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With Ayton out, Suns 2021 Finals team truly dead and gone

Crazy that was only two years ago!

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Look, I’m not now and never have I been a fan of trading away the best player coming or going. The Suns won the last two major trades — Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal — but this time they decidedly did not. We all saw it coming, because this time the player to be traded away was Deandre Ayton.

For two years now, the Phoenix Suns have made former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton available in trades, and for two years they pulled him back because the offers were too low. You recall the summer after the 2021 Finals, when 2018 draftees Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton became eligible for big-money extensions on their rookie deals? Ayton’s people wouldn’t consider anything less than a rookie-level super-max (one that could escalate to 30% of the salary cap) but for a number of reasons the Suns declined.

Red flags included worries that Ayton would succumb to the ‘disease of me’ once he got his rookie extension. That he would descend into the whataboutme trap that ensnares so many young players.

So extension talks ended, and Ayton entered the 2021-22 season with one year left on his rookie deal. A great year would earn that supermax after all. A bad year would prove all the skeptics right. Ayton did both — improving in every statistical category to force the Suns hand on a mini-max while simultaneously infuriating his skeptics with lack of consistent effort.

Did the Suns play a part in Ayton’s regression since the 2021 Playoffs? Yes.

But is Ayton really the one at fault for being dumped by a title contender onto a tanking team for pennies on the dollar? Resounding yes.

Now Deandre Ayton will operate in obscurity, while the Phoenix Suns have half a season to cobble together another title-contender with a new coaching staff and only one returning player (Devin Armani Booker) from the best Suns team in three decades.

Somehow, the Sportsbooks are giving the Suns even better odds (+600 today compared to +650 yesterday) to win the NBA title now, but I have more concerns than ever.

Why do I say they have half a season to get this team humming, or at least show the world that this mix can win a ring? Because new owner Mat Ishbia has less patience than a rabbit in a vegetable field.

As recently as February 8, 2023, the Suns still rostered the top seven players (eight overall) and the coaching staff from that 2021 NBA Finals team. That continuity was justified, boasting two All-NBA guys, three max-salaries, a Coach of the Year, a contender for Defensive Player of the Year and the most regular season and playoff wins in the league since 2021.

But insiders and outsiders saw cracks in the foundation. One starter just up and left the team. Another showed up, only to go through the motions. Another was like the Winter Warlock after losing his powers. Add in a perpetually-miffed coach and unprecedented injuries and you’ve got a team that was really a shadow of its former self.

On February 9, they hit the reset button. Mat Ishbia put up 4 billion dollars, including two billion in cash, to buy the team. A day later, he traded half those Finals guys for Kevin Durant.

Six months later, all but one of the them have been traded, most of the coaching staff has been replaced, and the Suns now enter the season with a whopping 13 new players since the playoff loss to Denver. Thirteen!

The only players left from the Game 6 Denver loss are Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee and Ish Wainright. And don’t be surprised if those latter two are released by end of training camp. The Suns will need to be down from 17 to 15 players before opening night on October 22. With a spendy owner, don’t assume the two cuts will be money-oriented.

By Opening Night of the 2023-24 season, on the road against the Golden State Warriors, we might only see 2 of the guys who suited up in purple and gold the last time these teams faced off, a mere seven months ago.

Booker and Okogie might be the only Suns that have ever played the Warriors in a Suns uniform before. That night projects to be Kevin Durant’s first game at the Warriors’ new home Chase Center. He has not played on the Warriors home court with fans in the stands since he blew out his achilles the 2019 Finals.

Winds of change, indeed.

The Phoenix Suns you see in 2023-24 won’t look anything like the guys who won the Western Conference title just over two years ago.

But can they be the best iteration yet?

(my ranking order of the 2023-24 is total guess at this point. After the top four, it’s all basically the SpiderVerse)


Which Suns roster is better?

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  • 21%
    (71 votes)
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    2023 Opening Night
    (266 votes)
337 votes total Vote Now

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