After a long offseason filled with drama, the Phoenix Suns are ready to hoop
Following an NBA Finals appearance a year ago, the Suns appeared well on their way to another. They came into the playoffs this past spring as the team to beat, an odds-on-favorite to win it all after setting a new franchise record with 64 regular season wins, 8 better than anyone else in the league.
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But their title hopes flamed out quickly in a Western Conference Semifinals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, concluding with an embarrassing Game 7 blowout defeat at home.
Head coach Monty Williams got more time than he wanted to think about it over the summer and is still finding it hard to put behind him.
“Family time, a lot of reflection, but it was longer than I wanted, and that bothered me from a professional standpoint,” Williams said. “You try to get away from it, but you’re always thinking about why my summer was so long and why I am in this place and that place and why am I cutting down trees in Texas when I should be practicing.”
After perhaps his best season as a pro, averaging a career-high 27 points per game, superstar guard Devin Booker seemed ready to take the next step to becoming an NBA champion.
While the untimely loss to the Mavs still stings, he says it made him appreciate it how hard it is to win a title. And now has new resolve.
“I’m moving forward. You know, the praises, the falls, I take everything that comes with this. I think that’s what makes this a beautiful sport. That’s what makes it my story,” Booker said. “(There's) Unfinished business. I’m gonna be on the grind throughout my whole career, throughout my whole life, so it feels like just the start for me.”
While trying to shake off a disappointingly short playoff run, the Suns have also had to deal with some off-the-court drama.
Following a ten-month investigation and right before the start of training camp, the NBA announced it had suspended team owner Robert Sarver for a year and fined him $10 million for racist and sexist comments in the workplace. Soon after, he announced he would sell his majority interest in the team.
Suns point guard and team captain Chris Paul, a former president of the NBA players association and a team captain, spoke out immediately, saying the findings were disturbing.
“It was tough just like anybody reading all of the different things, as far as the N-word, it was more so all of things that people have to endure in the workplace,” Paul said.
For coach Williams, the owner’s conduct was also personal.
“I have a white wife, my stepson is white, and I have five Black children,” Williams said. “And just thinking about them living in a world where these kinds of things still happen, that bothered me, so I’m no different than you all.”
Booker was appalled as well, saying it wasn’t the Robert Sarver he had gotten to know. At the start of training camp, he felt the issue had threatened to linger like a dark cloud over the Suns’ upcoming season.
“I think it was on its way to becoming a distraction,” Booker said, “but now that he’s chosen to sell the team, I think we can move forward and focus on the goal at hand and that’s playing basketball.”
The owner’s conduct was especially difficult for James Jones, who was hired by Sarver as the team’s first Black General Manager and is credited with building a championship-caliber roster.
“I think that’s the best outcome for everyone involved,” Jones said. “The players, the fans, the staffers, everyone who impacted on many levels. It brings some closure to a long period of discomfort and uneasiness.”
And there was another big issue hanging over the franchise this off-season: whether to keep former No. 1 overall pick, center DeAndre Ayton.
Ayton, who was a restricted free agent, signed a 4-year, $133 million offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers. The Suns had the right to match the offer and did so immediately.
“We were clear from day one that we wanted DeAndre here," Jones said. “I’m not on social media as much as many. They speculated that we did not want DeAndre — I think it was evident we were very proactive in matching and making sure he was staying here in Phoenix.”
The usually chipper Ayton, who attended University of Arizona and has lived in the state since coming here from the Bahamas as a teenager, didn’t seem thrilled about staying for his big payday.
AYTON: I was happy. It was all done. I guess.
REPORTER: That's it?
During media day, Ayton even revealed that he hadn’t spoken or had any contact with his head coach since that painful Game 7 loss when Williams benched the big man for much of the second half in a 123-90 drubbing by Dallas.
AYTON: I haven’t spoken to Monty. No, I haven’t spoken to him at all, even since the game.
REPORTER: Not even to ...
REPORTER: Are you happy here?
AYTON: Yeah, I’m alright.
Williams has been tight-lipped on the matter, telling media members he wouldn’t discuss his relationship with Ayton, who indicated more recently that the two had patched things up.
Then, there was even more off-season drama for the Suns when forward Jae Crowder announced on Twitter he wouldn’t be at training camp. The Suns released a statement saying they had mutually agreed to part ways and would seek to trade him.
But that hasn’t happened yet. And with one-year and $10 million left on his contract, Crowder, a key cog in the Suns NBA Finals run two years ago, will start the season on the inactive list.
Meanwhile, the Suns — through it all — remain one of the favorites in the West, and a now 37-year-old Chris Paul says basketball remains the unbreakable bond.
“Luckily for us, basketball is our happy place,” Paul said. “That’s the one place I absolutely get a chance to be, and there’s no phones, there’s no TVs, there’s no nothing. You oughta see when we play our pickup games — it’s like the freest moment because you get a chance to hoop.”
And they’ll have a chance on opening night to see if they can put last season behind them against the very team that sent them to an early long hot summer.