EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The problem with the Deandre Ayton problem

May 10, 2023, 11:20 AM | Updated: 11:27 am

Deandre Ayton defends Nikola Jokic in Game 5 of Suns-Nuggets...

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets works against Deandre Ayton (22) of the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Deandre Ayton’s biggest problem is not about effort.

The meme generators will swarm like flies to dung when clips of the Phoenix Suns center standing and watching Nikola Jokic tip the ball four times are to be had. Forget that 1) Jokic does this all the time and 2) you can hunt down two or three plays a game for pretty much any NBA big man appearing flat-footed.

This doesn’t mean Ayton couldn’t be better in terms of second efforts, playing with more force. But at this point, it’s safe to say he ain’t going to become Ben Wallace. And that’s OK.

Ayton’s problem has been that, when teams involve him heavily and repeatedly in actions that force the center and his teammates to make decisions, the wheels start spinning so fast that they can eventually come off. We saw it last playoff run and even this year against a five-out Dallas Mavericks squad that forces him to defend the three-point line.

We saw it in the third quarter Tuesday in Phoenix’s Game 5 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals that puts them in the elimination zone, down 3-2.

The problem with Ayton is this: Is it bad the Suns rely on him so much that they bend and break as he does? Should Phoenix better construct the roster to survive without him? The team paid him the max because it believes it cannot be as good without him.

The first quarter of the 118-102 loss Tuesday showcased how much work there would be to do if the Suns wanted to answer that second question.

Ayton this series has been glued on two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who is averaging 30.6 points, 13.1 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game.

The ball went through Jokic a bit in the first quarter on Tuesday (six shots, four assists), which means Ayton was not in help mode. He did what he could on the ball against the most-gifted playoff scorer of the postseason outside of Devin Booker.

Jokic wasn’t the guy who got going. Michael Porter Jr. had 14 first-quarter points and four threes, while Aaron Gordon added eight.

Maybe a trey of Porter’s was on Ayton for not challenging a transition pullup. Tough decisions happen. You could nitpick Ayton for the awful start that had Phoenix trailing 35-24 on Tuesday, but his teammates were struggling, too. If anything, Ayton was on the ball so much it was a solid start as Jokic missed four attempts.

The third quarter, which Phoenix lost 39-25, was more of the classic Ayton spiral Suns fans will recognize.

Denver ran Ayton through a few screens to start the second half, and he mildly contested a Jokic jumper that dropped, which got the scoring going. Tough play, but it was moreso a sign the Nuggets wanted to go at him.

It was 54-49, Denver, at that point. From there, it begins to unravel.

Here are all of Denver’s shot attempts over the next six-ish minutes:

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray began driving off Jokic pick-and-rolls against Landry Shamet — who started the third instead of Josh Okogie for offensive juice — and Ayton initially was unsure about leaving Jokic. It’s buckets for Murray.

After two of those plays, Ayton began dropping to help, leaving Jokic. Ayton even showed a double with Gordon posting Kevin Durant. Out of position, Ayton fouled Jokic for an and-one when Gordon gave it up to the cutting center.

On the next shot attempt, Jokic didn’t run with Ayton in transition and after a Suns miss, Jokic sat back to cherrypick for an easy bucket as Durant was the first player back, failing to hold the center in the post.

Then, Jokic popped for a three in another Murray pick-and-roll targeting Ayton. Another Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll later, and Ayton was stuck playing 2-on-1.

Durant left Porter in the corner for a made wide-open three. The next time down, Porter flew off a Jokic screen and the Suns’ Cam Payne — in a crossmatch — went under the screen, getting lucky the shot was missed.

It’s 73-57 by the end of the video.

That’s ballgame.

The first quarter and the third quarter show the two problems with this Suns team.

When Ayton is pulled out of the paint, so focused on stopping the team’s hottest player who can operate just fine by floating around the perimeter, it can kill the Suns when their defensive communication and execution isn’t there.

When Ayton gets targeted, it can go south, too.

Both quarters were bad, with threes and five or more layups given up. Denver did it by taking Ayton physically out of the picture during the first. Then, they got the Suns scrambling by attacking him repeatedly.

It’s hard to gauge from this seat how much Ayton’s spiraling is about meandering from the plan or overthinking once he does make a mistake or two. Or how much it’s on his teammates, who in both the first and third quarters struggled as Ayton got attacked. Whether he was at fault or not, it came with a lot of Nuggets success. Ayton wasn’t doing enough to cover for his team or hold it down himself.

It probably comes across as effort-lacking in some ways. Ayton is a step off too often. He’s missing a force that’s tied to decisiveness and being sure of himself, yes.

That leads to a complicated, multi-pronged problem. It’s one that crops up often enough that Phoenix fans can get tired of addressing it.

And, dare I say, it’s more complicated than saying Ayton’s team-worst -59 plus-minus in this series and backup Jock Landale’s team-best +27 means one is better than the other.

Landale’s success is a teeeensy bit impacted by playing during Jeff Green, non-Jokic time. Still, you got to wonder how Landale would hold up in such stretches of being aggressively bodied by Jokic or put through a spin-cycle of pick-and-roll actions.

Saying all this with the Suns facing a Game 6 elimination on Thursday and with Ayton still owed three more years and $30 million plus per is not ideal. Surely, this offseason will turn to trade speculation around the 2018 first overall draft pick if Phoenix can’t win two in a row (Spoilers: Trading Ayton wouldn’t be easy).

Ayton flipped a switch during the 2021 NBA Finals run, putting enough tape together where he was not targetable. He even bailed the Suns out. Now, how he’s performing against a two-time MVP, doing neither of those things, is doing him no favors. Nor are the Suns doing him any.

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