25-under-25: Can Deandre Ayton save the Suns from themselves?

25-under-25, Phoenix Suns

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The Suns are in turmoil and Deandre Ayton has been a part of it. Can his new deal and new focus help quell the storm and get them back to championship contention?

Deandre Ayton plays for the Phoenix Suns. The Phoenix Suns have been owned by Robert Sarver for 17 years. That is a problem not just for Deandre Ayton but anyone who’s a fan of decency really. Then again, Ayton’s problems in Phoenix exist with or without Sarver. Ayton’s problems in Phoenix just might begin and end with everyone.

But let us begin with Robert Sarver.

Sarver is the kind of man who feels excluded and therefore threatened by anyone not like him. Sarver is also a man of means and therefore used to having access. Many anecdotes now exist within the public sphere of all the inner dialogues and thoughts Sarver didn’t have the decency or sense to keep private. One such incident is about his wanting to say all the words Draymond Green says, but Sarver cannot say all the words Draymond Green says without participating in either some form of prejudice or harassment.

He is exactly the kind of man who is impossible to send up via parody because he lives and breathes in caricature. At the same time, the traits and comments that have recently come to light do not make up the Robert Sarver known to Devin Booker, providing one of those complicated lessons in frames of reference, where one’s own judgments, experiences, and interactions cannot be trusted. And trust in Phoenix appears to be at a premium.

What was supposed to be a Golden Age of basketball caved in rather suddenly for the Phoenix Suns, but that’s how cave-ins happen. If they were slow affairs, no one would ever be trapped. If no one were ever trapped, there would be no need for heroes. The dust still hasn’t settled, but it’s clear matters are worse than being eliminated from the Playoffs in the most embarrassing fashion. Given the historic pits of despair on and off the court and all the recent missteps in managing conflicting personalities and bad behavior, playing for the Phoenix Suns is a bit like being a dwarf in Khazad-dûm.

Rumors and secrecy suggest new depths are always being mined, and the discovery of a Balrog would be preferable to a real-life owner who trades in racism and misogyny with every other conversation he holds. The Phoenix Suns wilted on the court last Playoffs, but another collapse occurred in parallel behind the scenes. Heroic acts in this situation have little to do with last-second shots or defensive stands. Heroism, in this case, is present in the act of displaying hurtful details. With the entire place weighed down by obvious slights and unspoken apologies, anyone, including Deandre Ayton, might want to be anywhere else. Anywhere else might actually be about basketball.

But don’t worry: if not happy, he’s alright, right?

Can Deandre Ayton still be at home with the Phoenix Suns?

When Sarver makes his exit as owner, he will likely disappear from public view and hide away in a sealed chamber of his own making, hoarding his riches and whatnot. But disappearing is a much more difficult act when being watched and standing seven feet tall. Deandre Ayton is capable of such tricks. See last year’s series against Golden State, and yet he did not fade quietly — he unleashed a wealth of criticism and ended up in a situation with head coach Monty Williams for which he is still answering. Such is the fate of a former number one pick.

In the disappointment that was Phoenix’s playoff venture, Ayton found himself the scapegoat even as everyone in purple and orange played poorly in the team’s final stand. But the scapegoating was a long time coming, preceded and followed by contract disputes, lack of offers, and swirling trade rumors. At one point over the summer, Indiana looked like a safe haven from being yelled at by pretty much everyone, and Phoenix could have allowed Ayton to vanish from the desert instead of reaching beyond the veil and jerking him back into everyone’s field of vision.

Playing alongside a Hall-of-Fame point guard often referred to as a deity is a much more visible state than cornrows and journeymen. There is a Sirius Black joke to be had here, if one were to force it, and right now the difficulty is in telling whether or not Phoenix and Ayton are forcing a relationship because they believe some proverbial window that is always closing might still allow some fresh air to circulate.

One can understand Phoenix’s hesitation to max Ayton. His best season’s numbers are only a tad better than Clint Capela’s best. At the same time, what are the Phoenix Suns without their big man? What has become the proverbial line for those walking a tightrope between the Ayton deniers and the Ayton supporters is that while he may not be worth top-tier money to everyone he is worth top-tier money to the Phoenix Suns because they are positioned to win now and everything beyond that is difficult to perceive, up to Gandalf and lost causes. So hold onto the prophecy as long as possible.

At age 24, a dog-year-like quality sneaks into watching Ayton storm chase. He isn’t Kevin Garnett in Boston or Tim Duncan in his twilight, but surely he should have progressed more by now. These expectations are an impossible stretch. The mythril in Phoenix runs through Chris Paul’s veins, and the greatest divide in Phoenix — the deathly crack on which all hopes rest — is a difference in ages and therefore urgencies. The wish is for Ayton to become whatever he might be in this particular moment before Chris Paul bids the game adieu.

That’s a lot of pressure. That’s a reason to keep on moving. When people start seeing you as a means for their journey’s end and not what you believe yourself to be, you might just be down in a hole by yourself, asking a world that can’t hear you: What are Chris Paul’s championship hopes without me setting the pick? Rolling to the rim? Without me in the lane and grabbing boards?

Phoenix is neither the world’s end nor its beginning. Ayton grasps this. While he says he’s focused on winning a championship, he has also talked about the importance of generational wealth and basketball as business. Chris Paul has likely also had such thoughts. After all, Chris Paul does sell insurance, has been the president of the NBA Players’ Association, and dealt with prior Robert Sarvers. But Chris Paul must also be the game’s greatest compartmentalizer. Yapping and smiling at one angle. Scowling and laying down judgment from another. Time places a strain on all things, and so does Chris Paul. The Suns know the situation: they need both players, but even with both in tow last season, the collective mettle appeared lacking.

When last faced with adversity, the team turned inward, and no one on the team was more deeper in than Deandre Ayton. Maybe this new challenge will allow for a different showing, where teammates band together and whatnot. Maybe, despite their layering, the two situations are not related at all. But this seems like a pivotal moment for both the franchise and the man chosen before everyone in the 2018 draft. Perhaps  Phoenix gives Ayton an opportunity to possess all the things basketball can offer. But at what cost? Proving one’s worth in a given situation can be a path to improvement. Grit is a positive quality on which to hang one’s helmet, but some situations are impossible. Attempting to prove one’s worth to a kangaroo court submerged in an endless supply of fool’s errands can hollow out any individual.

What’s the word for entering the Mines of Moria? ‘Cause those are nice to have when traveling the perilous dark in search of the proof you know resides within you about who you are and what you’re about. Just speak the word, but don’t expect anyone to whistle. No one’s really happy to be here. They’re all looking for an out.

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