We all feel jilted at times, and we know even in the moment that our hard feelings are outsized and indefensible beyond “I have every right to be big mad! Just give me this moment!”
But when I read Kelly Oubre Jr.’s comments out of Golden State yesterday, I don’t necessarily see a jilted lover but moreso I see a man expressing frustration that he was more on the outs than we might have thought he was.
“Obviously I had a great year statistic-wise, but I had a lot of, just misunderstandings of who I was as a competitor,” Oubre told media about his days in Phoenix. “Because I was trying to lead a group, or try my best to be a vocal leader on a group that didn’t really understand how to make it to that next step. Obviously me being around the same age as everybody, it was just kind of like, you know, ‘bro.’ It was kind of a lot of pushback.”
Looky here, everyone was trying to learn how to be good at basketball last year, that was true. This franchise has been trash for so long, guys like Booker were trying to BE leaders and be LEAD at the same time. I can see why they didn’t naturally lean in to Oubre’s leadership attempts the same way they wouldn’t lean in to Booker’s own, or Bridges’ even (he’d won two NCAA tourneys with Villanova).
All the young guys — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and so on — were probably more interested in learning how to win from head coach Monty Williams and his staff, nine-year veteran Ricky Rubio and the big red Aussie Aron Baynes.
Kelly might have wanted to be a leader, but he was more one of the boys than one of the men and there’s nothing wrong with that. Now in Golden State, he can be led by a coach and players who went to five straight NBA finals in the last six years. He good now.
I am happy for Oubre. I hope he succeeds not only with his personal stats, but also with his team’s success. Is he a natural leader? Probably not. But can he be a great follower of Kerr and Curry’s leadership? Heck yeah.
Fans of the Suns will always fondly remember the Valley Boyz nickname Oubre gave himself and his teammates in spring 2019. Local media went wild, happy to be done with the Timeline and on to a glimpse of brighter days. The players went along, supporting Oubre’s merchandise sales along the way as he tried to make some good money off the new brand he’d created.
“That’s something I created, went through all the legal processes about it all, just went through trying to help a city come up from the ashes,” Oubre said of Valley Boyz nickname. “That’ll always be an energy that’s in the air. I can continuously just be proud of that, when I look back at who the Valley Boyz were, who the Valley Boyz are. I think they changed the Valley Boyz to the Fellaz. They can have the Fellaz, man.”
We’ll always have KO’s Valley Boyz. Thank you for that, Kelly!
Another thing we’ll always have, too, is a continued line of digs at ownership from former players and staff after they’ve left.
It started with Oubre declining to play in the Bubble — where his teammates went 8-0 without him, by the way — and never really explaining in a way that sat well with fans.
Here’s another attempt by Oubre to explain his absence.
“Yeah, it was a lot of back and forth about why I wasn’t playing or why I wasn’t suiting up in the bubble. But for me, it was just a mental clarity thing,” Oubre said.
He praised the team for playing with that fire, that energy, that he’d been bringing all year and wondered aloud whether he could have even made a difference if he’d played.
“I could either push it, help this team go 8-0 and give ourselves the fighting chance to make it to the playoffs, which they did that without me,” he said. “If I was there, would it have made any difference? Because as you can see, if you go back and look, all the guys were playing with that fire and that energy, that I played with all year trying to help the team get to the playoffs. I felt like I was still playing, even though I wasn’t. Because guys were playing with that same intensity.”
Kelly made a different choice instead, and my personal recollection was that Monty Williams himself had a hard time explaining Oubre’s decision to the media other than ‘we support him and don’t want him out there if he’s not mentally ready’.
“But I didn’t want to risk me coming back off of injury, not being my full potential, and then people blaming me for things that I necessarily had no control over,” Oubre said. “So it was a lot of that spiritual warfare going on. But I was there. I was there all in all, supporting and rooting the guys on, and just helping out when I could. But for me to be able to play, man, I just didn’t feel comfortable coming back from that injury when I didn’t have any time to really get my mind around how I was feeling. So, that’s what happened.”
I won’t comment on what leadership qualities I take from that quote. Everyone has to make their own decisions in life, and Kelly made his. Let’s see how it works out for him. So far, so good. He’s got a starting spot on a deep playoff contender this season, ahead of being the youngest unrestricted free agent on the market next summer.
Oubre’s darkest shade came in a comment about the difference between ownerships of the Warriors and the Suns.
“You just hit the nail on the head,” Oubre said during an appearance on “Damon, Ratto & Kolsky,” on 95.7 The Game in San Francisco. “I can play for an owner — somebody who actually cares about the organization and not just the perception of the organization on the media end of it. It’s all about the foundation for me, man. You have a beautiful foundation, can build a beautiful [future].”
There’s so much truth to these comments that it hurts. Oubre goes from a team that has cycled through front offices and coaching staffs like afternoon snacks to a team stabilized under the Lacobs with constant long playoff runs.
Yet those comments are still hurtful for fans of a Suns team that they just want to see succeed. We can hope that James Jones et al and Monty Williams et al can continue to lead the Suns into a new era of perennial playoff contention without the meddling — to bad ends — from ownership. We can hope he’s grown with wisdom into an owner who let’s his basketball people do the basketball things.
To that end, he gave head coach Monty Williams a mountain stability with a five year contract. And this offseason Sarver committed to spending in a big way. The Suns are spending well over the NBA salary cap and even tickling the edges of that thing called the luxury tax. This current roster is the most ownership has EVER spent on a roster (partially thanks to salary inflation of course). We shall see how long they can stomach the expenses necessary to stay competitive and if he will even push further to get elusive ring.
Robert Sarver has the deep shadow of Jerry Colangelo blocking his sunshine in the valley. Under Colangelo, the Suns made the playoffs nearly every season and were the NBA’s 4th winningest franchise, yet under the new ownership they’ve failed to make the playoffs for 10 straight years and became a league laughingstock.
Now maybe all that is changing. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst puts it, “Phoenix is a sleeping giant.” And ESPN’s Zach Lowe yesterday is so sure the Suns are playoff bound he simply just said so on his podcast yesterday without even feeling the need to explain himself.
The Suns have a very good, balanced roster heading into the 2020-21 season with the highest preseason expectations in a long time. They have the ingredients of a team that could fight for home court advantage in the 2021 playoffs.
The only way Robert Sarver can step out of JC’s shadow is to do something JC never could: win the whole darn thing. This year and next are his best chances to do it since Steve Nash was running the show. And maybe with Devin Booker in the fold, that window is even wider than Chris Paul’s contract.