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Dan Bickley

Embarrassing defeats becoming new normal for Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov watches as guard Devin Booker (1) takes himself out of the game after an injury during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Ask a basketball team for better effort and hope is already lost.

The Suns are that franchise, far worse than punchline. They are pathetic.

They are a team full of millionaire youngsters who made it to the NBA and can’t even summon the urgency to play with ravenous intensity.

They don’t engage. They enrage. They were just booed off the court by fans who understand the value of work ethic. Otherwise, they could never afford tickets to this annual train wreck.

They were gifted momentum they didn’t deserve, for winning a game of chance, a draft lottery that involved Ping-Pong balls. They entered the season with a captive audience eager to forgive and forget the past.

Yet these Suns have only one guy capable of buzzer beaters. The rest are buzz killers.

The vaunted Josh Jackson has earned just 31 minutes in the past three games combined, a player once celebrated for his collegiate motor, the player the Suns wouldn’t trade for Kyrie Irving.

Deandre Ayton is not a problem but not a game-changer. He’s a Rookie of the Year candidate in empty statistics. He doesn’t protect the rim, rebound with ferocity, contest shots or dig deep for anything. He resembles the guy that can roll out of bed and can post a double-double, and why play hard when the game comes this easy?

Veterans imported for leadership are doing just the opposite, content to check off days on the calendar. Their rollout of premier draft picks are acting too cool for school, as if maximum intensity to a lost cause would reflect poorly on them.

They have Devin Booker, an endgame assassin who is coming into his own, with four game-winning or game-tying shots in his last five attempts. And they can’t even bother to keep it close, relying on their version of Mariano Rivera to win it at the end?

Embarrassing defeats have become the new normal for this once-proud franchise. It’s the exorbitant bill for too many disgruntled players, too many draft busts, too many half-baked efforts, too many minutes allocated to unworthy teenagers.

All of it has robbed the franchise of its greatest gift, a vaunted reputation normally reserved for teams with championship banners.

Alas, it’s too easy to blame a losing culture, exacerbated by tank jobs and teams that have won a measly 70 games since the 2015-16 season. The owner grows fabulously wealthy while repeating the same egregious mistakes, hiring unproven candidates to marquee positions, clinging to the delusion that his authority matters most.

And with all due respect to Igor Kokoskov, the ongoing lack of effort speaks to the heart of the players in uniform and the leadership skills of their soft-spoken head coach, the guy who once made fun of his own English-speaking skills.

Kokoskov arrived after negotiations broke down with Mike Budenholzer, who is currently lifting the Bucks and unleashing the best of Eric Bledsoe. Kokoskov’s specialty is offensive concepts and design, but his chance to feel special inside the locker room is compromised by a front office that left him without a legitimate point guard, the most important position in any offense.

The stupidity is spectacular. But in the end, schematics only matter so much in the NBA. It’s a profession built on the shoulders of alpha males, where franchise stability can only be achieved by coaches with real circumference, by leaders who command their respect.

Sarver refuses to face that truth. And whether he’s a control freak or a profit hawk who doesn’t see the value in surrendering power and giant paychecks to a head coach, you would’ve thought he’d have tried something different along the way.

The most sensible solution? Hire Jerry Colangelo as team president before next season, allowing the Valley icon who birthed the Suns to save the Suns, the kind of final act befitting a king. There is tragedy in the foregone conclusion, how such poetry could never happen under Sarver’s watch.

Maybe it’s a good thing that the Suns’ most recent debacle coincided with Duke’s demolition of Kentucky on the opening night of college basketball, a college team that could be housing the top two picks in the 2019 draft. Start salivating over Zion Williamson in a Suns jersey and it’s easy to lose focus and embrace losing all over again. But when does this shell game end?

Even worse, Booker is obviously losing faith. He chided his team’s chemistry, accountability and their “embarrassing” effort in Tuesday’s loss to the Nets.

We have bestowed the Suns and their owner more patience than any other professional sports franchise in the Valley. Far more than they deserve. They can pay us back with the smallest of gestures.

Stink if you must. Just don’t make us ask for more effort.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier