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With frustration mounting, the Suns’ leaders are searching for answers and not finding much

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The culture in Phoenix has long been in question but this week has brought the worst out of all involved.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the first quarter of Thursday night’s home tilt against the Trail Blazers, Devin Booker tallied his 5,000th career point, becoming the fifth youngest player to do so. His response? “It’s a blessing to be here in the NBA and living out my dream but at the same time, I really don’t care.”

His landmark accomplishment came in a 14-point loss the Suns really had no chance in after the first quarter. In fact, most of his accomplishments have come despite team failure. Booker scored 70 in Boston in a 10-point loss. He signed his $158 million extension after a 21-win season in which the Suns became the first team in NBA history to finish at the bottom in both offensive and defensive efficiency as a team. To not be frustrated at this point would be far more peculiar than to degrade one’s own statistics in search of team progress.

Booker continued postgame on Thursday by saying he knows what needs to come next — winning. “Now I’m just at a point in my career where I just want to be a winner. I’ve done the individual accolades. … For me it’s about learning how to win and we’re not doing that right now.”

Looking at the four players younger than Booker who got to 5,000 points colors the difference between the teams Booker has been on and those his peers won with:

  • Dwight Howard, an All-Star by his third season, made a Finals in Year 5
  • LeBron James, an All-Star in his second season, made a Finals in Year 4
  • Kevin Durant, an All-Star in his third season, made a Finals in Year 4
  • Carmelo Anthony, an All-Star in his fourth season, made a conference finals in Year 6

Comparing Booker to these superstars is actually enlightening despite what he said about those milestones taking a back seat in his mind right now. Booker gets paid and produces like a max superstar but is not treated as such by referees the league. That discordance certainly seems to creep into his mood on the court — Booker’s 18-point first quarter flurry against Portland felt like him saying, “This is what I can do, what do you got?” to everyone on the court, including his teammates.

It’s easy to see the differences between Booker and the rest on this list in the fourth year of his career as well as the scary similarities between he and Anthony. But looking at the team the Suns have built around him, the question of laying fault turns paradoxical quickly. Booker and the rest of this Suns team are losing patience, as evidenced by the embarrassing Booker-Dieng backstage brawl that wasn’t and a half-hour players-only meeting in the visiting locker room in Denver on Friday.

“We show we can play really good basketball and then we go into a black hole,” big man Dragan Bender said Thursday after his third start of the year. “We kind of take bad shots and then that reflects on our defense getting back.”

A black hole. That’s the best description I’ve heard a player offer up this season. The irregular effort, lackadaisical hustle to start games, the steps backward that greet every step or two forward — it feels like a vacuum of team basketball that rears its head the moment things get tough.

Josh Jackson told me pregame Thursday it’s an uneven team mentality that gets in the Suns’ way when foul calls betray them or the other team catches a big break. He noted specifically that the Suns as a whole complain far too much to referees, which often looks like it cascades into an us-versus-them battle between the Suns and the officials.

Jackson also said Booker did not address the team after his ejection against Minnesota. Jackson didn’t seem bothered, and coach Igor Kokoskov only said, as he always does, that his biggest problem is Booker not being on the court to finish the game because of his mistakes. Those types of toned-down comments, combined with many players throughout the year saying it’s a domino effect or a snowball effect once they get down big, are worrisome.

It seems the frustration is coming from Booker at the top and trickling down, only Booker has not been there to pick up the pieces and refocus the team. He feels he’s at a level that should earn him far greater respect from officials to even the playing field between he and other superstars he plays against night to night. It’s not happening and it’s getting to him.

So things came to a head with the players-only meeting in Denver, after more than a week of icky morale. The man brought in to maintain a positive mood in times like this, the 19-year veteran Jamal Crawford feels, like Bender, the Suns showed they have a recipe for winning throughout the year and it’s just about carving that recipe into stone, unflappably returning as a team to what works in down times like these.

“We’ve shown when we do the right things, we have a formula (for) winning, to be honest with you,” Crawford said Friday night after the meeting.

If anyone can quell anger and refocus the Suns’ negative energy, it’s Crawford. But among the players on this roster, losing is taking its toll, infecting the psyche of the team’s usual leaders to harsh the culture and threaten the rest of another rebuilding season.