Even if there is no debate that the Phoenix Suns should have traded for Kevin Durant at the NBA trade deadline, the trade package robbed the Suns of their depth.
Devin Booker emerged as the Suns’ first option in the playoffs, moving Durant into a secondary role. Often Durant was regulated to a corner spot-up shooter in Suns coach Monty Williams’ offense. Durant still posted All-Star numbers in the playoffs: 29 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game, and 4.2 assists per game, on shooting splits of 47.8 percent field goal/33.3 percent 3-pointers/91.7 percent free throws. But Booker, surprisingly, outplayed Durant. Some of this was thanks to the attention Durant commands from opposing defenses. But Durant was still mostly the Durant of old, ranking seventh in scoring during the postseason, with Booker ranked first with 33.7 ppg.
But in the elimination game on Thursday, Durant scored just eight points in the first half on 2-of-11 shooting. He would finish with 23 points.
With two of the best scorers in the NBA on the same team, the Suns’ season wasn’t supposed to end like this. Not again. It was the second straight postseason the Suns were eliminated in the second round. Even worse, it was the second time they were blown out in the elimination game, falling 125-100 at home to the Denver Nuggets in Game 6.
Last season, the Suns suffered a shocking Game 7 loss at home against Dallas, with a deficit that went as high as 30 points. In this year’s playoffs, the Suns faced a deficit as large as 32 points, which marked the third- and fourth-largest deficits in NBA history for a team on the brink of elimination. That it happened in back-to-back Aprils makes it all the more apparent things need to change.
As Williams said after the game, “This is two years in a row where we lost in an elimination
game like this, and it’s just a bad feeling.”
It’s a cruel and embarrassing twist of fate for a team many had as NBA title favorites after the Durant trade. So where do the Suns go now?
Changes Suns could make for next season
Everyone, from coach Williams to disgruntled center DeAndre Ayton, who was injured and sat out Game 6, and Chris Paul, who was also injured strained left groin and out, could be elsewhere next season.
Less than 24 hours have elapsed, and already there is rampant speculation that both Paul and Ayton will be actively shopped this summer. The new owner, Mat Ishbia, purchased the Suns from Robert Sarver, who sold the company after being accused and subsequently banned for the season for his history of inappropriate behavior. Ishiba spent no time making a splash, trading their best 3-and-D players, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, and a horde of picks for Durant’s services.
As Ishbia said in his introductory press conference after purchasing the Suns, “We’re going to try to win championships. We can’t win every year, but I promise you we’re going to try. We’re going to try to win everything we can do.”
With Booker and Durant on the roster, the Suns don’t need another star. They need to recoup the depth they forfeited in the KD trade. Paul and Ayton should be moved in lieu of perimeter defense and playmaking. They can get 60 a game from their dynamic duo, but in the playoffs, only Durant, Booker, Paul, and Ayton averaged double digits in points in the playoffs. If they are to get rid of half of their double-digit scorers, they will need to bolster their shooting in the frontcourt and from the lead guard position.
Paul, at 38, only shot 32 percent from the three in the playoffs, and Ayton can’t hit a three to save his life. Adding spacing from those positions is key to balancing their roster.
Ayton has never seemed to want to be in Phoenix, often caught on camera arguing with Williams on the bench and in huddles. The Suns were forced to re-sign the big man after the Indiana Pacers signed him to a four-year, $133 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent last summer. Ayton went so far as to admit he didn’t have a single conversation with his coach all summer. That’s strange behavior, to say the least. The Suns matched the offer to retain their 2018 No. 1 pick, who they selected over Luka Doncic and Trey Young.
How much Ayton can fetch on the trade market is a good question. Ayton’s defensive effort, and domination by Nicola Jokic, including getting benched down the stretch of Game 3, were on display for the whole world to see. Paul also lost a step this season, averaging career lows in the regular season, 13.9.
The Suns should look at desperate, poverty-riddled teams who need leadership and a splashy move. The Dallas Mavericks seem to fit that description the best and could flip Kyrie Irving, reuniting him with Durant, for Paul and Ayton. That trade would make them worse off than if they kept Irving. They could also look to move the duo in separate deals or a combined trade to the Eastern Conference. Maybe to the Toronto Raptors for Fred VanVleet, Charlotte Hornets for Terry Rozier, or Indiana Pacers for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, three teams that missed the playoffs this season and are out of the Victor Wembanayama sweepstakes due to their mediocre record.
Acquiring Durant changed them from a team predicated on ball movement to an iso-centric squad that had to overplay their starters. The Suns must accept that Paul can no longer lead the team as a starter and pull the plug on Ayton as their starting center. Bringing this roster back with only minor changes will guarantee a third failed playoff next season. Ishiba has already shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up. Expect him to make moves to surround his dynamic duo with a better supporting cast. Otherwise, this trade could be critiqued as early as this summer.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo