What bothers the 12th-place Phoenix Suns as a potential playoff team is being diagnosed every day in the injury report. What bothers the Western Conference’s reigning #1 seed as a contender is more complex.
The Suns fell from the qualifying tournament dock behind the once-forgotten Oklahoma City Thunder on another weekend with All-Star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul shelved. Jae Crowder, last season’s starting stretch, hasn’t played since requesting a trade back in September. Cameron Johnson, this season’s starting stretch, required knee surgery in eight games of this campaign. Of the seven top players who have made up Phoenix’s playoff rotation over the past two seasons, only Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton have played two-thirds of their games this season, and Ayton has even missed a handful of games with injuries.
It is not difficult to decipher why the Suns are 21-24 in mid-January. Their estimated starting line-ups have played just 67 minutes in six games together. They also became a beacon of hope for the Suns fans, beating their opponents by 43 points in those minutes. Johnson is expected to return “very soon” from meniscus surgery, Paul’s hips hurt every day, and Booker’s strained groin condition will be reassessed next week.
There is still time. The Suns are guaranteed a sixth-place defeat and a third straight playoff spot.
Then what? It is foolish to cling to small sample sizes as an indicator of playoff success, especially when the writing on the wall is dissolving on the field. While the Suns had a best-of-five roster at 67 minutes, it did nothing to quell concerns over the way they dispersed in a massive home defeat to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. .
Paul, 37, entered this season with 45,000 regular season and playoff minutes. Tony Parker was the last quarterback to reach this milestone and wouldn’t be able to finish the entire season after eclipsing it. Parker made 56 appearances on the bench for the Charlotte Hornets before retiring in 2019.
The Suns trust Paul a lot. He manages the offense and handles the ball, even though his assists and turnovers are the second and third highest of his career, respectively. More worryingly, 13.1 points per game and 44% shooting from 2-pointers this season are career lows, both by a healthy margin.
Worse still, the Suns are losing 3.6 points per 100 positions while Paul is on the court, the first negative net rating in his 18-year career. Slip is real. An aching right heel cost him 14 games earlier this season, and an aching hip kept him out of the line-up for five more games and continues to rise.
Meanwhile, Ayton, who was number 1 in 2018, two places ahead of Doncic, is no longer on the rise. He spent two seasons dedicating himself to defense and accepting a tertiary role on offense, backing up in just one playoff and floundering in restricted free agency. Ayton eventually negotiated a four-year, $133 million contract with the Indiana Pacers, which the Suns responded promptly and the results were not very encouraging for either side. He moves further away from the basket on offense and does not hold the basket on the other side where 38 pivots are statistically better at defending the rim.
Suns coaches Monty Williams and Ayton did not speak out of a season that started with the 7-foot bench. The two were openly discussing their defensive efforts during a timeout when they lost to the Washington Wizards last month, and Williams has since begged Ayton through the media to play harder.
The Crowder saga hasn’t been mentioned enough either. Contract aging role players do not demand a positive atmosphere. He made vague references to his lack of appreciation and “blundering” by the coaching team, and his teammates set a record with Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes to defend him.
Suns manager James Jones further blocked the depth beyond the Crowder debacle. He drafted Jalen Smith in the top 10 in 2020 and traded him 15 months later to a second-round player for Torrey Craig. Jones also traded Jevon Carter and the 2021 first-round picks to Landry Shamet. Neither played a major role in last year’s playoffs, leaving Phoenix without reliable backups to Paul and Ayton.
Despite all the excitement about the Suns’ vast top talent emerging from the 2021 Finals, they can no longer survive minutes without Booker. With Paul, Bridges and Ayton on the court and Booker off the field, they were down 22.5 points per 100 positions. Two years ago, the same squads were beating their opponents in double digits per 100 positions. Bridges is the only other player on the roster who is actively developing, performing at the Full Defensive level and making strides as an offensive playmaker.
Booker was competing at the MVP level when he inflicted a massive loss to the Mavericks on Dec. He played through the pain, but over the next 10 days he pinched only one hamstring and injured his groin. Booker attempted to return at Christmas, but four minutes later his groin injury aggravated again. The Suns have been down 3-15 without Booker since mid-December, from third to 12th in the West.
It’s reasonable to expect a surge when Booker returns, but for what purpose? Soft tissue injuries persist, and even if he’s back in the All-Star break, a declining quarterback will have to carry a disconnected center who is wrestling with his coach, and another starting player returning from the knee in the season. operation. The Suns have six losses in their first four playoff series, and we saw how a Game 7 at home ended last season. Expecting them to navigate a series of three paths on their way to another Finals appearance is a challenge.
The discomfort at Phoenix extends far beyond the season-long suspension of team owner Robert Sarver.
The Suns need a change. The remaining Crowder status is a reflection of how little one can expect in return for a 32-year-old soon-to-be-released player with Phoenix’s commitment. Their attraction to Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is an indication that they envision a near future without Paul, and rightly so. In 2024, when the Suns owe Booker, Bridges and Ayton $107 million, his $30 million salary will be out of warranty before Johnson signs an upcoming limited free cast.
Will future team owner Mat Ishbia be willing to pay Paul and Ayton $60 million annually over the next two years while providing the team with half that value? If not, who will offer equal value for both? The Suns may argue that 24-year-old Ayton can continue his once rising stardom with a change of scenery, and adding draft capital to his salary makes that conversation easier. Ayton became available for trade this week, although he has veto power over any potential deals this season.
It was unthinkable that Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant would be in a more stable environment than he was a few months after requesting a trade from the Suns, but here we are. Phoenix reportedly offered “Bridges and a handful of first-round picks” for Durant over the summer, but that didn’t receive much attention. Now, the Suns are in a desperate situation, which makes them less attractive in trading as both negotiators and targets.
This is the end of the road for a once promising team in Phoenix. As the Suns game of the Finals kicked off their 64-win regular season, an embarrassing second-round loss has become commonplace and it will take more than an aging quarterback to turn their sinking ship. The only question is whether Jones is creative and aggressive enough to build a rival around Booker before he gets too bad.
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