The Phoenix Suns were the biggest surprise of this past NBA season, reaching the real actual NBA Finals only one year after they were, a shocking bubble run aside, quite bad. Who wouldn’t fall for a bad-to-mediocre team with a pair of uncertain young core pieces abruptly and decisively leveling up, making an ambitious trade, and suddenly flipping a misshapen roster into the most coherent unit in the NBA? Both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton each took their respective versions of The Leap, and good health and better vibes insulated them against any first-time playoff jitters. Phoenix seems well set up to contend again in an injury-marred West. Things are great!
Ah, but perhaps you may have forgotten who owns the team. That’d be desert creature Robert Sarver, a moron and cheapskate who has previously won renown for such hits as screaming at his players in the locker room at halftime, cutting costs whenever possible, lecturing his coach about screen-setting technique, and filling his GM’s office with goats, which in turn filled the office with turds. Sarver would like you to believe he’s learned his lesson, and there are a few signs that he’s at least an evolved version of the goat crap guy. This offseason, he handed Chris Paul a four-year, $120 million deal, and extended Mikal Bridges on a weirdly cheap deal. He even went on a local radio show and said he was prepared to pay the luxury tax. One step he is apparently not ready to take is paying Deandre Ayton.
Over the past two seasons, Ayton has developed from an uncertain big man without a definable area of expertise into a true physical force with great defensive instincts and real offensive range. He’s not a number one destroyer-type big man like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid, but he does everything right and he makes everyone around him better. Ayton is also the only functional big man and plus-rebounder on the Suns roster, unless you really feel strongly about Frank Kaminsky or JaVale McGee; the Suns would be absolutely sunk without him. He is asking for a max contract with good reason. It’s not like he’s pitching ownership that he’ll make the contract worth it because of his potential. He acquitted himself well in the NBA Finals against an unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA insider consensus was that Ayton’s max extension was something of a no-brainer. And yet, he is not getting the deal he wants and probably deserves.
In a vacuum, the Suns don’t necessarily have to extend Ayton, as he’ll enter restricted free agency this offseason. He’s never made an All-Star Game, and paying big men early has a mixed track record. If they really do want to keep him, they can just match whatever offer sheet he signs. And if he has a down year, they might get away with paying him a bit less. None of this is the sort of eventuality that a defending Western Conference champion usually goes into the season hoping for.
And as these very same Phoenix Suns showed us just last year when they mixed together an allegedly washed 6-foot-0 point guard with two underproven young guys and made the Finals, none of this shit takes place in a vacuum. Ayton has become the sort of player he is because he’s built a trust with his coaches and has developed within a nurturing team setup. Everyone on the Suns understood and embraced their roles and played them perfectly; more than any particular individual breakout, this is what made them so good. If that precious chemistry gets tainted, the team could face serious problems. More to the point, if Ayton suddenly is not as locked in, the Suns don’t have another big they can lean on. Ayton is reportedly “very unhappy” with ownership, as he should be. The Suns are set up to contend right now and for the rest of the forseeable future. In basketball terms, they’re the envy of the league. The good news for Western Conference rivals and bad news for Deandre Ayton is that Robert Sarver still owns the team.