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NBA

The NBA’s Aura Is Dumpster-Juice Green Right Now

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Yikes.

That’s Deandre Ayton, last seen brinksmanshipping his way to a max contract from the Phoenix Suns, the team that drafted him first overall in 2018 and then let him hit restricted free agency without a contract extension offer this summer—and second-to-last seen buried on the bench for all but three second-half minutes of the Suns’ seventh-game loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs. And reportedly having a shouting fight with coach Monty Williams; if that did indeed happen, then presumably somebody saw it.

Ayton does not seem super thrilled to be a Phoenix Sun! In the above video, he claims not to have spoken to Williams even once since that game, over four months ago. A reporter asks him, incredulously, if he hopes that changes soon; “I’m here,” he replies. Another reporter asks him if he’s happy to be there. “Yeah, I’m alright,” he shrugs, pointedly, pretty clearly neither happy nor alright. What follows is a brief thicket of athlete clichés—a name on the front of the jersey, a name on the back, not playing for oneself, etc.—in which the clear standout phrase is “I’m just here to work.” Oof.

Here are two fun facts that I just now felt impelled to mention. The first is that Williams signed what’s been reported as a “multi-year” contract extension back in July. The second is that, due to Ayton’s new contract, the Suns by rule cannot trade him before January 15, 2023—but can trade him as soon as that.

The Suns made the Finals in 2021 and posted the NBA’s best record, by far, in 2022. Those results are a sparkling validation of both the November 2020 trade for Chris Paul and the core of young guys—very prominently including Ayton!—whose rapid blossoming inspired the Paul trade in the first place. They’re championship contenders in 2022-23, or definitely should be. And yet in part due to Ayton’s situation (but also surely in part due to Robert Sarver’s) they enter this fall’s training camp with an unmistakably sour and turbulent air about them; they might win rings or they might blow up their roster, beginning with the gigantic 24-year-old one-man defense crucial to their success over the past two years.

Oh right, hey, also, Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix, too.

There’s a lot of stinky vapors around the league right now, and not only coming off of the Washington Wizards’ roster. Recent upbeat press interactions notwithstanding, the Russell Westbrook situation in Los Angeles—the Lakers would desperately love to be rid of him, probably would not play him at all if his huge salary didn’t preclude them finding a less disastrous replacement, and brought aboard a guy at his same position with whom he’s spent years trading sometimes quite personal barbs—seems fraught and weird, and in any event nowhere close to happy or settled. The Boston Celtics, in possibly the league’s most bizarre case, will follow up their run to the Finals by going without their suspended head coach for the entire campaign. The biggest storyline currently surrounding the Timberwolves has to do with their star player posting a video of himself using a homophobic slur. In Brooklyn … hell, where to begin? Kevin Durant tried to force a trade, found he had no leverage, and now has to pretend he wouldn’t rather be somewhere else; Kyrie Irving seems at best merely willing to resume his basketball career after a season spent pretending a selfish refusal to participate in public health makes him Thich Quang Duc. Who the hell knows when or if Ben Simmons will ever play again.

It’s handy to remember that, for all the fame and glamor, professional basketball is a job for the people who do it; like any worker in any job, a basketball player can be grumpy or discontented or unthinking while still doing good work. Still, it’s probably not a great sign for the health of any workplace when many of its prominent staffers seem persistently ambivalent at best about their jobs, or when so many of them seem bitter and surly and in need of a change at the end of what was supposed to be a restorative and re-energizing summer break. Does anybody particularly want to play, right now?