Suns

Offseason Drama, Roster Regression Clouds Suns’ Future

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2022, Suns-Mavericks, Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

That’s the last memory most in the NBA community have of a team that made the Finals a little over a year ago.

After the team finished with the best regular-season record (64-18) in franchise history, Phoenix stormed past New Orleans before collapsing against Dallas in an embarrassing effort. There were tons of positives from this past year, from Devin Booker‘s MVP-caliber season to the complete dominance the Suns achieved in 2021-2022.

But the bitterness still looms over a team that believed was ready to make a second-straight playoff run. The end of the 2022 season quickly turned into a reality check: their 2021 Finals run may have been more luck than skill.

And now, the Suns will return to the court tonight. Considering the current structure of the roster, the context of the Western Conference, and recent off-the-court drama, Phoenix will be facing an uphill battle after much controversy over this past offseason.

What’s the deal with Ayton and Crowder?

To an extent, Deandre Ayton‘s contract situation has loomed over the franchise since way before the 2021-22 season.

Both the Suns and Ayton’s camp failed to negotiate a contract extension at the start of this past season. Ayton’s cloudy future lingered throughout the team, even if the Suns had all the momentum on the court.

What was left of the relationship between player and franchise quickly flamed out after Phoenix’s collapse against Dallas. In the Suns’ Game 7 blowout, Ayton suited up for just 17 minutes before getting benched by head coach Monty Williams. Coach Williams kept his reason for benching Ayton vague, straining the relationship between both parties.

Then, the Kevin Durant sweepstakes reached peak insanity and Ayton remained without a new contract from the Suns. Pretty soon, Ayton’s name became the headline in potential blockbuster trades to acquire Durant. In retrospect, any possibility of a Durant trade was too difficult to pull off.

But at the time, the pieces were there for a potential move.

Ayton did get his money— eventually. The question remains over whether it’s worth it for Phoenix. The Suns deliberately chose to delay signing Ayton for over a year just to eventually grant him his money.

The relationship between Ayton and coach Williams remains at odds:

To add more fuel to the fire, starting forward Jae Crowder and the Suns mutually agreed to find a new destination for Crowder, per Shams Charania. Crowder has started next to Ayton, giving the Suns a small-ball forward who can be a respectable shooter and a versatile defender.

Suddenly, a team praised for its continuity will have some major decisions to make in the next couple of weeks.

Can CP3 and Booker keep the Suns afloat?

With or without Ayton’s commitment, the burden to carry the teams will have to fall on Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Paul will be entering his age-37 season, with over 1,150 games on the NBA regular-season odometer. CP3 has dealt with wear and tear in the past, especially as his teams made it further in the postseason.

In the 2021 Finals, Paul averaged 24.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game in the first three games of the series. But in the last three games, his numbers fell to just 19.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists per contest (all Suns losses).

The regression in the postseason looks worse by the numbers against Dallas in 2022. CP3 was excellent in the first two games against the Mavs (23.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.5 APG), but was anything but himself the last five (9.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 5.8 APG). Across the board, Paul’s points, efficiency and volume all plummet as the playoffs drag on.

Do the Suns reduce Paul’s minute total to conserve him for the postseason? If so, can Phoenix still be one of the West’s top-six seeds?

Besides Ayton, the biggest x-factor for the Suns this season is Devin Booker.

Booker (27/5/5 in 2021-2022) ranked as one of the NBA’s best players last season. In 2022-2023, The Lead slotted him 13th in the league’s best-players conversation. He took massive strides as a playmaker while maintaining his efficiency with a bigger offensive load.

Last season was the perfect situation for a player of Booker’s build, however. If the injuries start to pile up and the roster regresses, it will be up to him to keep the ship afloat.

For now, that’s something that remains to be seen.

How do the Suns stack up against the Western Conference?

The biggest concern for the Suns isn’t necessarily that they didn’t improve over the offseason. Instead, it’s the fact that the teams around them did so.

The Nuggets and Clippers enter this season with a retooled roster and fully healthy after that wasn’t the case in 2022. The Warriors will have Klay Thompson back for a full year and plenty of depth on their roster. The T-Wolves look poised to at least be competitive in the regular season. With Luka Doncic and Ja Morant healthy, the Mavs and Grizzlies will be in the mix. Even teams like the Blazers and Pelicans are starting to come into shape.

The path to the Finals in the West, yet again, will be a big challenge. In the past two seasons, the Suns arguably thrived in a Western Conference riddled with injuries and uncertainty. That won’t necessarily be the case this season, especially with a handful of teams looking for some revenge after recent shortcomings.

There’s still hope to be had. Booker is a legitimate start with more room to grow. Any team with the Point God on it is usually competent in the regular season. There’s still plenty of help from the supporting cast.

The Suns are in a precarious situation. Phoenix’s most promising player, Deandre Ayton, is a wait-and-see over how he develops. Chemistry remains a big concern. So does the lack of on-the-ball creation and offensive help outside of Booker and Paul. We haven’t even mentioned the offseason investigation of team owner Robert Sarver.

The Suns enter this season with plenty of optimism, but the path forward to another Finals run is as murky as ever before.

About Dominic Chiappone

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