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Seven Wins or Less: The Phoenix Suns Are a Mess

The franchise clearly can’t win now, but they don’t seem to know how to build for the future, either

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Trevor Ariza got his money—$15 million, to be exact. And now, it looks like he’s going to get a real basketball team to play with too. Ariza spurned the Houston Rockets and signed with the Phoenix Suns this summer on a one-year mercenary deal. Phoenix was adding Ariza with the expectation that he could bolster a young, competitive roster. But when the Suns began to flounder, it became clear that Ariza preferred to play elsewhere. And on Sunday, less than two months into the season, ESPN reported that the Lakers were in talks with the Suns about a three-team deal that would send Ariza back to Los Angeles, where he played from 2007 to 2009. For Ariza, this is the ultimate best-case scenario; for the Suns, it’s the damning encapsulation of their current, dire state. Signing Ariza showed what kind of team they thought they would be. Trading him shows what kind of team they actually are.

The Suns are a league-worst 4-22, have a minus-11.7 point differential, and are ranked 28th in the league in both defense and offense. They have dropped eight games in a row, and on two separate occasions in the last week, they scored only nine points in the first quarter. Nine! They have gone from a young, upstart team to a feeding system for the Lakers. And to top it all off, they have moved their no. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton to the bench, chalking it up to a mysterious “illness.” Also, the team’s other 2018 first round pick did this to the team’s rookie head coach:

Phoenix is in free fall. They are a discombobulated, culture-lacking franchise that, last season, fired their head coach three games in and traded away Eric “I Don’t Wanna be Here” Bledsoe before firing general manager Ryan McDonough in October of 2018. Of course, this kind of disappointing state wouldn’t be possible without a bevy of underwhelming high draft picks like Marquese Chriss, Alex Len, and Dragan Bender. When the 2019 draft arrives, it will feature a Suns team that’s been in the lottery for 10 out of the last 11 years.

Put winning aside for a second. One of the costs of this kind of organizational dysfunction is poor player development on top of bad draft picks. Players like Josh Jackson, a top-four pick just last year, have fallen by the wayside, getting inconsistent minutes and having their roles reduced in part because of their own shortcomings, but also because of all the stylistic and coaching changes that have happened in the last two seasons. The Suns haven’t exactly created an environment that encourages growth.

“It would definitely be a lot better if we were more stable,” Jackson told me of his play less than two weeks ago. “I don’t think any other player in my class has gone through as much change within their team as I have. Since the moment I came into the league, it’s just been all about changes and adjustments, new coach after my second game of the season, like, c’mon now, really? That doesn’t happen.”

Devin Booker has been the lone bright spot for Phoenix. He’s the only one of the Suns’ 12 first-round picks since 2011 (not counting 2018), that has panned out. Booker has enough star potential that the Suns felt comfortable giving him a max extension this summer. He may never play to a level that makes that extension worth it, but it’s hard to blame the Suns for locking him in. It’s like they went on 15 terrible dates and when one finally went well, they decided to propose on the spot. This season, new head coach Igor Kokoskov has tried using Booker as a James Harden-type ball handler, and when Booker has been at the helm with decent shooters around him, he’s shown to be able to handle such a role decently enough. Booker is not the Suns’ problem, even if he may not be their savior either. Ayton meanwhile is still too young and raw to be able to fully judge (his defense has been questionable at best), but with Luka Doncic shining in Dallas, the center has looked comparatively underwhelming through his first handful of games. The Suns better hope he’s the complementary answer to Booker.

One thing that is certain is that Ariza is not the supplemental piece that Phoenix expected to add. His eventual departure (he can be officially traded on December 15) may yield the Suns a future asset, but reports Monday indicated that the team wants to receive players who can “play now.” Why? This is a team that’s on pace to win just 12 games, and the only way to start making their way out of the doldrums is by building for the future. No more Trevor Arizas. That Phoenix refuses to be practical about building for tomorrow seems to be tied to the fact that their owner, Robert Sarver, wants to win today. If such directive is coming from the top of the organization, then the Suns taking Ayton over Doncic sums up their ugly situation perfectly. It’s tough to say that drafting Doncic would have solved all of Phoenix’s problems, but it is ironic that, for a team that seems to be preoccupied with winning as soon as possible and players who can “play now,” they may have passed on the one player that’s already producing wins.