Not even the biggest optimist expected this iteration of the Phoenix Suns to return to the glory days of Steve Nash and his middle part this season. It’s been nearly a decade since the franchise last made the playoffs. Those gray side-panel jerseys from that era should stay in the past, but some hope for the future is long overdue. Out of the rubble of back-to-back-to-back seasons with 24 or fewer wins emerged a promising young core—Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges—and a new coach, Igor Kokoskov. But so far, that group is 2-8, which is good for last in the Western Conference standings. You can take the Suns out of the tank, but you can’t take the tank out of the Suns.
After a 104-82 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, Phoenix was booed off its home court. Booker, who scored 20 points and shot 28.6 percent from the field, didn’t blame the fans. “I’d be doing the same thing if I was up there,” he said. The loss was a sharp swing of momentum from Phoenix’s previous game, when Booker broke the team’s seven-game losing streak by sinking a buzzer-beater in Garrett Temple’s face. The 102-100 win over Memphis was Phoenix’s closest final margin all season. Most of the Suns’ losses, like Tuesday’s against Brooklyn, aren’t even close. (Their only other win was a blowout, too: a 21-point trouncing of Dallas in the season opener.)
“I think all good teams have that trust and chemistry, where they’re able to get on each other and know that it’s for a better purpose,” Booker told reporters. “For us, I don’t think we have that right now. We’re not comfortable with each other, we don’t step on each other’s toes, we don’t push each other, and I think that’s what we need to do.”
Being too nonconfrontational is an easier thing to fix than, say, what Minnesota is going through. Half of the eight-man rotation is new: starters Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson joined the team over the summer; Ayton, the no. 1 overall pick, is averaging 32 minutes; and Ayton’s fellow rookie, Bridges, is playing nearly as much as Jackson is off the bench. The default leader of the group is Booker, who signed a five-year, $158 million extension in July, making him the highest-paid player in franchise history. Booker just turned 22 last week; he’s more of an heir apparent than he is a king ready to rule at this point in his career. Still, the front office paid him to one day carry the franchise, and perhaps he now feels obligated to immediately live up to that expectation both with his play and with his leadership.
A discrepancy between a young star’s ability to carry an offense and his ability to carry a team is common. (They’re usually the same young players accused of having empty stats.) Karl-Anthony Towns is another recent example, and for a similar reason. Both have lifted their respective offenses with advanced-level scoring, and that obviously superior talent automatically penciled them in as team leaders. But both are still trying to figure things out for themselves; how are they supposed to show anyone else the right path? That’s especially complicated on defense, where both Booker and Towns are still wrestling with the nuances. Towns’s Timberwolves are second-to-last in the NBA in defense, and Booker’s Suns are 26th overall. No matter how vocal they are in the huddles, both young stars’ teams will struggle if they can’t stop anyone.
But while Towns still has to navigate Jimmy Butler’s strong voice, the Suns are all set up for Booker to take the reins. All of the veteran presences on the Phoenix roster—Ariza, Anderson, and Jamal Crawford, the latter of whom signed on in mid-October—were brought in to support their young superstar, not to supplant him as the leader. The three account for less than 20 total points a game on average. They’re the guides to rediscovering relevancy, not the explorers.
Like Booker, Ayton is speaking like a player already in a leadership role. “Know who to yell at, know who not to [yell] at,” Ayton, who agreed with Booker’s assessment after the loss to the Nets, offered as a possible solution. “Know who to encourage. There’s certain guys on the team—you curse them out, you’re basically cursing with them. That’s what amps them up. Cuss me out. Like, why you not on me? Some guys, you have say, ‘Come on man, let’s go, let’s go.’”
Phoenix’s record isn’t encouraging, but the way its young stars have taken issue with it is. Attempting to address the problem is one rung above only trying to benefit from the problem in the draft. Technically, that’s a step up.