Coming into the new season, the Phoenix Suns have a few clouds hanging overhead.
One of them is over starting center Deandre Ayton’s head. Ayton is the youngest starter on the team, arguably third or maybe even second-best player on the roster, getting into an argument with head coach Monty Williams during their blowout loss in Game 7 of the second round of the 2022 playoffs — way back on May 15th.
Since that game, with the season over, the Suns dispersed. When a player tested positive for COVID-19 the next day, even individual exit interviews were cancelled. The team conducted only one group meeting over Zoom, and then bid the players and coaches farewell for the summer. When coach Monty Williams held a media conference later that day, he said he had not spoken one-on-one to Ayton about the incident, and had no plans to.
Then four months passed, which included Deandre Ayton becoming a restricted free agent, never receiving an outright contract offer from the Suns, soliciting an offer from the Indiana Pacers, and watching the Suns match that offer within minutes.
Two and a half months have passed since the Ayton signed. He’s been in the Suns gym working out for weeks now, hanging out with teammates at the Suns new practice facility for hours on end each day.
Coach Williams said at Media Day yesterday that he’s been here in Phoenix too, observing all the players for weeks, seeing what great shape they’re in and chomping at the bit to start the new season.
They’ve been in the same gym for weeks.
TL DR? There’s been a LOT of time and chances for Ayton and Williams to air out any differences they may have since that game seven, where Ayton reportedly said ‘I can’t pass myself the ball’ and Williams retorted with (or maybe even started the exchange with) ‘you freaking quit on us!’. Those quotes are all hearsay. Despite the game being televised on a national stage, no one caught the exchange for posterity.
But based on Ayton’s comments today, there definitely was an argument. And Ayton may still be waiting for him and Williams to truly patch things up.
Yet, Williams does not seem inclined. In a SiriusXM radio interview earlier this offseason, Williams said the whole Ayton thing is overblown.
“I’ve heard all that stuff (about he and Ayton potentially having a bad relationship through) second- and third-hand, all the narratives,” Williams told Justin Termine and former Phoenix Suns forward and current color analyst Eddie Johnson on Sirius XM’s ‘The NBA Today’ show. “And the bottom line is I have to coach, and all of our players will tell you that I coach everybody.
“When I have to make a move like that, it’s me calling them up. It’s never personal, and I think [DA] said it best when he did an interview, our relationship is calm. I’ve invested a lot of time into the player and the person, and when I do something like that, it’s because I want what’s best for you, but I also have to try my best to hold everybody accountable. At the same time, there are times in which I wish I could have handled things a little bit differently. I will take it myself. But our relationship, I don’t know where all that stuff is coming from.”
The Suns officially came back together as a team yesterday, and the new basketball season started this morning with their first practice. Ayton was a full participant, and was the first to take a podium
“I haven’t spoken to Monty,” Ayton replied plainly. “We haven’t spoken at all, ever since the game. (Long pause). I’m here.”
When asked what he would say to Williams, Ayton said simply, “I can show him better than I can tell him.”
Ayton spent the rest of the interview talking about how he’s committed to the team, helping the team win games, and when asked if he was happy he responded. “Yeah, I’m all right. When I’m in between those lines now I just work. I’m not playing for myself. I have an organization across my chest and a name on my back I have to represent. I’m just here to work, man.”
A few minutes after Ayton’s comments, Williams sat with the media and was asked to address that.
“Oh, well, I haven’t talked to a number of guys,” Williams said, with a shake of the head. He said he mostly kept to himself, staying up on the concourse while the players worked out, to give everybody a break. He says he tries not to have deep conversations with individuals while they’re just trying to get in a workout during the offseason.
“I’ll talk to everybody, as I do during camp,” Williams said, of whether this could be a problem. “It won’t be an issue at all.”
Williams spent a lot of time in Media Day talking about how he wants to increase Ayton’s offensive load, how he wanted Ayton back in Phoenix all along (“we never considered coming back without DA”), how things went exactly as James Jones expected, and how he thinks his relationship with DA is good.
Dario Saric says he thinks DA is as happy as always, as far as he can tell, and this is their third season together.
But still, Ayton sure sounded like he still needs a sit-down to air out that argument and move forward.