EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The Suns can’t run this back, like they couldn’t after last year’s flop

May 11, 2023, 11:21 PM | Updated: May 12, 2023, 8:32 am

Monty Williams, Suns, Nuggets, Game 6...

Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets in game six of the Western Conference Semifinal Playoffs at Footprint Center on May 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — These Phoenix Suns made a trade for Kevin Durant because, at the very highest level of the organization at least, they believed running it back from the 2021-22 roster wasn’t enough.

The question is whether inserting Durant, with red-hot shooting splits and a knee injury on this season’s resume, would be enough. Would it overcome continuity?

We got that answer when Durant on Thursday asked the assembled reporters how long Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone had led the team that with continuity bludgeoned Phoenix with a 125-100 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Coincidentally or not, it looked a lot like the Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks that this attempt at not running it back was supposed to avoid.

Like it was then, the Suns can’t sit back and run this iteration of the team back like a 12-game playoff sample size.

“We got a foundation, good infrastructure we can build on,” Durant said, taking the blame. “Hard question to answer right now. I’m sure that when the summer, offseason starts to progress we’ll start to figure that out a little more.”

What’s staying and what’s potentially to go:

The KD-Booker duo is very good

It’s really weird to look at Durant’s postseason numbers and claim he’s not himself. But watch the tape, and it’s clear he’s not himself. Nor him.

He averaged 29 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 49% shooting. That’s really good!

He’s 34 years old. I’m sure he won’t hit a major wall and maybe this year was just an awfully timed slump, which is why his efficiency totals fell off.

Even if we take the pessimistic outlook on how he turns that around, this was the best scorer in the world for a decade. That part will fix itself. There’s a lot more to untap, from how to use him defensively to how he can help take the load off Booker.

That guy averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 59% shooting and 51% from three in the postseason. That includes his 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting Thursday.

Beyond that duo, here come the many hard hard questions.

Ayton and Paul are crowding the cap

How to fill in the roster around Booker and Durant has a lot to do with how easily the Suns can turn over the Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul and even Landry Shamet contracts into something meaningful. Not easy.

For very different reasons, these guys’ future with the Suns could be in jeopardy.

Paul and Ayton both avoided participating in the blowout with injuries: to Paul’s groin and to Ayton’s ribs.

They combine to eat up $63.3 million of the books next year. The Suns will be cap-strapped, but finding any way possible to turn those contracts into more viable contributors will be on the table.

Paul’s still plenty capable of playing basketball. Does he want to? Would he be cool playing fewer minutes or coming off the bench, in Phoenix or elsewhere?

Think whatever you want about Ayton, but he hasn’t been as good as a season ago and especially not the season before that.

Unattached to how much you’d think Paul wants to make $30 million to run with this team again and if you believe there’s smoke behind the assumption that we’ll have another summer of Ayton trade chatter on our hands, the Suns have to consider it.

Their third- and fourth-best players didn’t pull their weight, and more than that, the money would be better spent even if it reduces into lesser players.

The roster and coach fit

Does Monty Williams deserve to go? Not at all. He still had a regular season team rank No. 9 in net rating despite all the missed games and midseason blockbuster trade.

For what it’s worth, it carries weight that Durant sounds behind him.

“Had a great time playing with these guys, getting to know these guys, playing for Coach Monty, playing for the staff,” Durant said. “Just more reps. … Continuing to build with one another and understand — we need to understand each other at a different level individually and at a basketball level. I think that’ll come.”

But a coaching change is always on the table with a new owner, and there are questions about what more Williams can get out of this crew. There’s a strong defense for Williams that there just wasn’t much more to get out of a flawed roster.

“We will reevaluate as we go forward. But you’re right, that’s two years in a row we’ve lost an elimination game in this way, and it’s just a bad feeling,” Williams said, accepting the blame for not getting his team ready.

“Last year’s team was totally different than this year’s team. Last year’s team was more ball movement, body movement. This year, we’re more pick-and-roll oriented and iso oriented. … That’s something we need to take a look at to see the kinds of combinations of players we have to fit the style of play.”

That’s the interesting part of evaluating this top-heavy roster. Williams isn’t exactly known for disassembling and reorganizing how his team plays or how its pieces fit on a game-to-game or series-to-series basis.

Can the Suns give Williams a roster that fits him? One that can go eight to 10 deep much more often like the 2021 NBA Finals run? Where his style of consistency-over-innovation doesn’t require wild swings in lineup changes?

He made the correct tweaks against the Nuggets, throwing Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren in there. I’m sure it was reluctantly. Again, he wasn’t left with great options considering the circumstances in Game 6 without Paul and Ayton. Or, you know, facing Nikola Jokic and a very well-oiled Nuggets machine that very much looks like the best team in the playoffs at this moment.

The challenge for Suns president of basketball ops and general manager James Jones is that constructing a deep roster that fits together and operates only one way isn’t so easy with a top-heavy roster.

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