So much for that two year joy ride through the Western Conference for the Phoenix Suns, huh?
The trio of Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have been very good for each other. Paul is the leading assist man (10.8 per game, 1st in league) and third leading scorer (14.7). Booker is the leading scorer (26.8, 12th in league) and third-leading assist man (4.8). Ayton is the leading rebounder (10.2, 13th in league) and second-leading scorer (17.2).
All three are good two-way players, helping the Suns finish 5th in offense and 3rd in defense this year among the 30 NBA teams.
They fit together like a glove the last two seasons, winning more games than any other team (136 wins to 53 losses, including playoffs, for a 72% win rate). In last year’s playoffs, the three stepped up as the clear top-three players on the West’s best team and made the Finals in their first year together.
On an individual level, Chris Paul got two All-Star and (likely) All-NBA nods plus a four-year $120 million contract extension, Devin Booker got a pair of All-Star and (hopefully) his first All-NBA nod and an incoming five year contract extension worth over $200 million that will lock him up for the next seven years, and Deandre Ayton got... well, nothing to show for it yet.
Booker will make $33 million next year, Paul will make $28 million and Ayton will be a restricted free agent looking for a four-year commitment from someone, anyone.
Paul is the oldest of the three, at 37 now, with a very short NBA future. Only a couple of players have been All-Star level at 37+ in league history. Booker is only 25 — in the sweet spot of his prime. Ayton is the youngest, at 23, with high productivity and impact despite his lack of focus and no major injury issues in his history.
I put this in perspective because it’s all three of these players who completely laid an egg in the second round of the playoffs — topped off by an embarrassing 33-point loss at home in Game 7 — and now leave the Suns with some big decisions to make this summer.
Mainly, should this trio continue wearing purple and orange together next year?
Certainly, the ‘what have you done for me lately’ gets a ‘nothing much’ answer.
In Games 6 and 7 of the Suns-Mavericks series, Booker scored only 30 points combined, missing all 8 of this three-point attempts.
For the series, Paul averaged only 5.7 assists after leading the league with 10.8 per game, culminating in only 8 total assists in the last two.
In Game 7, Ayton posted just 5 points and 4 rebounds in 17 minutes after averaging 17 and 9 over the first six games.
Ayton infamously made headlines by snapping back at head coach Monty Williams early in the second half of the 33-point blowout loss in Game 7, suggesting he did not want to go back in the game anymore.
Down 38 to the Mavericks at the time, Ayton, Paul and Booker had COMBINED for only 9 points and made just 2 of 16 field goals (DA had 5 of those points and both of those field goals).
The argument was not caught on TV, and neither Ayton nor the Suns are commenting, so all we have are fans trying to be lip-readers.
Here’s the only part seen on TV, which as you can see happened just four minutes into the second half moments after Ayton had failed to close out on a corner three point shooter.
Here is the only clip of the exchange that the TV caught where DA responded to Monty that led Monty to ask what he said. pic.twitter.com/rAWgcFFSY0— Mr.ORNG (@PHXMRORNG) May 16, 2022
The Suns were already down 38 at that point. Players admitted knowing at halftime, with a 30-point deficit, they had almost no chance to get back into the game. So when Dallas started the second half with another 8-0 run to get up 38 points, the rest of the game was just an exercise in running out the clock.
I don’t blame DA for not wanting back in the game, especially after being Dallas’ pigeon — either in isolation against Luka Doncic or by allowing open corner threes — all series. He was the victim in 25 of Luka Doncic’s 81 made field goals in the series. Check out this breakdown here, if you can stomach it.
But to tell the coach you don’t want back in is a big no bueno in competitive sports. By quitting on the game, you’re making your teammates pick up the slack in the worst possible time.
Later, head coach Monty Williams would not discuss DA specifically, but he did comment that Booker and Paul kept going in the game despite the score.
“Those guys don’t run,” he said of leaving them in the game even after the deficit got to 40.
Did Monty talk to DA after the game, or at least before they all parted for summer vacation the next day?
“No, we didn’t,” Williams said simply. “And you guys know me well enough, I’m going to do everything I can to help us win games and at that point with the lead where it was, I made a decision to not put him back in the game [at a later point]. I’ll keep all of the internal stuff internal but it was just a decision that I made. It also got to a point [later in the game] where I felt like Chris and Book were not going to help us on that particular night… No, we haven’t talked. I talked to the team today but I haven’t talked to DA personally.”
While all three of Booker, Paul and Ayton played terribly in Game 7 (and before that, for Paul and Book) they did not quit on their teammates and coach like Ayton did. That’s a big no-no.
What’s also a big no-no is failing to take your off-court time seriously. You might have seen an article recently on DA’s love for video games, where he admits sometimes getting two hours sleep the night before a game.
This was not news to the players or coaches, who’d spent the last two years constantly prodding DA to take it more seriously when he’s not on the court with the team. Proper sleep and nutrition can make or break a career.
