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Is Deandre Ayton an all-time great center? Espo tackles that and other quandaries

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In this week’s #BSoftheSuns Espo welcomes special guest Deadpool Writer Rhett Reese to talk Suns.

2018 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Sometimes things are just too good to keep private. I’m not sure if this is one of those cases but I’m going to share it with you anyways.

No, I don’t have some special insight into which point guard, if any, Ryan McDonough will trade for or the background on how the Suns convinced the NBA or the basketball gods to be allowed to draft the gift that is Deandre Ayton.

Instead I have something slightly more personal and far less important to share.

Over the last five years I’ve had the privilege of getting texts, Twitter DMs and emails from the talented and funny writer Rhett Reese. The subject? Our beloved Suns. This is one of those conversations.

Espo: I never know how to start these things so we’ll start here. I’ve always been fascinated with the entire concept of a team’s celebrity fans. Heck, I even wrote a job description blog for one while working for Suns.com. Do you qualify as the Suns celebrity fan and, in the entertainment world, do you guys have some kind of draft to select who gets which team?

Rhett: If I’m the Suns’ celebrity fan, then we’re definitely hurting for celebrities. That said, I’d take me over all the Lakers’ celebrity ‘fans’ who usually sit in their agencies’ seats, watch through sunglasses, miss every dunk because they’re texting, and think Kobe is still on the team. Most actors/singers/etc. who live in Los Angeles are from somewhere else, so the so-called Lakers fans among them invariably switched their allegiance upon arrival in California. WHICH MEANS THEY WERE NOT, ARE NOT, AND WILL NEVER BE TRUE FANS. The word ‘fan’ is derived from the word ‘fanatic’. Fanatics don’t switch teams on the Santa Ana breezes. These people. My question to you, Greg, is, is there ANY scenario in which you would jettison the Suns as your favorite team? The answer had better be the one I’m hoping for…

Espo: How about you tell us how you really feel? For your sake I hope you’re not planning to pitch any scripts to Denzel or Jack any time soon.

But would I switch my fandom? If you had asked me that question a decade ago it might have been a different answer. Not because I loved the team any less but simply because if I had left Arizona it would have been much more difficult to follow the team. Now with streaming, social, The Athletic and highlights in more places than outlets streaming original scripted content, it’d be extremely easy to remain a fan even if I moved to Antarctica.

There is one small caveat. If a team wants to back up the Brinks truck and hire me my allegiance is for sale. (Kidding .... maybe.)

Speaking of loads of money, do you think Devin Booker lives up to his $158 million deal?

Rhett: In 2014, Rob Liefeld, the co-creator of Deadpool, who is just about the biggest Laker fan I know (a REAL Laker fan, not the ‘celebrity’ variety), was contacted by Houston GM Daryl Morey and asked to create some original artwork of Carmelo Anthony to help convince Anthony to join the Rockets. And Rob did the artwork for Daryl. I gave him such a hard time for it. How could you help a RIVAL team attract star players?! Seeing the impact Anthony has had on his various teams, though, I think Rob sensed Carmelo would actually sabotage the Rockets! We’ll never know.

In answer to your question about Devin, I think he is *absolutely* worth the max deal. The Shaq/Kobe 2.0 metaphor is a good one. Booker is a wizard. What can’t he do? The easy answer is ‘play defense’, but let’s be honest, very few young players can play defense. Booker will do a better and better job as the years pass, as, for instance, Steph Curry and James Harden have. To this day, not enough has been made of Booker’s 70-point game. He was a TEENAGER. He scored 51 points in the SECOND HALF. Totally unprecedented. I was also in the building last year when he hit that deep, contested three to send the Milwaukee game into overtime. All I could think was, STAR. Pay the man. I was not ready to relive the Joe Johnson debacle.

As a fan, I love hope more than anything, and suddenly we’ve got it. First Josh Rosen threads all those needles in his first game as a starter. Then Ayton drops 24, 10, and 3 (blocks) on a Kings front line that averages 6’11” in his first preseason game. I’m bouncing off the walls right now. Seriously, hit me with a tranquilizer dart if you get a good look. Mark my words, Ayton will be BETTER than David Robinson or Patrick Ewing. More on par with Shaq, Hakeem, Kareem, Russell, Wilt. Embiid better slow his roll. Where do you think Ayton ends up in the pantheon of great centers (barring dreaded injury)? Do you feel like pure energy is flowing through your veins right now?

Espo: Remind me to never ask Rob to draw anything for potential Suns free agents.

Not going to lie, I feel like I just found Blind Al’s secret stash and went on a three hour purple and orange bender — not the Dragan variety — during the first preseason game.

