Staying steady: At low point of year, Suns don’t want to skip steps in rebuild
PHOENIX — There are two lenses to view the Phoenix Suns and their timeline through, and just using the word “timeline” will remind you that one of them isn’t kaleidoscope pretty.
That’d be the lens in which the Suns haven’t made the postseason since 2010. Fans, owner Robert Sarver and, at the ground level, Devin Booker, have experienced the frustration of that reality.
For head coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones, the lens does not and should not include the past. It’s about doing things right, and that means not rushing things for the sake of.
At the lowest point of Phoenix’s 14-23 season, following a laggy loss to Memphis and a 21-point mid-game lead over Sacramento that turned into an 11-point defeat, patience needs to be sold on Booker and the rest of his mostly-newish teammates.
As pressure mounts and fans call for the same drastic measures that Sarver has been accused of acting upon over the past decade by firing coaches and GMs, or switching in and out of rebuilds versus win-now modes, Williams is reminding everyone that steps toward winning can’t be skipped.
“We understand that winning the games we won early kind of got everybody excited,” the head coach said Thursday. “And then when you lose emotional games, everybody’s like ‘uhhh’, whatever they’re going to say. For me, I have to be right here (puts hand level), James has to be right here, Devin has to be right here, because you have to have a long view.
“In this day in age of microwave, want-it-now, it’s just crazy to think you’re going to get the kind of results that are going to sustain for a long time in three or four months. It’s nutty. It takes at least a year and a half (to reach a level) that is sustainable. And then you have guys in that culture awhile and they start to promote it. That’s Year 2 type of stuff.”
The Suns’ 23-year-old star Booker is in the first year of a five-year max contract extension. Some observers worry that he could find himself disgruntled enough to ask for a trade if this doesn’t turn soon. Regardless of the practicalities or possibilities of that, how the Phoenix franchise has operated lately makes those worries warranted.
But Booker, for what it’s worth, is echoing his head coach’s mantras.
Thursday, he spoke on pushing past the “hard” part of Williams’ preseason message: “Everything you want is on the other side of hard.”
Booker likes where he and his teammates are despite two embarrassing defeats.
“Determined. Obviously frustrated after the last couple losses,” Booker said of where their heads are. “We’re still sticking together, man. It’s the thing I like about this team and I said it from the beginning — I know it sounds kind of weird — but we have really good guys on this team that care about each other and care about each other’s success.”
Since the 114-103 loss to Sacramento on Tuesday, the Suns have rested up during this homestretch that continues Friday night against the Orlando Magic.
Booker said he hopes Phoenix can revert back to the disruptive defense team that showed up in the first 11 or so games of the year.
Center Deandre Ayton added that the team is working on its communication, learning one another’s personalities.
“A lot of communication, opened up a lot,” Ayton said. “Guys are a lot more comfortable with confrontation and telling each other how we feel, and we have to respect it. And know … who to motivate and cuss with and cuss at. Some guys get motivation in different ways.”
That showed even in the loss to the Kings, where Baynes calmed down a frustrated Ayton during a first-half timeout that began with the young center kicking the bench. Baynes told his teammate to direct that fire in a way that helped the team.
“Me, it’s just a lot of emotions to where it comes with like, only seven games, and I’m like I’m super jittery, antsy, I want to stay out there,” Ayton said. “It’s just me wanting to play hard every second, every moment of it and just trash talking and all that stuff builds up in you. You just want to stay on the court and destroy people.”
Booker calls moments like that holding one another accountable.
In general, he said that is one reason why he believes this current disappointing spell won’t linger like the cloud of losing that’s remained over the franchise over the last decade.
And as the trade deadline looms, that’s why, from all indications, the feel inside Suns headquarters does not indicate drastic moves will be made. As Williams and Jones have indicated in interviews, keeping the locker room intact and learning the identity of the team remains an important piece of this culture-building process that, according to the Suns, shouldn’t be judged so harshly after just 37 games.
“Once you establish the kind of culture you want, the way you want to play and then you see, ‘OK this works,’ then you can start to bring in the guys you want that fit that,” Williams said. “You may have good guys on your team presently, but they may not fit that style of play, they may not fit that culture. We knew this year would be a year of learning and identifying that.”
Ayton gave one anecdote about how Williams has mentored him to help the young center build the culture himself.
It was during the offseason when the Summer League squad was working out at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Ayton, who wasn’t on the team, dropped into the facility and received treatment without checking in with anyone else. And once he was done and already on the drive home, he received a call from Williams.
“He said, ‘Where are you?'” Ayton recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going home.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ma need you to turn back and go back to practice.’
“Stuff like that, keeping me responsible. This is how a leader leads. Whether you’re not part of something, you show others that you’re this type of guy.”