DAN BICKLEY

Suns’ season starts off uneasy, just like Deandre Ayton’s contract situation

Oct 20, 2021, 10:07 PM | Updated: 10:08 pm
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) looks to pass as Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) looks to pass as Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Phoenix. The Nuggets won 110-98. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Lit City™ can wait. One game into a new season and the Suns have more losses than the Cardinals.

It’s irrefutable proof that nothing stays the same in the NBA.

The Suns fell to the Nuggets 110-98 on Wednesday, a game when nothing seemed easy and nothing seemed special about the returning NBA bridesmaids. That was surprising and disappointing.

Entering a new season, the Suns ranked No. 1 among NBA teams in continuity. Their returning players accounted for 87% of minutes played in the previous season. They seemed primed for an electrifying start.

Except there are serious adjustments to that calculus. There is Landry Shamet, a sharpshooter so beloved by head coach Monty Williams that he earned a $43 million contract extension before ever playing a game in Phoenix. There was the addition of JaVale McGee, who fills a void while feeding the elephant in the room.

Welcome to a new year in Phoenix, when Deandre Ayton’s contract status is an ongoing part of every narrative, one that’s not going to change anytime soon. And that’s a shame.

I believe the Suns should’ve given Ayton the maximum contract extension. So do many NBA executives across the league. Others are astounded that owner Robert Sarver would have the conviction to spit in the face of his own reputation just when things were going so well. But none of us understand Ayton and his work ethic like the Suns, a team that needed 2.5 years and the addition of a sharp-tongued leader to get the necessary force and engagement from a player now asking for $172 million before appearing in his first All-Star game.

I also believe Chris Paul signed off on the controversial strategy. Before the NBA Finals, a gushing Paul vowed to “get Ayton a bag.” Yet before Wednesday’s game, Paul took a hardline stance, telling Ayton to control what he can control. His turnaround was so dramatic that it earned criticism from former pro Kendrick Perkins, who said Paul’s priorities seemed to change as soon as the Suns point guard filled up his own bag.

That’s not Paul’s style. But his mindset might’ve been altered during the NBA Finals, when Ayton hit the wall trying to defend the superhero named Giannis, when the Suns squandered a 2-0 Finals lead that left Paul without a ring on his Hall of Fame career.

Paul’s voice echoes loudly in this organization. If he felt it necessary to reward Ayton before his fourth professional season, he could’ve made the deal happen. He chose a different route, showing no signs of unhappiness with the organization. Which is telling.

The Suns are playing with fire. They are also banking that Ayton’s unhappiness will not turn him into Ben Simmons; that he respects and loves his teammates too much to sabotage a second championship run; that the presence of backup JaVale McGee will prevent any sulking, which could lead to a serious loss of playing time; that Monty Williams is the perfect coach to help Ayton navigate his feelings of betrayal; and that Ayton will find the requisite professionalism in the wake of personal disappointment.

After all, he will have already earned $40 million after this season, partly because the Suns thought highly enough of him to draft him No. 1 overall. And in a worst-case scenario, Ayton’s postseason performance and his contractual status make him very tradeable.

But it’s the perspective and not the money that matters. Ayton now believes that others seem to value him more than his own bosses, despite the sacrifices he made last season and the quantum leaps he took in the postseason.

Either way, this is will be a lingering shadow all season long, resurfacing and distracting after games when Ayton utterly dominates and in games when Ayton curiously struggles.

“Well, I’m hoping he’s pissed off about not getting a contract extension,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters before Wednesday’s game.

This is why the next three years will be extremely important to Sarver’s legacy. The Suns couldn’t break through with Charles Barkley, and the real shame wasn’t losing all three home games and the NBA Finals to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1993. It was failing to win a title after Jordan retired. Same with Steve Nash’s Suns, a team that sparked a revolution and changed the NBA forever yet failed to reach the NBA Finals.

This group must be the one that defies disappointment because they will not be denied. This group must find a way to push a 53-year old franchise across the finish line and into the winner’s circle.

Either way, buckle up. It’s about to get crazy around here.

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