The Fall of the Phoenix Suns…Again
With the Suns being blown out in elimination games two seasons in a row, the front office definitely has a lot of work to do this off-season.
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Following a dominant postseason run in the 2021 NBA playoffs that culminated in a finals loss, the Phoenix Suns have made it their goal to reach the promise land ever since. However, after a devastating loss in Game 7 of the second round last season, the Suns made it clear that they were looking for change. After executing a blockbuster trade just before the deadline for all-star forward Kevin Durant with the Brooklyn Nets, the Suns looked to make a push toward the finals and a championship. While the Suns did have a regular season winning streak with Durant and were able to eliminate the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, they unfortunately fell to the Denver Nuggets in the second round. With aging stars Durant and point guard Chris Paul, the Suns must make rapid adjustments, both in their roster and their play.
A major source of weakness in the roster for the Suns is center Deandre Ayton, who has massively underperformed both in the regular season and playoffs. Ayton, the former first overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft and starting center for the Suns, has been criticized for his lack of effort on both ends of the court, as well as his overall lack of engagement with the team throughout the past few seasons. After a lackluster performance in last season’s playoffs, Ayton was set to leave the Suns for the Indiana Pacers as an unrestricted free agent. However, the Suns matched their offer of $133 million over four years, leading Ayton to re-sign with the team. Ayton’s frustrations with the team and vice-versa have often spilled over onto the court, such as when he argued with head coach Monty Williams during a game earlier in the season. Later in the game, after Ayton failed to set a screen for now Brooklyn Nets forward Mikal Bridges, they then proceeded to argue about who was at fault. The Suns would end up losing this game to the Washington Wizards 113-110. “I was so locked in I was so pissed off because we were losing. I was trying to tell him to do this and that, and not thinking about his situation being the No. 1 pick and getting a lot of hate for no reason,” Bridges said following the game.
In Game 3 of the Nuggets-Suns series, Williams benched Ayton for backup center Jock Landale during the game, leading to Ayton exploding with frustration and ignoring his teammates after the win. This benching came with reason, as Ayton struggled heavily both during this game and the entire series. Ayton’s hesitance on the offensive end has often led to him missing layups against shorter guards as well as losing offensive rebounds against other centers. On the defensive end, Ayton is often slow to recover from his own defensive mishaps, leading to other MVP-caliber centers such as the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić dominating him on the offense. The visible lack of hustle by Ayton this season, especially during the Nuggets series, is a reflection of his experience with the Suns organization and his desire to play for other teams, just as he attempted in last season’s free agency. “I love Phoenix … I’m going to continue playing hard in Phoenix … and that’s about it,” Ayton said following Game 6.
While both Durant and Booker had their own struggles throughout the playoffs, the Suns’ lack of depth continuously hurt them throughout this playoff run. Trading away players such as Bridges and Nets forward Cameron Johnson for Durant hurt their shooting, as the bench shot 39.3 percent from the field and 25.6 percent from the three in this year’s playoffs. After injuries to both Paul and Ayton, the Suns simply did not have enough on either end of the court to match up with the fully healthy Nuggets. Coach Williams often reflected these qualms in his own coaching, as he rarely called timeouts when the Nuggets went on runs and often had little to no strategies for countering the offense. The blowout losses in elimination games, both this season and last season, led him to be fired immediately following the Suns’ 125-100 loss in Game 6. “That’s something that I pride myself on and it just didn’t happen. That's something I have to take a deep look at, everything I’m doing,” Williams said.
In order to have a chance at making it to the finals again, the Phoenix Suns will have to take a hard look in the mirror and not only fix issues with their roster, such as Ayton’s clear lack of effort, but also find a new coach who they feel can help their team when it matters most. With the Suns being blown out in elimination games two seasons in a row, the front office definitely has a lot of work to do this off-season. Whether it be via the hiring of a championship coach, such as former Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, or trading Ayton for centers who may not be as talented but are certainly renowned for their hustle plays, like Mavericks center Javale McGee, the Suns need to find a way around their team woes. The championship window is closing for the Suns, and if they want to align their stars and bring home an NBA title for the Phoenix faithful, they need to do it now.