Surface of the Sun level hot take here, Ayton is already the best center in Suns history after one preseason game. Which is like saying you’re the hottest guy in robotics club. It’s not much but hey it’s all we’ve got.

I feel like if you’re going to have some kind of visual representation of the greatest centers of all time it should be something tall and grandiose. Think the Chrysler Building. Right now Bill Russell is the spire for me. Greatest of all time in terms of stats and rings. After that it’s Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal on the next level and then Hakeem, David Robinson and Kareem. Somewhere in the sub-basement are most Suns centers like Danny Schayes, Joe Kleine and Alex Len. Ayton will likely be somewhere between that sub-basement and the Eem level.

Honestly though, if he stays healthy he has the chance to be between the second and third levels of the Chrysler Building which would make him a top 6 center of all-time.

Problem is, there are so many ifs between first preseason and the hall of fame and, as a Suns fan, I just never expect anything good is truly possible. Why is it that so many of us feel that way and are we basically creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Rhett: Robotics club! Ha! Great line!

I’ve told this story before, but I’ll do it once more in writing so I can record it for posterity. I was in Vegas for Summer League in July and watched Ayton go head-to-head with Mo Bamba. One time down the court, our point guard fed Ayton the ball in the post. DeAndre gathered the ball in with one hand, and then slapped his second hand onto the ball with such a thunderclap of sound that the entire arena - 15,000 people - ‘oooohed.’ To me, it was the shot heard round the desert. I’ve rooted for the Suns since 1979, and we’ve never had a guy who could make that sound when grabbing a ball.

It’s tempting to think a franchise and its fan base can actually doom themselves with negative thinking. But now we’ve lived long enough to see the Red Sox and Cubs break their streaks. There’s no such thing as magic in sports. Fairy tales are for children’s books. Curses are for horror movies. I really believe sports is all about execution, moment by moment, play by play.

All that said, the Suns may be on the worst non-championship streak in pro sports. I know you and I have privately despaired that we may die before we win rings. Let’s talk positively for a moment. What’s the best case scenario for the next ten years in your mind? If we were to end up champions, what would our most likely path have been?

Espo: I feel like you’re at an unfair advantage here since you write fiction but here goes nothing.

The 2018-19 Phoenix Suns shock the NBA as they get 19 more wins than Vegas predicted finishing 47-35 and sneaking in as the eighth seed in the West. The great season coincides with the acquisition of Patrick Beverley as the season begins. He’s a stabling force on both ends of the floor. Devin Booker takes the next step and is in the scoring title discussion. Deandre Ayton runs away with rookie of the year and the second closest vote getter is Mikal Bridges. The Sunderella ride comes to an end and they turn back into the bright orange pumpkin in the playoffs as the Warriors sweep them in Round 1. The loss stings but it’s a great learning experience. Oh, and it has a hidden benefit. It gives Kevin Durant a front row seat to watch the young Suns.

In the offseason after winning another ring with the Warriors he decides it’s time for a new challenge and he liked that young and hungry team he went up against in the first round. At 12:01 AM on July 1 he decides he’s going to don the purple and orange.

Year one falls short of the championship aspirations as Durant and the young Suns become true Phoenicians as they lose to LeBron and the Lakers in the second round.

The next year the unthinkable happens. Booker wins MVP, Ayton finishes second and Durant is just loving Phoenix. Suns steamroll everyone on the way to their first championship ever and compete with LeBron and his son trading the next six NBA championships.

How’s that for fiction? In reality they don’t get a veteran point guard, Booker plays well, Ayton struggles with injuries and has an Amare type career and they’re good but never great together.

But hey, dreaming is like a rainy day in Phoenix, a nice reprieve but unfortunately not our everyday reality.

What’s your dream scenario?

Rhett:

I’ll take a slightly more vague approach. The idea is to keep the core of Booker / Ayton / Jackson together for the next 15 years... using the ‘gravity’ that results to make Phoenix a popular free agent destination again. In the short term, maybe we land a Kemba Walker. In the long term, maybe it is someone of Durant’s stature. The key is to do what Oklahoma City failed to do with Durant, Westbrook, and Harden: keep the band together. In my dream scenario, we win two or three rings as the core trio approaches 30-years-old. We’re going to need to see Steph, LeBron, and Durant age out of contention first.

In the meantime, we hope the Lakers never win with LeBron, the Celtics fail to get over the hump, and the Spurs dry up and blow away like so many tumbleweeds. Those are my preferred villains.

And in the meantime, Josh Rosen has become Joe Montana. Because I think he has it in him.