“I care about him as a brother,” Booker said after Game 7, when asked about Ayton’s future with the team. “Just making sure his mental is right, making sure he’s straight off the court, just making sure he’s in the right position. We have that type of relationship. Whatever happens, happens. It’s kind of hard to look so far ahead in the future and try to determine your future. Just have to be ready to go.”
Mikal Bridges said only, “Just told him I love him no matter what. Just always love him, man. That’s what I told him.”
When head coach Monty Williams talked on Monday to wrap up the season, he spent only a minute on the Ayton situation...
“Deandre’s situation is something that we’ll deal with this summer. I don’t want to say anything in regards to that. (Suns general manager) James (Jones) and I are going to have conversations about the team in general.”
Now Deandre Ayton will be a restricted free agent this summer. That means he can negotiate a new contract with the Suns or sign an offer sheet with another team that the Suns have the right to match to keep him.
Ayton is looking for the maximum possible money. From the Suns, that’s 25% of next year’s cap with 8% raises for up to five years. From another team, it’s 25% of next year’s cap but only up to 5% raises and only up to 4 years.
If the Suns have decided to move on from Ayton, their smartest option is to trade Ayton to a team that wants to make him an offer he likes as part of a sign-and-trade.
James Jones has no interest in giving away the team’s third-best player who could easily be the second-best next season (depending on Chris Paul’s health) on a clear playoff team. The Suns won’t simply decline to match.
Worst case, they match the offer sheet and keep him with the intention to make it work here in Phoenix — which has been really good! — or trade him later when there’s an offer that makes the Suns at least the same or better in the 2022-23 season.
I repeat, the Suns will not trade Ayton for a package of contracts, players and picks that makes them obviously worse in 2022-23.
The highest likelihood is that Ayton is back in Phoenix next season, reasonably happier with a long-term contract in his back pocket, but still immature and uneasy with the role the Suns want him to have that he doesn’t really love: being the big man in a one-big lineup who’s job is to DominAyton near the rim, protect the rim and play with force.
Don’t you think the Suns would want to tap into Ayton’s growing offensive potential as a mid-post and high-post scorer who can launch an occasional three? Don’t you think the Suns would want to maximize his scoring potential, which likely stretches to 22-25 points per game on highly efficient 60% shooting?
To hear Monty Williams speak, his plan for internal offensive development is the same exact plan he had in training camp this past year — with zero mention of Deandre Ayton.
“How do I put those guys in a position where they can be more confident, when teams are taking away Book and Chris?,” Williams said of plans for next year. “That was the one thing that I’m seeing in the playoffs, when you watch all these games, everybody has three or four guys maybe that can put the ball down and go get a bucket.
“I’m asking myself over the course of the season, ‘Did I put those guys in enough positions so they can grow and do that?’ We thought that we did but when you look at this past series, maybe not. Were there opportunities for us to give (Suns forwards) Mikal (Bridges), Cam (Johnson) (and guard) Landry (Shamet) more opportunities to play in those 1-on-1 environments? Because in the playoffs, everybody knows your plays. You throw the ball around two three, four times, one guy gets it, and he goes and gets a bucket. And I learned that lesson from (Nets forward) Kevin Durant after the Finals last year. He was like, ‘Coach, look. The playoffs, when you get deep into it,’ he said, ‘You got to stop a guy from getting a bucket, and you got to go get a bucket.’ And a lot of the teams have guys that can do that. And I ask myself, ‘Am I preparing our guys to do that?’ I think we have guys that can. Mikal, Cam Johnson, what I saw from Landry in the postseason to complement what we have in Book and Chris.”
Williams wants to develop the ‘get your own shot’ abilities of:
- Mikal Bridges, 4th leading scorer at 14.3 per game who regressed offensively in the playoffs again (9.9 ppg vs. Dallas)
- Cameron Johnson, 5th leading scorer at 12.5 per game who also regressed against Dallas (10.6 ppg vs. Dallas)
- Landry Shamet, 10th leading scorer at 8.3 per game in regular season and 4.3 per game in the playoffs, both career lows
He mentioned five players there, including Paul and Booker, but no mention of expanding DA’s offensive role. Maybe that was implied. Maybe that’s assumed and didn’t need to be said. Or maybe he doesn’t plan for DA to be on the team.
James Jones, on Wednesday, played it clean and straight. Of course he expects to bring everyone back, including Ayton.
He likes continuity, and reminds us that continuity has been very good for these Suns and it’s important not to focus too much on a two-game sample over a two-year sample.
Jones also says that going into luxury tax territory to pay all these contracts is not a concern for ownership, and simply a cost of doing business with a really good team.
But DA, who turns 24 this summer and whose best years are yet to come, is definitely a source of frustration with the coach and the team, at least in terms of his preparation off the court. They want him to work harder and make better decisions off the court. Even on-court, they want him more locked-in and ready to maximize his potential as one of the top centers in the league.
Or, they may have to trade him, as long as the end result is a team even more ready for a Finals run than the current iteration.