The Phoenix Suns are currently languishing in their worst losing stretch in three years, having lost 16 of their last 21 games while the majority of their preferred playing rotation is out with injuries/holdouts. They sit in 10th place today, just a game out of 13th place but also only a game out of 6th place in tighttightight midseason Western Conference.
Vibes are tense. Players are lashing out at coaches, and coaches are getting frustrated with players. A lot of that washes away with wins, but the Suns aren’t winning anything.
It’s time for a change to the core of the team, even if they all magically get healthy in the next two weeks. The Suns have just under four weeks before the trade deadline on February 9, and today one more big asset became trade eligible.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton is trade eligible today, and though he still has veto power the way he’s carried himself this year you might expect him to welcome any trade that comes his way.
I’m ready for the Suns to trade Deandre Ayton if they can get back an All-Star who can help carry the Suns deep into the 2023 playoffs. In the current recovery timeline, all but Jae Crowder are expected back in the lineup within two weeks. If the Suns can mix up the talent a bit with a big trade, they will have 30+ games to find their mojo and hit the playoffs playing their best basketball.
Current trade assets include role players Dario Saric, Jae Crowder and Landry Shamet, plus every upcoming first round pick.
Ayton trumps those assets by a wide margin.
Per Collective Bargaining rules, the maximum-salaried Ayton was not eligible to be traded until today, January 15, after the Suns matched a four-year offer sheet he’d signed with the Indiana Pacers to get that second contract he had been wanting since the day he was drafted No. 1 overall 2018.
Famously, while doing media rounds ahead of the 2018 Draft, Ayton said success in the NBA is “getting to my second contract; that’s success.” He was widely derided for this comment because he failed to say the tried and true ‘be the best player in the league’ or ‘win a championship’ that every prospect says when asked that softball question. Instead, he openly admitted wanting money-making longevity*.
*Let’s be honest, readers. He’s not wrong. WE ALL want money-making longevity. We just don’t say it out loud when asked in a job interview. We don’t say ‘good enough to keep getting paid!’. But we still want it, and it’s still the driving force of nearly every adult decision we make.
In that same conversation, he cited the desire to be a role model for Bahamians.
“It would be a big blessing,” said Ayton to ESPN in 2018. “Having that chip on your shoulder and carrying a nation behind me. It’s a huge opportunity to show that Bahamian people, we’re not just a country of just track and field athletes. Watching [fellow Bahamian and Sacramento Kings guard] Buddy Hield, [Michigan State guard] Tum Tum [Nairn], they’re responding too. It’s huge to be part of that.”
In the four years since joining the Suns on a $40 million rookie contract, Ayton has quietly given significant time and money to causes that help his Bahamian people. And when he signed the $133 million contract for his next four years, he was proud that he can now provide generational wealth to his family and continue his good works.
“This is a blessing,” Ayton told ESPN’s Andscape in a phone conversation after signing his contract. “This contract not only has generational impact for my family, but also with the way we are able to work in the Phoenix community and home in the Bahamas. That is the things that we go by.”
He’s moved many of his family and friends to the Phoenix area these last four years, often mentioning huge family dinners each Sunday, or whenever he’s available during the season. He relishes time with his son, born almost two years ago now, and constantly shares pictures and videos of them together on social media. His girlfriend and son are often at home games too, and he always takes time for special interactions with his son during pregame warmups an hour before tipoff. Off the court, Ayton is definitely getting the most out of his NBA career.
But on the court, Ayton’s been a study in self-preservation that could easily have been predicted — and was by many — way back in 2020.
Ayton’s carefree attitude never sat well with star Devin Booker, who sets standards for dedication to improving his craft.
Over his 8 year career, Book has blossomed from sharp-shooting sixth man type to bonafide league MVP candidacy. Book finished 4th in MVP voting for the 2021-22 season and was a top-5 candidate this year until he got hurt in early December.
Ayton’s attitude has also rankled Chris Paul, who’s made a career of pissing off his best big men by year three everywhere he’s gone, and head coach Monty Williams, who gone on record many times that an Ayton-centered offense is “not the way we play”.
In the meantime, the 2023 Ayton is scarily like 2018 rookie Ayton again. The range of skills Ayton is displaying this season basically matches the skillset he had upon entering the league. He’s regressed back to playing mostly matador-level defense, settling for long-range jumpers that clank off the back rim, avoiding physicality when the ball is in his hands, and sloughing off at any notion at team leadership during a stretch where he’s by far the best player on the Suns active roster. He appears more interested in the shots he’s getting than the shots he’s stopping.
Of course, 2018-19 is not the same as 2022-23. Rookie Ayton mostly faced disinterested opponents playing straight-up defense in an easy win over a terrible Suns team. Fifth-year Ayton is facing focused opponents with game-planned defenses throwing triple teams at him on every paint catch. The fact that he’s regressing under the pressure is as much a stain on Ayton as it is on his player development coaches. Correction, more on Ayton but at least some on how he’s been coached over five years.
The Ayton we are seeing today sadly matches
up down to the profile his critics have slapped on him for years.
Soft. Settles for the easiest way out of a play. Refuses to battle.