Here’s a question. Can you remember ever transitioning from feeling this hopeless to this hopeful so quickly as a Phoenix sports fan? The Cardinals have NEVER had a young franchise quarterback, and the Suns have NEVER had a dominant center. Yet suddenly, we appear to be on the verge of both. Not since Chambers or Barkley arrived have I felt like this!

Espo: Montana? You do realize this is for Brightside and not RevengeoftheBirds.com, right? And let’s not crown his ass yet. This is still the team and city that has taken everything nice we’ve had and ruined it before it reached its pinnacle.

Apparently I’m incapable of joy because I look at the situation with cautious optimism. I feel hope that we are on the verge of a Renaissance. That Phoenix basketball is about to spread its purple and orange wings and rise from the ashes. There’s also this tiny voice in my head that says ‘yeah, they’ll rise just high enough to do their best Hindenburg impression and burst into the most glorious dumpster fire flames you’ve ever seen’.

I’ll say this, in both cases this is the best and most promising young talent that has been assembled and that excites me. Neither team has truly built from within. The fact that the Suns next best championship chance could come with guys that were drafted here and homegrown is truly exciting. It would make winning a title that much more exciting.

Speaking of exciting, what are the chances I can play a zombie extra in Zombieland 2 who wears a Dan Majerle Suns jersey and chases Jesse Eisenberg around? I figured since you’re in this state of euphoria about our sports team that I might be able to sneak this request by.

Rhett: Fine, fine, I’ll shut up about the Cardinals!

Before we sign you up for your Hollywood debut, be warned. The actors playing zombies on the Zombieland set were treated worse than anyone. No one wanted to eat with them because they looked so disgusting. They had to stand in tattered clothing overnight in twenty-degree weather. Truly, they were treated like second-class citizens.

Here’s a question, what was your most disappointing in-game moment as a Suns fan, and what was your most exhilarating moment?

I think I can guess your first answer. Mine, however, is NOT the John Paxson three, if only because I think even had we won that game, we likely would have lost the series in game seven. No, my choice is a bit sneakier. I can’t remember exactly which year this was, maybe ‘94-’95, but we had gone up 3-1 on Houston in the conference semifinals. Very few people remember, at the end of game 5, in Phoenix, we were down by two points, and Wesley Person launched a WIDE-OPEN three at the buzzer that would have sent us to the Western Conference finals. And he MISSED. That miss didn’t get seared into our collective memory because at the time, we figured we’d still win one of the next two games and advance. But we didn’t. And looking back, THAT shot was the closest we ever got to wearing rings. Person hits that, we advance and beat the Knicks in the finals (Jordan was swinging-and-missing at baseballs, remember).

By contrast, my most exhilarating moment was when we knocked out the Lakers in the Chambers pre-Barkley years, the year after L.A. swept us from the playoffs. I hated the Lakers so much. We would go on to lose to the Blazers in the conference finals, but getting that monkey off our back at that particular moment was the happiest I ever was as a Suns fan!

Espo: The treatment of the zombies sounds spectacular to me. Keep in mind I worked two summers in minor league baseball in Tucson. The thought of being treated like a second-class citizen while hungry for brains beats whatever the heck that was.

PAXSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, you were right. That was my most excruciating in game moment. I couldn’t shop at the store Pac-Sun or watch Bill Paxton movies growing up all because of that damn three. Game 7 at home in the Finals? We have a ring, 9 year old Espo is on the top of the world and my psyche remains in tact. I never want to work in sports because there isn’t a gaping Larry O’Brien sized hole in my heart and I become a doctor, lawyer or something that actually pays the bills despite working 70 hours a week. Damn you John PAXSON. Damn you Danny Ainge for not playing defense. Damn you city of Chicago for being one of the luckiest basketball cities. And damn you basketball gods for, well, everything.

As for the best moment, that’s tough. As callous as I come off at times, the Suns have brought me immense joy throughout my life. They have been with me for over 30 years. They’re family and like all families, I can say bad things about them but an outsider damn well better not. The 1993 NBA Finals triple overtime game was amazing. Chapman’s circus shot against Seattle in the playoffs was legendary. So much of the Seven Seconds or Less era enthralled me. But the one common thread between all of those on court moments? The voice of Al McCoy. My favorite on court moments were the ones where I got to listen to Mr. McCoy call them. He is the greatest Sun of all-time and I don’t think I’d be as big of a fan or wanted to work in media without him.

Ah crap. I think we have to cut this “short.” I hear our fearless Brightside leader Dave yelling at me for not getting this in on time and for it being almost as long as one of his pieces. So we’ll end it here but we’ll have to do this again soon.

To quote Gone With the Wind, “Rhett I’m so sorry, for everything.”

Rhett: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. ‘Til next time!