition given to Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and head coach Monty Williams.

We were also taken down by a rolling rock named Giannis, the escaped draft pick (Luka Doncic) and the total collapse of the team’s internal culture. We’ve been treated to another round of harrier luck in the most recent playoffs, including one of the most gruesome Game 7 implosions in sports history.

Our pain and angst was temporarily diverted by Durant’s preference to star alongside Devin Booker and Chris Paul. The trio would be a powerful rebuke to newly crowned champions Golden State. That would give the Suns a handful of hardcore basketball killers. This would return our NBA franchise to the pinnacle it held at the end of the regular season: favorites to win an NBA championship.

Many lessons have been absorbed since this point. The Suns have learned that stars earn rings, not culture, bench players and prolific regular-season winning streaks. The Suns learned they needed CP3 insurance, a back-up plan to protect them from their injury/illness-prone point guard. They need another star player who can relieve Booker and take charge of a playoff game.

Durant’s arrival in Phoenix would check all the boxes. It would also mark the end of Innocence, where the organizational approach shifts from local culture to mercenary, where our schoolyard clumsiness is traded for black hat villains, where the Suns will be the last team despised for having tried the NBA’s HOV route. They will no longer be a team fueled by homemade Monty-isms. They will become a team looking for the other side of ease.

If they fail to acquire Durant, the Suns risk falling completely out of favor. They seem ill-equipped and unwilling to mend fences with Ayton, the windy giant capable but too often unwilling to wreak havoc on a basketball court. It could have been avoided.

Suns apologists have long championed Ayton to curry favor with the organization, to help cover a draft pick that could have been Luka. Their air changes with the wind. But even his fiercest criticism came in the 2021 playoffs, when Ayton proved he could dominate on basketball’s biggest stages.

You don’t let go of players like that.

But the Suns chose not to pay him. And then, at last year’s trade deadline, they considered moving him to Domantas Sabonis of the Pacers. Even though Sabonis is a lesser player. Even though the Suns had the NBA’s best record of a mile. Even though they had elite team chemistry that shouldn’t have been tampered with. Alas, they chose to gamble with success.

Ayton read the tea leaves correctly, proof that the Suns weren’t going to reward him with a max deal no matter what happened in the 2021-22 season. The Suns accused Ayton of failure and disappointment, then they lost him. Because they didn’t like its price.

The script appears to leave the Suns in a precarious position. It’s Durant or Bust. And in that case, let’s hope the NBA superstars still get what they want in the end.

Contact Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta every morning from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Arizona’s sports station 98.7 FM.

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