Mess around on the internet long enough, and you start to understand how arguing about sports works. Just a few hours removed from the Andrew Luck news on the NFL side of things, I’m sure you all see what I mean. Taking a cue from Zach Harper of The Athletic, let’s imagine some of the predictable story lines that might occupy the hearts and minds of Valley hoops fans — and national analysts — when it comes to the new-look Suns this season.
This isn’t to say any of these are right or wrong, or that there’s no sense to a particular storyline. Fans, analysts and reporters will always see things slightly differently, as will people at the local level versus the national level.
1. Is Deandre Ayton soft?
There were very few expectations for Ayton last year. Despite being widely assumed as the No. 1 pick, attention turned away from Phoenix soon after the first week of the season, and Ayton was able to make mistakes and pile up counting stats without much scrutiny.
As the Suns look to take a step forward in Ayton’s second season, that will change. One thing casual Suns fans and national viewers may not have seen from Ayton very often was the brutal honesty with which he evaluated his own performances as a rookie. Whether it was Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Jarrett Allen or even Willie Cauley-Stein, the All-Rookie first-teamer didn’t go easy on himself by any means after tough outings, but also shared too much sometimes.
For some, part of being a good teammate and earning respect from your opponents is, whether it makes sense or not, to hold your head high and project confidence even when things aren’t going your way. Everyone leads differently, and Ayton doesn’t have to be like every other big man to be successful in the NBA. But the discourse surrounding the league, especially for guys as physically imposing as Ayton, is that they have to perform cockiness, strength and dominance — or they don’t have “it.”
So let’s say Ayton fails to grab a key rebound in a close loss or gets out-muscled in the post on a last-second winning bucket. You know the sharks will circle, smelling the blood from a guy who is so up front about his failures and doesn’t always display the hustle and physicality we associate with dudes his size.
2. OK, Devin Booker’s team is winning now, but is he the reason?
This one could also be listed under, “Why wasn’t he doing this before?”
No one outside of a select few obsessive fans and local analysts should ever be forced to scroll through the dozens of teammates who have cycled through the Valley during Booker’s career. The point remains that this is the best roster he’s ever played on and he can finally build chemistry with a legitimate young core.
Guys like Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes will steady the ship and make the minutes when Booker is not on the court more livable for the Suns. On some nights, Rubio will be good enough to lead the team in scoring or assists. He’s a good player. Baynes, Tyler Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr. and other newcomers are going to help a lot as well.
Booker’s top scoring nights have come in games in which journeymen like Tyler Ulis, Jimmer Fredette and Dragan Bender played big roles. The worst player in the Suns’ regular rotation this year will be... Frank Kaminsky?
So no, Booker won’t have to be the best player on the floor every night for the Suns to win games. And inevitably, that will lead to questions over why he wasn’t able to pull this off earlier in his career, or whether he can be the best player on a good team. Be smarter. Don’t conflate playing a role on a better team with taking a step back from a talent or value perspective. Let the guys who talk out of their you-know-whats do that.
3. Will Robert Sarver do what it takes to put this team over the top?
Well hold on. Now we’ve ended up too far down the tunnel toward actual truth. As with the discussion surrounding the Kings this past year, once teams start winning, NBA fans want to see how a disappointing franchise screws it up.
Oh yeah, Sacramento? You think you’ve got a nice little core there? Let’s see what you do with that first-round pick you punted away and all the cap space. Can’t wait until you overpay Harrison Barnes and go right back to the cellar.
Put a timer on it. Should the Suns achieve what they hope to achieve, fans will up the ante. Attention will then turn toward Robert Sarver and whether he can get out of the way and let the growth continue. General manager James Jones has put this team in position to build going forward and maintain flexibility. Jones is also well-respected around the league.
Sarver isn’t. Can Sarver keep Booker happy as he makes his way through his second contract and fans worry about a possible trade demand on the horizon? Will Sarver let Jones continue to operate freely and build this team according to the GM’s vision?
Right now is far too early to be asking those questions. But statistical models and thoughtful analysts have the Suns nearly doubling their win total in 2019-20, meaning momentum could build in a hurry. To wonder whether Sarver will shepherd a meaningful building process is to be cognizant of the past 15 years of Suns history.