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Dan Bickley

Kelly Oubre Jr. sitting out return part of Suns’ never-ending disappointment

Kelly Oubre Jr. #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 16, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Trail Blazers defeated the Suns 111-110. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Suns are hard to find. They’re even harder to figure.

Ten years into a playoff drought, they remain a never-ending disappointment.

The latest: Kelly Oubre Jr. has decided to skip the NBA’s return in Orlando. He’s laying low and playing it safe, rehabilitating from knee surgery and a meniscus injury that should’ve been healed by now. His decision effectively ends the dream of the underdog Suns making a legitimate run for a playoff spot inside the Disney World bubble.

And in the end, it’s fair to wonder what this means for the future of Oubre and the Suns, a happy accident that became a Valley phenomenon, a player who resonates deeply with young fans on Planet Orange.

Here’s why: Before a pandemic shut down the sport, the Suns hoped Oubre would return by the end of the regular season in April. We’re in the middle of June.

There is a chance that Oubre recently visited team doctors and the official examination raised some red flags. That Oubre’s recovery was actually stalled by all the free time, where medical supervision was impossible.

But during a radio appearance less than two weeks ago, Suns owner Robert Sarver said he expected Oubre to play. He said so without a whiff of hesitation. And at the very least, that represents communication problems between the Suns and one of their most popular players.

There’s a chance Oubre isn’t playing because the immediate cause isn’t worth his long-term future, not when he’s a free agent after next season and ascending toward a massive payday. Not after he found himself on the shopping block near the trade deadline.

He indicated as much during an interview with 12 News’ Cameron Cox, where Oubre was clearly on the fence about the risk/reward of playing eight games at full blast, where the Suns would need a lot of help to earn a play-in series for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.

They would likely have to win eight of 10 games, including a two-game sweep of the No. 8 seed, just to face the Lakers in the opening round.

Being included at all was also a gift for a 26-39 basketball team. An opportunity for the Suns to make an impact statement about the future, which includes a new practice facility and a renovated arena. However remote, it was a chance to break a 10-year playoff drought.

It could’ve been a proving ground for the team’s best starting lineup: Oubre, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Ricky Rubio and Mikal Bridges. A chance for that group get an extended run of games together, a lineup that was briefly and tremendously effective in 2019-20.

Would the scenario be different if the Suns had taken the plunge when re-signing Oubre last summer, locking up Oubre’s energy, heart and dope soul? Instead, both parties agreed to a 2-year, $30 million deal. It’s the classic Sarver negotiation, always too careful for his own good, often leading to bigger issues down the road.

Like: Why should Oubre risk everything for the Suns when they wouldn’t do the same for him?

The hope was that the NBA’s restart would ignite something ferocious in the second-chance Suns. That they would seize this moment, flying high inside a bubble, with a starting lineup that was a harbinger of great things to come.

Now, you wonder how the Suns will react in the coming weeks, and how hard they’ll compete. After all, they have no real chance to make the playoffs. Their emotional state is hard to gauge because the highest-profile Suns have been mostly distant during a pandemic.

Booker won a video game tournament during his free time, in which he famously declined playing with the virtual Suns. He’s twice been photographed with celeb-icon Kendall Jenner. Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio have also been mostly silent. Church mice make more noise than the Suns have during this pandemic.

By contrast, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray met with the media on Wednesday, becoming one of more than two dozen Zoom conferences our NFL team has staged in the span of 60 days. That’s how you feed your audience, build optimism, control the narrative.

So it’s hard to know what our NBA team is thinking. Or what they’ll look like in Orlando. Or if we’ve seen the last of Oubre in a Suns uniform, blowing kisses to the crowd and dunking ferociously on an opponent.

The latter would truly be a shame and just what you’ve grown to expect from a fallen franchise.

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