When the Phoenix Suns were jolly stomped in their season opener by the Portland Trail Blazers, many fans tried to soften the blow by pointing out — accurately — that it was just one game and that there were still 81 to go. They tried to be rational, to keep from letting the emotions from one bad performance overwhelm common sense. Let cooler heads prevail, as they say.
They are bigger than I am.
It’s now been three games, and I am comfortable saying this is, at present, the worst iteration of the team in its 50 years of existence. An exaggeration, you say? In 3,970 games that spanned 49 years, the Suns had only lost a game by 40 points four times. It took the 2017-18 Suns the first 48 minutes of the season to carve another notch in the bedpost of shame, embarrassing itself in its season opener in ways never before seen in the annals of NBA history.
They “bounced back” against the Los Angeles Lakers, losing by only two. Never mind the fact that the game looked like a glorified YMCA scrimmage or that the Lakers were on the second game of a back-to-back or that LA might be about as lousy as Phoenix this season. It was only a two-point loss so progress.
And then there was last night. The Suns brought their 50th Anniversary Misery Tour to the Staples Center to play the Los Angeles Clippers and suffered the third-worst loss in franchise history.
In three games!
Something is seriously wrong with this team. There is no fight. There is no passion. And there are far too many good vibrations coming out of the head coach of this school bus fire.
“I think that we have to become close as a team,” coach Earl Watson told azcentral.com’s Scott Bordow after the loss to the Clippers. “We have to be real about it. We knew with a young team there was going to be adversity, but the part that’s most disappointing is the lack of unity. The guys love each other, but it’s the selfless acts that really take you to another level, whether it’s a veteran team or a young team. Our margin for error is so small. We don’t have the luxury to be distant from each other throughout any part of the game.”
Bull. Crap. The Chicago Bulls, the only team in the NBA younger than the Suns and one that recently had one player send another to the hospital, haven’t lost a single game by 40 points yet. Heck, they haven’t lost a game by 20 points. But please, Earl, tell me again why the 40-point losses are a result of guys not being close as a team.
This is not to place sole blame for the Suns’ abominable play at the feet of Watson; there’s plenty of manure here to spread around evenly. But an incident after the Portland loss involving Watson is certainly a symptom of the overarching issue. During that whooping, anyone watching the game saw Marquese Chriss sulking around the court like a spoiled child. He played 12 minutes off the bench and made little more impact than his five fouls. The day after, Watson took Chriss out to dinner to talk things over.
“I just told him at practice, ‘We’re going out to dinner tonight,’” Watson told Bordow. “He said, ‘Cool.’ So we get to dinner and I go, ‘You hated me yesterday, huh?’ He said, ‘Kind of.’ I said, ‘Cool, you’re supposed to hate me.’ I told him I loved him, so we’re all good.”
The players aren’t supposed to hate or love their coach. They’re supposed to respect him. But respect is hard to come by when you’re taking your pouty sophomore player out to dinner to make sure he knows you love him. Why this conversation couldn’t have taken place in Watson’s office is beyond my understanding because the message that needs to be delivered couldn’t be more clear: You played like garbage during Summer League, and you played like garbage during the preseason. If you want your starting job back, quit playing like garbage. End of story. Message delivered, and you didn’t even need to calculate a tip.
Watson treats these players with kid gloves while the rest of the NBA couldn’t care less about their feelings. Everything’s all hugs and kumbaya at practice; then the games begin, and they get their teeth kicked in. Why? Because Watson has convinced these young guys they’re stars already. Why else would Devin Booker say something as inconceivable as “It was a reality check for us” after the Portland loss? Why in the wild blue yonder would a team coming off 23- and 24-win seasons and a 2-3 preseason record need a reality check? They shouldn’t need a reality check. Reality has been punching them in the gut for two straight seasons.
But this team that’s part Barney, part gaping maw of madness is the brainchild of general manager Ryan McDonough, and he is now reaping what’s been sown. His nurturing head coach is a personable guy who has shown no growth in the key aspects of being a head coach. His young, talented players have no concept of accountability, no schooling in fundamentals, and based on quotes like the aforementioned, possibly a tenuous grasp on reality. Meanwhile, his veteran leaders look completely checked out. Eric Bledsoe, for instance, tried to lock down the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball with defense as efficacious as saloon doors and followed it up with a four-point, four-assist, four-turnover night against his former team, the Clippers — a matchup he usually gets up for. Instead, Bledsoe played that game like he just came back from a funeral — or maybe it just hit him that the 2017-18 Suns have a terminal illness.
But that’s what you get when you blatantly flaunt your disregard for winning in the here and now. You get a team that puts forth effort after effort that makes Suns fans embarrassed to call themselves such. Congratulations, Ryan. You’ve successfully constructed a laughingstock.
Yes, there are still 79 games left in Phoenix’s 50th season, and I am willing to be proven wrong in my assertion that this is the worst Suns team ever. But with a point differential of -92 through the first three games (another record, by the way), they’ve given fans no reason to believe something better is on the horizon, allowing the trickle of hope surrounding #TheTimeline to be choked off by anger, despair, and apathy.
The anniversary may be golden, but the team is nothing but iron pyrite.