And that really frustrates me, as a long time Ayton defender. To supporters like me, he progressed tremendously in other areas during years three and four of his career. He became a really good, prideful defender who anchored one of the best defenses in the league. His ability to contest shots in the paint without fouling was a key part of the Suns ability to ‘shut the water off’ whenever they really needed it. His nimble feet allowed him to contest shots and contain big ball handlers on the perimeter too. He became a vocal signal-caller as the back line of the defense, helping perimeter defenders know which way to funnel their target and what picks were coming up on them. In 2020-21, the Suns ranked 6th in defense during the regular season and improved to 3rd in the playoffs through the Finals run. In 2021-22, they ranked 3rd in defense during the record-setting regular season before plummeting to 14th in the playoffs.
By the end of those 2022 Playoffs, all that Ayton progress had disappeared, and a new low point was discovered — being accused by his coach of quitting on the team in the midst of a 30-point blowout loss to the Mavericks that would end the Suns title hopes.
Then came the contentious contract negotiations in July 2022. He still wanted a maximum-possible five-year extension ($173M over 5) and the Suns still wouldn’t hand it over. So free agency began and he had to go out and find someone else to offer the best they could do ($133M over 4). Finally, the Pacers played along, only to see the Suns quickly match the offer and keep Ayton anyway.
“I’ve come to understand that this is a business,” Ayton told Andscape when he signed. “So, I was more anxious to know the end of the result so I could focus, move on and just get back to work. I just treated everything like a business. Just keep being professional, approach everything with professionalism and not looking too deep into it.”
Treating everything like a business can sap away from your loyalty. Oh he’s great friends with many of them, including Booker, Bridges, Johnson, Payne and others. Their bond will last forever.
But when it comes to coaches and the Suns front office, you can surmise by his play that his loyalty to them has waned in the wake of their loyalty to him being long gone. He’s no longer talking constantly about being that defensive anchor. He’s no longer talking pridefully about not getting the ball enough, that his picks and his rolls create space for others to excel, even if it’s not him.
Recently, Ayton and Monty Williams could be seen leaving a road arena in a very engaged discussion, which was later described loosely about him wanting more shots but being told he can’t get them if the defenses are engulfing him in the paint on every catch. Two or three on him means one or two open teammates who can take and make an easier shot.
Ayton’s touches since Devin Booker went on the injured list for groin soreness on December 18 have gone up, but his production is largely the same
- Before Book went down: 29 mins, 17 pts (62% FG, 12 FGA, 2.8 FTA), 9.5 rebs, 2.2 assists, 2.0 TO, .8 Blocks, with a +0.2 plus-minus compared to Bridges’ +4.2 and Book’s +4.6
- Since Book went down: 31 mins, 18 pts (51% FG, 15.3 FGA, 2.6 FTA), 10.7 rebs, 1.9 assists, 2.4 TO, .5 Blocks, with a -6.9 plus-minus compared to Bridges’ -5.9 and Paul’s -6.9
- Overall: +2 mins, +1 pts (-12% FG, +3.3 FGA, -0.2 FTA), +1.2 rebs, -0.2 assists, +.4 TOs, -.3 Blocks.
My takeaway: he’s the same Ayton no matter what. He won’t step up if he’s the focal point, but he’s even more highly productive if surrounded by All-Stars. See Kyle’s article the other day for a break down of where Ayton ranks this year in total production among big men, and you’ll see he’s not at star level but he does rank well for his salary.
The other takeaway is MY GOD the team is terrible without Book. Take him out of the lineup and the team just can’t put together any real consistent positive play. Without Booker, including the four-minute stint on Xmas, the Suns have lost 13 of 16 games.
Now Ayton is trade eligible.
If this last month tells us anything, it’s that no one on the Suns, including Ayton, can step in for Booker if he’s out. Last playoffs, Chris Paul stepped up for one round vs. Pelicans, but that appeared to sap every last bit of the 37-year old Paul’s magic. It’s gone now.
Now there’s no one left to lead the Suns into the future than Devin Booker. Booker can do it — he led the team without Paul, Johnson or Crowder to West-leading 15-6 record to start the year before injuries hit — but he needs help and the Suns need a new insurance policy and secondary isolation threat once the playoffs hit.
What the Suns need is a new second banana.
And if it takes trading Deandre Ayton to get that guy, do it.
Because I’ve seen all I need to see here — Ayton can help you win a championship IF he’s engaged and no more than the 3rd best offensive option on your team. But don’t expect him to carry a team through dark times.
And worse, he appears mentally checked-out on the Suns, while at the same time luminaries Chris Paul and Monty Williams appear equally checked-out on him. Sure they’ll keep it going as long as needed, but it’s a “got to” not a “want to”.
Starting today, trading Ayton is easier than anytime since the Suns made the 2021 NBA Finals 18 months ago. He’s got a clean $30 million price tag, which is the minimum going rate for a new second-banana playoff-changer the Suns need.
Being able to trade Ayton — who’s still just 24 years old, under long term contract, highly productive and still with a very high ceiling — could be necessary to land a big fish.
Now it’s James Jones’ job to go get that fish.