DAN BICKLEY

Sarver’s past makes stalled Deandre Ayton contract talks alarming

Oct 5, 2021, 1:16 PM | Updated: 1:17 pm
Owner Robert Sarver stands with the Western Conference Championship trophy after the Suns beat the ...
Owner Robert Sarver stands with the Western Conference Championship trophy after the Suns beat the LA Clippers to win the series in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center on June 30, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. The Suns beat the Clippers to advance to the NBA Finals. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Suns are playing a dangerous game. They are perilously close to contaminating elite team chemistry. They might kill the vibe entirely.

In the NBA, that can be a huge mistake. In Phoenix, it would be a sin.

At issue is Deandre Ayton’s contract extension, and the Suns’ reported reluctance to give him a maximum deal that guarantees $172 million to the enigmatic center. The team has every reason to doubt Ayton’s commitment to greatness, even after his spectacular showing in the NBA playoffs.

They also look ridiculous when Ayton was historically dominant over a large swath of the postseason and they still won’t value him like Denver values Michael Porter Jr.

In times like this, owner Robert Sarver’s past is always lurking, the shadow that never leaves the room. Which makes the impasse even more alarming.

Over the past two seasons, general manager James Jones steadfastly insisted the Suns owner has changed ways and learned lessons. But as soon as Adrian Wojnarowski’s report surfaced on Tuesday, there were recollections of Joe Johnson, and how a $5 million rift soiled the epic purity of the 2004-05 Suns; how Amar’e Stoudemire couldn’t believe his ears when told “I’ve got guys that can replace you tomorrow”; and how Raja Bell once claimed Sarver told him the following over lunch:

“Do you deserve an extension? Yes. Am I going to give you an extension? No. Because I don’t have to.”

Bell said that Sarver’s words effectively killed his love for the Suns, along with his appetite.

“We didn’t even get to salads,” Bell said during a podcast.

Those who have lived through the worst years on Planet Orange often cite Sarver’s combativeness and petulance as primary issues. But much of that is just Sarver’s personality, and as an extension, his style of negotiating. The real problem is frugality, the inability to sacrifice profit for victory and to make bad business decisions, even if it means rewarding a community at relatively minor expense to his massive personal fortune.

During the dream run to the NBA Finals in 2021, Sarver famously claimed that he “finally got it right.” After finishing in second place, he penned an open letter to Suns fans that seemed to be something of a promise, an unspoken vow that he would never let a championship opportunity slip through his grasp again.

Now, this.

During Ayton’s slow road to maturity, he has blindsided the team with a 25-game suspension in the first week of the season. He has infuriated those who merely requested more energy and engagement. Chris Paul is known for his savage tongue, and even he admits that Ayton required a lot of tough love. There was a time when some feared Paul might break Ayton before making him.

There is no guarantee Ayton won’t regress with a maximum contract. And if it weren’t for Sarver’s image, the Suns might be fully justified in taking a hardline stance. After all, a locker room doesn’t have to be enamored with its front office to be successful.

Look at our NFL team. Chandler Jones didn’t get his new contract. Jordan Hicks was told he couldn’t compete for a starting job. Malcolm Butler and Brian Winters each left the team under very strange circumstances. But on the field, the Cardinals have a special vibe. They sense a special season in the midst and are playing for one another, rallying around their Baby Yoda.

But NBA teams are different. Trade requests are more problematic. After sacrificing for the good of the team in 2021, the contract impasse might put Ayton in a different mood, a player always looking out for the good of himself. And apparently, someone in Ayton’s camp felt disrespected enough to leak information that put Sarver’s previous reputation in the crosshairs all over again.

The Suns owner will not appreciate that kind of leveraging and bargaining in bad faith. And that’s where the real trouble begins.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6-10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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