Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the first qua...

Bickley: Can the Suns win a title without Deandre Ayton next season?

At their dysfunctional worst, the Suns were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Owner Robert Sarver kept giving the Ferrari to teenagers with learning permits. He kept handing over basketball operations to people who were young, inexperienced, controllable and affordable. Ultimately, they would be fired for everything they weren’t in the first place.

At their dysfunctional worst, the Suns also made terrible decisions on the brink of a championship trophy. They wouldn’t pay Joe Johnson in 2005. They wouldn’t pay Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010. In both cases, the Suns were coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. They are never guilty of trying too hard or spending too much.

And now, Deandre Ayton.

In his four years with the Suns, Ayton has been suspended 25 games by the NBA; infuriated fans with his high ceiling and his low motor; dominated everyone but Giannis in the 2021 postseason; continued to get better every year; and was involved in a heated exchange with head coach Monty Williams after being benched in Game 7 of a blowout loss to the Mavericks.

The highs and lows have been preposterous. But the question isn’t whether Ayton is worth $30 million a year. He’s not.

The question is whether the Suns can compete for a championship next season without him. The answer?

Good luck.

Through a tapestry of unsourced, anonymous reports, we have heard that Ayton is likely on his way out of Phoenix; that Williams has grown tired of Ayton’s waning focus; that Ayton has been chirping about his imminent departure for some time; and that rapper Lil Wayne heard Williams told Ayton he “freaking quit on us.”

Undoubtedly, there were internal issues near the end. Something was clearly amiss. During a first-round series against the Pelicans, Williams made it clear he wanted no part of a story that would glorify Ayton’s commitment to the group, for putting communal success ahead of his contract.

Because it was no longer true.

But there’s also a lot of scapegoating happening here. If the team was so tired of Ayton’s attitude down the stretch, would they have indulged his desire to have his young son on the court during warmups on the road in playoff games? The latter is something you do for family, when there’s a strong connection within the group.

It doesn’t make sense that a player as beloved and breezy as Ayton would suddenly be consumed with individual glory and dollar signs just as the playoffs were nearing. But here’s the biggest question of all:

Why and what were the Suns thinking when considering moving Ayton before the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 10?

On the day of the trade deadline, the Suns smoked the Bucks 131-107. Their record was 45-10 and they had won 15 of their previous 16 games. After the transcendent postseason Ayton authored in 2021, why would the team think of replacing him at that point of the season, if not for cost control?

Imagine if you’re Ayton, the only one not rewarded financially for the Suns’ magical run to the NBA Finals two years ago. The team even traded for and paid Landry Shamet in advance, sight unseen. They effectively embarrassed Ayton among his peers, as he watched others from his draft class receive their contract extensions. They asked him to be patient, to be a good teammate, to accept his role and all the vicious internal criticisms that comes with playing alongside Chris Paul.

And he seemed to be growing. There was a time in that first-round series against the Pelicans when it seemed every shot he attempted was going in the basket, when he was the lynchpin to fast starts in the opening quarter.

In the early years, many who feel beholden to the Suns comically defended Ayton at every turn. Because they knew the team butchered the No. 1 overall pick by not selecting Luka Doncic and they were doing requisite damage control for the organization.

As his fiercest former critic, I find the turn of events astounding:  I’ve grown to love Ayton while many of those who once claimed the same no longer seem so devoted. He is no longer a hill worth dying on. Now that he’s due for a massive payday, of course.

For all the great changes in culture and stability in recent years, the Ayton saga feels ways too much like the churn, burn and constant swirl of drama that marked a previous era.  When it was always about the money.


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