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Dan Bickley

Suns’ closing stretch of season crucial for developing long-term culture

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A once-promising season is circling the drain. The Suns have nothing to gain. And they have everything to lose.

They no longer have a reason to believe they are chasing a Western Conference playoff berth. Not after a grotesque homestand. Not after losing Kelly Oubre Jr. to knee surgery and watching Deandre Ayton hobble off the court with another ankle injury. And that’s why they must compete harder than ever, playing like their hair is on fire.

If a culture change is truly taking root in Phoenix, those still able to wear the uniform will rally around those who can’t. They will compete even harder because that’s what the moment requires.

They must validate Monty Williams. Not with victories, but with no quarters given. With a sincerity of effort that leaps off the screen.

If they truly believe in Williams and his brand of culture, they will understand what a strong finish means to the new head coach and the future of this organization. How sheer will often finds a way. They will play for him as much as themselves.

Ayton will push through his tender ankles, returning to the court as soon as possible. He will not milk his latest injury for any more free time. He’s had far more than his share in 2019-2020.

Devin Booker will push through his post-All-Star Game funk and prove that he can carry a team through the slog, when heavy lifting makes elite players dig deeper than ever. In his fifth season, Booker has been injured less and played more defense than ever before. He still hasn’t won 25 games in any given season. There are many unforeseen obstacles for NBA players in Phoenix.

But the great ones embrace epic challenges. They persevere until they prevail. It’s that simple.

Booker recently purchased a, “Be Legendary” tattoo, commemorating the instructions given to him from Kobe Bryant. Now is the time to prove it.

And then there’s Ricky Rubio, who could give Williams and the Suns the greatest show of culture change possible: by forgoing the 2020 Olympics, placing next year’s Suns over another grueling summer with the Spanish National Team. It would be a show of loyalty and priority you don’t expect from foreign-born stars.

It won’t be easy getting to the finish line. The guys who intuitively know they are not part of the future — Dario Saric, Jevon Carter, Elie Okobo, Aron Baynes, etc. — have no real love for the cause because it hasn’t always worked for them. And that’s fair.

But there’s been a resurgence of weirdness following the injury to Oubre, a cloak-and-dagger routine that has invoked suspicions and made you skeptical of this franchise all over again. There is a same-old feeling to recent events and recent losses to lowly opponents.

Now is the time to prove that things have really changed around here. Because everyone is expecting exactly the opposite.

Yet to crumble now would mean that foundation is yet to be laid. That the first attempt was made with quicksand or bad concrete. It would be confirmation that these past five months have been more about clearings weeds than sowing seeds. That would be depressing.

Organizations with great culture – Warriors, Spurs, Raptors, Heat, etc – don’t have to ask athletes to play hard. They don’t have to beg players to return from injury. Just look at Steph Curry and the Warriors. Effort and heart should not the franchise’s responsibility. In the best organizations, there is a standard in place, and meeting that standard matters to those in uniform.

It hasn’t been that way in Phoenix for some time.

Along the way, culture change has become a tired cliché in sports. It’s now the goal of every new regime, a way for the new head coach to emphasize how bad things were before he arrived.

In the case of Williams, it’s all true. He’s trying to move boulders up mountains. And if the new head coach has made any difference at all – if professionalism has truly replaced petulance … if adults have really replaced the children … if hell-fire ambition has replaced all the sorry excuses … it must be on display now. More than ever.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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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 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
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