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Suns face identity change with Deandre Ayton suspension

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives fans as he walks off the court following the NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 13, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Mavericks 99-89. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

When the Phoenix Suns beat the Sacramento Kings 124-95 on opening night Wednesday, there was reason to believe that change was afoot.

Behind a style of disciplined, hard-working defense and smart, quick offense, Phoenix looked like it was employing the traits general manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams sought out this offseason.

The Suns appeared to be a team that could not only compete every night but do so in a way that could be foundational for the next few years of their likely ascendance.

All that sounds pretty fun, and that’s because it was and was going to be.

Now, Deandre Ayton is making us wait, with his 25-game suspension serving as a gut punch to Suns fans from the basketball gods, reminding them that they are not allowed to have nice things.

This is not to say that the timing of Ayton testing positive for a diuretic could be worse because, well, it’s less about that.

The particulars of a diuretic lead us to believe that Ayton either made a mistake not knowing what he was putting in his body, an above-all requirement for professional athletes, or was at fault even more for trying to cover up an even bigger mistake.

At the end of the day, it is a mistake. There’s a reason we don’t see drug suspensions left and right in the NBA. The rarity of these instances the past decade-plus points to the foolishness of Ayton’s actions.

If anything backed that up, it was the statement Jones released Thursday night, an hour after the news broke.

On behalf of the Phoenix Suns organization, Monty Williams and I are disappointed in the actions by Deandre Ayton that led to his testing positive for a banned diuretic and subsequent suspension by the NBA. This does not uphold the standards and principles we have set for the team. Deandre has expressed his deepest remorse.

While he is suspended we remain committed to his growth and development on and off the court. His actions are not taken lightly, and we are committed to ensuring that Deandre understands the profound impact it has had on the team, organization, and Suns community.

The language in Jones’ statement is intentional, not backing up their former No. 1 overall pick by referring to “the actions” that “led” to his suspension. The tone is specifically holding Ayton accountable.

Time will tell with how Ayton’s suspension holds up through an appeal process via the player’s association. Jones’ statement is harsher than Ayton’s, the latter referring to this as an “unintentional mistake” and that he was “completely unaware of” what he had put in his body.

Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, that’s the case that the National Basketball Players Association will go with for Ayton’s appeal. Ayton’s follow-up testing showed no traces of any other banned substances, according to Wojnarowski, helping Ayton’s case to seek out a collective bargaining agreement provision of “unintentional ingestion,” even though that’s what a diuretic is intentionally used for at times.

The Suns, however, sound more than ready for their franchise center to take the games and the most likely outcome seems to be a slightly reduced suspension if any.

This would be a whole other story if it was five games, and barring an unforeseen miracle, that won’t be the case.

Ayton needs these 25 games. He improved dramatically as a defender over the course of his rookie season, and took positive strides as an individual creator in the post. Based on how he looked against the Kings, especially defending ball screens, Ayton got better this summer, as you’d come to expect from him.

Looking beyond Ayton as an individual, building chemistry with Ricky Rubio and his other new teammates is another precious aspect of his game time that will see him fall behind. Some version of this core will be the one the Suns hopefully have on a playoff team in a few years. Most of the bodies are already here. They need to begin meshing.

The Suns should be able to survive this stretch. Based on the aforementioned way they won and the depth they have in the frontcourt, Phoenix shouldn’t start getting obliterated every other night like the past two seasons.

Aron Baynes will provide a steady, reliable presence in the starting lineup. Williams will need to go small more now, using either Frank Kaminsky or Dario Saric more as a center, providing the breathing room for the wing logjam of Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cam Johnson to extend their minutes to the four spot. Starting Bridges there makes sense.

It changes the identity of the team offensively for the time being. They become far more about playing five-out, emphasizing shooting and driving lanes for Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson. Though Phoenix will absolutely miss Ayton’s scoring and rebounding, they are set up for this type of pivot.

Many will disagree, but if the Suns go 4-21 over this stretch of games or whatever the case may be, that’s far more indicative of Williams than how much the team misses Ayton.

That’s the short term.

In the long term, this is something that will now follow Ayton for the rest of the career.

If you don’t think the Suns’ mentions on Twitter will be full of steroid jokes for years to come, you haven’t been paying attention. His decision-making and maturity will now be in question. Any other hiccup for Ayton will come with prejudgments.

There’s a lingering, unpleasant effect to this, just like the decision former general manager Ryan McDonough made 16 months ago.

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