Closing out their ninth consecutive victory took a bit of luck and some heavy lifting from Chris Paul, but the Suns managed on Monday night, and in doing so kept the longest winning streak in the league alive. It was an opportunity for Deandre Ayton to finally enjoy the spoils of his team’s momentum; after missing the previous five games with a right leg injury, Ayton rejoined Phoenix’s well-rounded starting lineup and proceeded to work over Minnesota’s front line for 22 points and 12 rebounds. It was a performance characteristic of the high-motor, low-maintenance style that made Ayton so vital to Phoenix’s run to the NBA Finals last season.
“He draws so much attention when he dives,” Suns coach Monty Williams told reporters after the game, in appreciation of the young center. Yet before Ayton could take his own victory lap with the assembled media, he faced questions about the reports that loom over the entire franchise. Just before Ayton was sidelined by injury, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes published a multilayered report detailing a culture of racism, misogyny, and intimidation in the Suns’ organization under managing partner Robert Sarver. Days later, ESPN’s Jalen Rose said—and then retracted, through his colleague Stephen A. Smith—on air that Sarver had used a racial slur specifically in reference to Ayton.
The 23-year-old claimed that he hadn’t heard about the episode with Rose, because he’s following Paul’s and Devin Booker’s lead to limit his social media usage. “Them dudes, they’re the most famous athletes in the NBA right now and they block it out,” Ayton said. “I can block it out, too.” The report regarding Sarver, however, was too seismic for a member of the Suns to possibly avoid. So Ayton fell back on focusing on what was in his power to control—a standard mode for professional athletes at large. “All I do,” Ayton said, “is put my head down and work.”
It’s hard to argue with the results, both for Ayton and a Suns team that has roundly dispatched its recent opponents. Phoenix made its mark last season by wasting no opportunity—they took care of the ball, they protected leads, and they homed in on any weakness they could find. This year’s team hasn’t been quite so precise, though they’ve used a soft run in their schedule to tune up their offense and settle back into some familiar patterns. With Ayton out, defenders came at Paul more aggressively in the pick-and-roll, all but begging the Hall of Fame point guard to let backup turned starter JaVale McGee make reads on the move instead. Paul initially was prone to holding the ball a beat too long as he looked for alternatives—until Phoenix started lifting its wings higher up on the floor and into better passing angles, making a natural release out of some basic geometry.
This is who the Suns are at their core: problem-solvers with the versatility to create multiple points of entry for their offense and adjust their defense to any matchup. That basic formula (and the defense, especially) has carried them to nine wins in a row—impressive under any circumstances, but even more so considering most were without Ayton. The on-court puzzles do tend to be a bit simpler when matching up with the likes of the Rockets and Timberwolves, but Phoenix, frankly, has needed the opportunity to find its bearings after a somewhat rusty start was complicated by the most explosive story of the NBA season so far.
No current Suns player or coach was named in ESPN’s report in anything more than an incidental capacity. Yet as forward-facing members of the organization, Paul, Booker, Ayton, and their teammates have been (and will be) asked to respond to claims of workplace abuse from years before they ever joined the franchise—all while Sarver himself hides behind statements issued by his legal team. It’s a crummy deal. It’s also one that will come to the fore, over and over, as the investigation deepens and the story continues to evolve.
In between the fifth and sixth games of the Suns’ current streak, Holmes reported that Sarver’s wife, Penny, had sent intimidating messages to former members of the organization. Shortly before Phoenix’s ninth straight win, Holmes reported on the assurances that the firm investigating the Suns are offering team employees to protect them from potential retribution. The persistence of this story, while not exactly fair to the team rattling off a lengthy winning streak or the Suns employees simply trying to do their jobs, is a helpful reminder that the entire league is played in the shadows of the ultra-wealthy and their failings. It’s difficult to draw a line between the hostility in the workplace and the product on the floor when the details of ESPN’s report include, among so many other things, a threat to fire the team’s then-head coach over a perceived slight.
The task for these current Suns, in many ways, is to attempt to draw that line anyway—if not between the team and its ownership, then in a circle around the locker room. They can channel Ayton and zero in on only what they can control. They can go to work, fixing one detail at a time, and trust in the equity they’ve built with each other.
“For me, I have to do my job,” Williams said after the initial report on Sarver was published earlier this month. “During the Finals and the playoff run, you get to do all these fun stories, right? And you sit there willingly. Well, today is a day that I really don’t wanna do this, but it’s my job and I have to do it. Every decision I make affects a lot of people. So I’m gonna be here, answering questions, doing what I’ve gotta do because I’ve got a group in there that expects me to be my best in every situation. And I’m gonna be my best.”
Maybe that could be enough. It isn’t on Paul, Booker, Ayton, and their teammates to fix an entire workplace. They simply have to navigate it—just as they did last season. The matter to overcome here isn’t the report itself, after all, but the behaviors it describes. The primary difference in Phoenix between last season and this one—between the playoff breakthrough and all of this—is the sunlight shone on what was already there.