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Deandre Ayton is shrinking back rather than stepping up in the moment he’s needed the most

Deandre Ayton, to some extent Mikal Bridges, are failing to lead the Phoenix Suns through a difficult stretch

Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

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You are right now witnessing the worst iteration of Phoenix Suns basketball since they broke through to the ‘other side of hard’ in 2020 after a 10-year playoff drought.

The Suns have lost 11 of their last 15 games. Five of those losses were by at least 19 points, and four of the 11 were to teams with losing records. The four wins in that span include a pair of victories over Clippers and Lakers teams that sat half their rosters due to rest or injury.

After blitzing through the NBA for two-plus seasons with by far the best winning percentage of all 30 teams, they now look like one of its worst. In this 15-game span, the Suns are sporting the league’s 10th-worst offense and 2nd-worst defense. Only the Charlotte Hornets (3-12) have a worse 15-game record than the Suns (4-11).

For sure, injuries tell a big tale. In that 15 games, the team’s two best players — All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul — have barely played together (5 games, 15% of the possible minutes). And not one minute of that span has been played by starting forward Cam Johnson.

But the Suns have withstood injuries before. They were 9-5 earlier this season without Chris Paul (foot), 11-4 without him (thumb) and Cam Johnson (thigh) last year during the regular season, and 2-0 without him in 2021 Western Conference Finals. They’ve survived without Booker too, going 8-3 last year during the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs.

But this year is different.

Booker-less games this year look a lot more like Booker-less games from the lottery years, when they went 4-17 in games without Book over the two seasons before the Point God’s arrival.

The Suns are now 2-7 this season without Booker (or, 2-9 if you include the 4-minute stint against Denver and the game in which he pulled his hammy during crunch time of a one-possession game against the Pelicans). Compare that to 18-11 (or, 18-9) with him in the lineup.

Doesn’t get any easier

And the upcoming schedule is nasty. Five of the next seven games are on the road, where the Suns are just 6-13 this season, and six of those seven games are against winning teams. In fact, 9 of the next 10 games overall are against winning teams, with only 4 of those at home.

All those games, at the very least, will be played without Devin Booker in the lineup. He won’t be re-evaluated for his groin injury until at least January 26 and may not play again until sometime in February. By then, the Suns might be closer to great lottery odds than great playoff seeding.

Earlier this week, Damon made the case that maybe the Suns should lean into that lottery scenario all the way.

And there’s some merit to that thinking if the Suns continue this downward spiral. If the Suns lose even 7 of these next 10 games without Booker, they will be looking up at 10 or 11 better teams in the Western Conference alone. No matter how much of a difference-maker Booker is upon his return, that’s a steep steep hill to climb in the last 25 or so games of the season.

Ride it out?

I’ve been a believer that the Suns should ride this out until Book comes back and make a run then (they were 16-7 with the league’s best point differential and best record in the West, even without All-Star Chris Paul!), but I did not envision the Suns looking this bad along the way.

Five losses by 19+ points in the past month. Dazed and confused facial expressions. Some spirited bickering on the sidelines of close games, but way too much acceptance of losses when the early-game scoreboard looks grim.

That 16-7 start has devolved into a 4-11 skid. And one of those four wins this past month was looking a lot like another blowout loss until Booker erupted for 58 points to lead the Suns back from a 24-point deficit. Just like he willed them to a 22-point second half comeback on opening night against Dallas. That’s two of the three biggest comebacks this season in the NBA.

Who steps up now?

Without Book, there’s no one left to will this team to victories.

Chris Paul is a shadow of his former Point God self. Sure, he’s putting some numbers in the box score again but it all seems so forced and he doesn’t influence the game anymore. Teams have figured out Paul’s kryptonite: stick your longest, lankiest defender on him — someone he can’t see over or bully past — and he’s more like Ricky Rubio than Chris Paul.

Something about Paul is just ‘less’ this year, even in a leadership role. When asked by Duane Rankin after the Knicks loss about the Suns lack of fight, all Paul would say he tells the team is, “Just keep playing, keep playing.” That’s a stark contrast to Paul’s 2020 comment of “Show me a guy okay with losing and I’ll show you a loser.” Maybe behind the scenes, Paul is fighting just as hard to get guys’ attention as ever. Except, if that’s true, they must no longer be listening.

Paul’s decline is excusable. He’s already one of the best 37 year olds to ever grace a basketball court, but Father Time is still Father Time and six feet tall is still six feet tall, and those things may have finally gotten the better of him.

The failure of the team’s top 2018 Draft Picks is much less excusable.

Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, both entering their athletic and basketball primes, have sat by and watched their leaders walk away (Jae Crowder), regress (Paul) or fall (Booker). And they’ve simply failed to fill the void.

Over this 4-11 stretch, Ayton is posting his regular numbers: 18.4 points on 59% shooting and 9.1 rebounds. Those are fine, but shouldn’t they have ticked up in the 11 games Booker has missed because Ayton’s the team’s leading remaining scorer?

Bridges numbers have somehow gotten worse in Book’s absence rather than better. He’s averaging 14.7 points on 38% shooting with 3.1 rebounds in the 4-11 stretch, way down from standards he’s set the last two years.

