Before Samuel L. Jackson presented the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay on Sunday, he went off script. Jackson found Spike Lee, whose film BlacKkKlansman was nominated for the award, in the crowd. “First of all, Spike,” Jackson said, “so glad you’re sitting down. After 18 consecutive home losses, the Knicks won tonight. I repeat, the Knicks won tonight!” The camera panned to Lee as the audience wooed; the crowd of cinephiles didn’t need context to recognize a moment of triumph.
Lee laughed. He wasn’t clapping. “We’re trying to tank!” he yelled back. Many viewers knew what the Academy didn’t—that a chance at Zion Williamson is far more valuable than wins—and understood Lee, the crowd’s biggest Knicks fan, when he said on one of America’s most-watched broadcasts that it was best for the franchise to lose.
I don’t know whether Phoenix Suns rookie Deandre Ayton is a movie buff. He didn’t live-tweet the Oscars, which I, and many Suns fans, know, because his Twitter has been closely watched since Saturday, when his account retweeted this:
Reddit users debated whether Ayton could’ve retweeted it himself, and according to multiple people, it happened while the Suns-Hawks game was still in action, so it’s unlikely that Ayton retweeted these himself (and the tweets have since been un-retweeted). But even setting those tweets aside, it’s clear that Ayton would’ve resented Lee’s retort. The 20-year-old isn’t on board with losing. And, after dropping Phoenix’s 17th straight L, the most freshly inducted member of the Suns’ four-year-long tank has decided it’s time to reverse course.
“I gave them enough time to let them run what they got to run,” Ayton said Thursday. “Now I’m about to just take over now. It’s about that time to take over and not really look back.”
Ayton has been a winner for as long as the Suns have been losers. All his high school teams had winning records, concluding in 2017 with Hillcrest Prep’s first national championship. During his only year as an Arizona Wildcat, the team went 27-8 and won the Pac-12, earning him the conference’s Player of the Year award and the honor of being the first overall draft pick in 2018. Phoenix was able to draft Ayton as a result of all the losing it did in 2017-18, and the freefall tank is a hellish thing to bounce back from. Theoretically, and this is what Ayton seems to understand: The player picked at the top of the lottery is supposed to end the losing, not continue it.
Another year of tanking wasn’t inevitable for the Suns at the start of the season. They had a new, promising coach in Igor Kokoskov. Devin Booker was coming off career highs in every stat. They added Trevor Ariza, a human being familiar with winning. They traded for Ryan Anderson, which should’ve opened the floor for Booker to drive and Ayton to cook in the paint. There wasn’t as much preordained sucking as with other organizations, like the Hawks and the Cavaliers, who are still in the middle or early part of their tanking cycles, respectively, and whose rookies Trae Young and Collin Sexton don’t have a Bookeresque star with three years of experience to team up with immediately. Maybe that’s why Ayton said he wanted to take over after the loss to the Cavs. Phoenix has dropped more contests during this isolated 17-game stretch than it’s won all season. The Suns now sit at 11-50, the worst record in the league.
“It’s not easy to deal with,” Ayton said of the losing streak. “I’m going to try my best to take over. Real talk.” It’s the sentiment all teams want from their top draft picks, but after 61 games of instability, Ayton isn’t the perfect messenger. While what the 20-year-old needs to succeed isn’t regularly available to him—the Suns’ terrible 3-point shooting doesn’t allow for proper spacing, and his post touches have declined with Booker’s return—Ayton’s been inconsistent. That’s normal for rookies, but Ayton’s situation is exacerbated by the pressure of being a franchise savior and a history of questionable focus and effort. His defense is an Ikea box waiting to be opened; all the physical tools are there, but not the labor to assemble it.
There is no leading a team designed to lose. “Uniting” would be a more appropriate word. If Ayton’s frustration comes from a lack of touches, “taking over and not looking back” isn’t the kind of language that will make his teammates want to give him more looks inside. More touches for Ayton won’t fix the offense or suddenly lift the Suns defense from the bottom of the standings. It won’t change the quality of the 3-point shooters on the roster, nor hire a front office hell-bent on never tanking again. After the Hawks loss, Booker said the Suns were “not on the same page.” They haven’t been for years. But, Booker added, “It’s the worst I’ve seen it since I’ve been here, and that’s saying a lot.” This tank has roots. Ayton is just the latest to wonder when anything will grow.