36 unbothered: How the Suns can lose the Deandre Ayton-Jusuf Nurkic trade

Oct 15, 2023, 1:59 PM

Deandre Ayton #2 of the Portland Trail Blazers in action against Josh Okogie #2 of the Phoenix Suns...

Deandre Ayton #2 of the Portland Trail Blazers in action against Josh Okogie #2 of the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter of the preseason game at Moda Center on October 12, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.

He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.

Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.

To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is nine days away from Sunday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will round out the last 12 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season after being joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby for the first 24.

Previously –

Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry

Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul
Day 28: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role
Day 27: Deandre Ayton finally is traded
Day 26: Who is Suns’ biggest threat in Western Conference?
Day 25: Matrix and STAT in Ring of Honor
Day 24: Phoenix Suns’ most appetizing lineups combinations
Day 23: The importance of Kevin Young’s return to the Suns
Day 22: The revamped Suns sunburst jerseys

Day 21: TV antennas and Phoenix Suns basketball for all
Day 20: Is there room on the Suns to unlock Bol Bol?
Day 19: What Grayson Allen brings to Suns
Day 18: Suns’ championship expectations
Day 17: Drew Eubanks could bring pop to Suns’ center group
Day 16: Olympic implications
Day 15: Jusuf Nurkic changes the Suns in the middle
Day 14: Jon Bloom takes over for Al McCoy on the airwaves
Day 13: Eric Gordon was the Suns’ biggest offseason signing
Day 12: Do the Suns need to trade for a point guard?
Day 11: The Suns need Josh Okogie

Day 10: How Phoenix Suns can build a championship defense

Day 9: How Suns can lose Deandre Ayton trade

Kellan Olson: Well, this is a complicated answer. It all starts with if you think the Suns could have still won a championship with Ayton in the first place. I think that was too far gone at this point, both in regard to his relationship with the team and how he was performing on the court.

To progress off that, if Ayton bounces back to the player he was prior to last season and also gets better, that’s an indicator those factors in Phoenix were more at fault than Ayton himself. It’s clearly what was best for both sides, getting a fresh start, but receiving a sign this was more on the Suns’ inability to make it work would be troubling.

And this doesn’t have to be “DominAyton” emerging. If he’s back to playing like a center that is one of the first you mention after Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis, that’s more than enough to raise concern the Suns made the wrong decision.

On the other end of it, if the Suns win a championship, they cannot lose the trade. It’s that simple to me. It doesn’t matter if the return for Ayton plays a significant role in bringing that title to the Valley. There are for sure outcomes where this is the case. Jusuf Nurkic and Nassir Little have not only injury concerns but problems with consistency as well. Grayson Allen is a good player but hasn’t been very effective the last two postseasons for Milwaukee.

Ultimately, I don’t see it. The Suns needed the breath of fresh air. Regardless of how it pans out, I truly believe it was never going to work out here anyway.

Kevin Zimmerman: Three things must happen for the Suns to lose the Ayton trade. All three of them must take place, and I’ll say the optics will take some time to develop beyond this year.

1) Jusuf Nurkic in a key playoff series or two is hunted in pick-and-roll coverages endlessly and ultimately forced to be benched because of matchup reasons.

2) The Suns can’t find a suitable backup like Drew Eubanks to cover for him, because Eubanks and others have enough flaws themselves. Phoenix can’t find a counter to replacing Nurkic in the middle, don’t find a way to go small and get their rotation out of whack trying to switch things up on the fly, which plays a part in losing a playoff series.

3) Ayton in Portland plays well enough where it seems like he would have helped. I’m not talking so much about a 20-point, 15-rebound season because that wouldn’t be needed on the Suns. I’m talking about becoming a reliable — not even elite — pick-and-roll defender on a consistent basis that helped Phoenix reach the 2021 NBA Finals. I’m talking about being the big man who can’t be attacked as he was the past two postseasons. Ayton doesn’t need to even be excellent and block more shots and get rid of every single bone-headed moment. He just needs to look like a guy who wouldn’t need to be replaced by Jock Landale in a postseason series.

Knowing point No. 3 might not come for several years, because Portland won’t be making the playoffs in 2023-24. But if we see signs of Ayton being a consistent defender — like if Blazers fans never complain about such things — and maybe it was just about a soured relationship with Monty Williams, well, it could look bad.

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36 unbothered: How the Suns can lose the Deandre Ayton-Jusuf Nurkic trade