Together, they are only taking on 3.4 of Booker’s 21 shots per game, and not doing much with it. Chris Paul and Landry Shamet are each taking 5 more shots per game in this stretch, while the rest are primarily split among Damion Lee, Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie. None of those guys is as good as Devin Booker. In fact, they’re miles apart.

How is it possible that Ayton and Bridges are taking fewer of Book’s shots (3.4 combined) than either of Chris Paul or Landry Shamet?

Because they just aren’t ‘that guy’.

With Book out and Paul diminished, they are getting extra defensive attention on the catch and they don’t have the offensive repertoire to stand up to it. Even worse, potentially, neither of them has the mentality to put a team on their back on both ends of the court.

You could potentially excuse the offensive issues if they’d at least make up for it on defense, their calling cards, but that’s not the case. They have clearly let their own and their team’s offensive struggles have a negative impact on their defense. How else do you explain the Suns defense being one of the league’s worst despite still boasting its two best talents on that end?

So the Suns are rudderless.

In Book’s absence, and to a lesser extent Chris Paul and Jae Crowder’s absences, no one is stepping up to will the team to victories.

“Mentally and emotionally, I’ve got to get our guys stronger,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

Big problems begin in the first quarter for this team. If their shots aren’t falling, they’re getting behind. And if that deficit gets to 15 or more, hoo boy the show is over.

“I don’t even know, man,” Ayton said to Duane Rankin after the Knicks loss. “I don’t even know what’s going on. For me, I can tell you this. I’m not used to the no fight in us. I’m used to us being down a hundred, and we still are going to pull out and win the game. We still have that mentality like we’re about to win this game. We’re good.

“Right now, we don’t have that. So that’s the only thing that’s going on throughout these games and why we’re losing.”

Sounds like a leadership thing. Sounds like a failure to simply be that guy who steps up, leads by example on both ends of the court, and impacts the outcome of each game in a deeply positive way.

You can’t ask that of lesser role players like Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Damion Lee, Torrey Craig, Ish Wainright or anyone else whose ideal NBA role is taking 3-5 shots in 15 minutes a night.

And in THIS context, of finding a leader to carry the team on their shoulders, you can’t ask that of Mikal Bridges or Cameron Johnson either. Sure, they take 10-12 shots a game, but they don’t have the offensive skillset to take over. That’s just not who they are.

No, there’s only three players on the Suns who were given the basketball gifts to take over a game night after night: Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.

One of those is injured. Another is age-diminished, which might drop him into the Mikal/Cam category.

That leaves only one guy with the talent and skills to step up and carry a team: Deandre Ayton.

Maybe he’s limited offensively to the 20 points on 13 shots a game, but Ayton has no limits on his ability to defend on the other end of the floor. Captain the defensive coverages, protect the rim, form a wall and stop the other team from scoring so damn much. He’s been that guy in the past two years. He’s just less of that guy this year.

He also has half dozen opportunities every night to force free throws through contact when the defense collapses on him. On every catch, there’s six opponents’ hands digging at the ball. Swing up hard through the contact and you’ll get at least 4 more free throws per night! And if he starts becoming a regular at the line, they’ll stop doing so much swarming, which opens back up his offensive game.

That’s how Ayton can make a bigger box score difference every night. But it won’t happen until he internalizes it, and points the finger at himself.

I’ve always been a big fan of DA for his personality — yes, even when he does handstands at the end of practice — and his skills. I’ve loved his production and his dedication to two-way basketball.

But I am no longer in love with his mentality. He’s comfortable as a high level role player. He doesn’t see himself as a star among his teammates. He wants someone else to do the uncomfortable leadership stuff.

For now, DA and the other players are just processing the results, trying to hold each other collectively accountable.

“We said what we needed to say without a team meeting,” Ayton said to Duane Rankin after Monday’s loss. “No extra gathering. We said it right here, and with the coaches in it. I think next game, everybody knows what the task is and everybody should know their damn assignment and know their damn role and do their role perfectly. That’s how you win games. Everybody knowing their role and their personnel and each other.”

But who’s going to be that vocal leader at the beginning of games and during the game? Whoever’s been doing it lately has failed. It’s got to be someone new. Someone who can back up their own talk with actions.

This is where Ayton, or even Bridges, can make a big leap. They can become that demanding, vocal leader who calls people up rather than calling them out. Bridges may not be able to lead the Suns statistically, as I mentioned above, but he — just like Jae Crowder in years past — can lead his team emotionally and spiritually.

Despite being the young guys (24 and 26, respectively), they are old enough to lead. They are old enough to decide they are no longer just the good listener. It’s time to take over huddles, call guys up, and expect perfection on every play.

“We just got to really lock in and fight,” Ayton said. “Right now, we can’t be thinking that somebody’s going to feel sorry for us or thinking somebody is going to save us – nobody is going to save us.”

Maybe this ugly stretch of basketball will shake one or both of them out of that listener, learner mode and into that leader, motivator role.

If not, it’s going to be a long long month.


Next Up

Suns (20-18) play at Cleveland (24-14) tonight. The Cavaliers are one of the best teams in the NBA this season. For the Suns to beat the Cavs, they’re going to have to play a hundred times better than these last three games since the win over Memphis just last week.

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