PHOENIX – The offseason was nothing short of eventful for the Phoenix Suns.
From the conclusion and aftermath of owner Robert Sarver’s investigation to tension between players and the organization, the Suns made headlines long after a historic Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals crushed their NBA title hopes and wiped away a record 64-win regular season.
While licking its wounds, Phoenix managed to extend contracts for key pieces of the team’s championship-caliber roster. All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker received a max-contract extension, and the organization matched the Indiana Pacers’ contract offer for restricted free-agent center Deandre Ayton.
The offseason moves reestablished the 2021 Western Conference championship core for another shot at the top this season – a sight fans around the Valley are eager to see ahead of Wednesday’s season opener against no team other than the Mavericks in a game to prove the last few turbulent months are in the rearview.
“I still think they are considered one of the top teams in the NBA,” said radio broadcaster and Arizona Sports Hall of Famer Al McCoy. “Obviously it was a stumble in the playoffs, but a learning experience, and the Suns will still start the season this year with basically the same team.”
Similar to the 2021 offseason – when Ayton and small forward Mikal Bridges were due for contract extensions – Ayton’s contract situation raised plenty of questions as soon as the 2021-22 season ended. Surprisingly, Phoenix only extended Bridges last October while keeping Ayton’s situation unresolved until the season ended to put him in jeopardy of being the first No. 1 pick since Anthony Bennent in 2014 to not receive an extension after their rookie contract.
Ayton stepped up his game last season despite his contract situation and averaged 17.2 points on 63.4% from the field and 10.2 rebounds per game to provide the Suns with consistent scoring and rebounding last season.
“When you look back at this past winning season for the Suns and saw that he averaged a double-double in scoring and rebounding of every single game, that’s pretty impressive statistics for any individual player,” McCoy said.
However, last season wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ayton. In Game 7, the Suns’ big man encountered problems on and off the court, which included an altercation with coach Monty Williams after being benched. On the court, Ayton’s future drew questions after underwhelming performances in the playoffs, specifically.
The Suns matching Ayton’s $133 million offer sheet with Indiana in July came as a surprise, and the fallout has trickled into training camp. Ayton’s relationship with the organization appeared to be on rocky ground after its hand was forced to make a deal. Ayton was short and unenthusiastic in his responses on Sun’s media day and later noted that he and Williams had not spoken since the end of last season.
But for the Suns to succeed, they will need Ayton’s consistent scoring each game. After all, he gives Phoenix the best shot to win and could be the difference in a competitive Western Conference.
“He’s still very young as a basketball player and never really played a lot of high-level basketball until he got to Phoenix,” said McCoy’s broadcasting partner Tim Kempton, who played for the Suns during the 1992-93 season. “He can play multiple positions, is very athletic, and works extremely hard. I think he’s going to continue to improve.”
A team is only as good as its bench, and the Suns retooled their bench with players who understand their roles, an underestimated part of team basketball. In addition to retaining the team’s core, the Suns front office worked on improving their bench with the signings of guard Josh Okogie, center Jock Landale and shooter Damion Lee. The Suns bench will also include power forward Dario Saric, who hasn’t seen NBA action since the 2021 NBA Finals.
However, the Suns will likely be without forward Jae Crowder, whose physical presence will be hard to replace. He requested a trade before Suns media day following discussions with the organization about a contract extension and a starting role for the upcoming season. Crowder has been another key piece for the team’s success with his toughness, veteran presence and leadership setting the example for a young team. Before Phoenix, Crowder played on multiple playoff teams and made NBA Finals trips with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat.
The Suns are prepared to move on from Crowder as their young players now understand what it takes to win. In place of Crowder, Cam Johnson will take on the starting power forward role. Johnson, who has been a key player off the bench since his rookie season, will put an emphasis on rebounding – an area where Phoenix struggled mightily in the playoffs.
Johnson enters a similar situation to Ayton at the beginning of last season. He and the Suns were unable to reach on a contract extension, making him a restricted agent. He has a great opportunity to prove his worth in a larger role and make an impact in the starting lineup by any means possible.
“A huge focus of mine is to rebound and to rebound a lot better than I have in my first couple years,” Johnson said. “In that first unit, we have guys that can score, we have guys who can play out of the pick and roll. I’m going to have to contribute in as many ways as I can.”
The Suns have an opportunity on opening night to make a statement after spending the offseason learning from last season and retooling for this year. By defending the Footprint Center against the Mavericks, the Suns can show the league that they’ve moved on from what happened in May but not without a chip on their shoulder.
“Everybody has one of those games at some point of their career,” Kempton said. “I think it was a great lesson for those young players, and I look forward to the improvement individually, look forward to the improvement as a team and the ability for this team to get back to the NBA Finals.”
The 2022-23 Suns made the moves to continue as a contender in the West. They’ve added to the rotation while also ensuring their core remains intact. With uncertainty about the future of Chris Paul’s longevity in Phoenix, the Suns realistically have three more years before they look deeply into reshaping their roster.
In the meantime, the franchise has put itself in a place to be competitive at the top of the Western Conference and bring Phoenix their first NBA championship.
“I’m very anxious to see how this team now comes up with more experience behind them, and how they’re ready to go with another big season,” McCoy said. “I think they will be ready when they start the season.”