This would have been a training camp full of questions for the Phoenix Suns, even without the saga of owner Robert Sarver.
The team was coming off a gruesome home loss this past May to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of a second-round playoff series. Star center Deandre Ayton came into camp not having talked to head coach Monty Williams since a blow-up in that final game, and after an offseason of conjecture about where he was going to play this season. Veteran forward Jae Crowder decided to sit out camp after a clash about his own contract and playing time as the Suns try to trade him.
Topping it all off was the long-awaited report from an NBA investigation into Sarver’s workplace, which documented racial slurs and misogynous transgressions. The verdict: a one-year suspension and $10 million fine for the owner.
Sarver later decided to sell the team, as well as the WNBA’s Mercury. On Wednesday, Sportico broke the news that he’s hired an investment bank to conduct that process.
Any of those items could be considered a distraction as the Suns prepare to open the regular season Oct. 19 at Footprint Center against the Mavs, of course. But the above list is pretty foreboding.
“That’s called life,” James Jones, the team’s general manager, said during a recent media session. “There’s a lot of things people deal with in life that’s a lot more stressful than this. But for us, it’s all about focus, to be professionals, to be able to navigate these situations and still perform at a high level.”
Jones created a team that set franchise records last season with 64 wins and at one point an 18-game winning streak, all while navigating the investigation, injuries and COVID bouts involving top players. But he also created the team that blew 2-0 leads to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals and the 2022 second-round series against Dallas.
The Suns have never won the NBA title, having lost in six games three times—to the Boston Celtics in 1976, to the Chicago Bulls in 1993, and to the Bucks.
So, there’s a lot of business to take care of.
“It’s hard to say how we’ll handle it. The NBA season is challenging anyway,” Williams said, also in a media session. “I believe our guys are very sensitive to this [Sarver] situation. They have a great deal of sympathy for the people who’ve been affected, but they also know that the culture and playing well can help ease the pain.”
Almost on cue, the Suns were beaten by 10 points by the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian pro basketball team, at home this past Sunday night.
Jones said the organization was in a “state of shock” about the revelations, which mostly came early in a 10-year playoff drought from 2010-11 to 2019-20.
“You just don’t want to see those kinds of findings,” he added.
Jones said he can have no contact with Sarver, and the chain of command in the organization goes from Sam Garvin, the interim governor, to him.
“But it’s on me to make basketball decisions so we can reach our goals,” Jones said.
The Suns expanded into the NBA in 1968, and Sarver purchased the team for $401 million from Jerry Colangelo in 2004. It’s now valued by Sportico at $1.92 billion, but there’s speculation Sarver could seek a lot more than that.
Sarver signed Jones as GM, and he hired Williams as coach after the team bottomed out at 19-63 four seasons ago. Neither man said they ever saw that side of Sarver, and neither have his longer-term players like Chris Paul or Devin Booker, who was drafted by previous GM, Ryan McDonough.
“It’s been tough for me, because that’s not the Robert Sarver I know, the guy who welcomed me to Phoenix, who welcomed me with open arms,” Booker said. “But at the same time, I’m not insensitive to everybody involved in the situation. And I understand that everybody’s personal experience with other people are always going to be different. It’s tough to read because that’s not the person I know.”
Sarver signed Booker to a four-year, $224 million supermax contract during the offseason. He also approved the matching of Ayton’s max contract this summer when the center signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers for four years at $133 million.
Ayton’s contract situation hung over the team all last season and might have manifested itself in the second half of the Game 7 blowout, when Williams pulled him off the court three minutes into the third quarter for good. The two had words, and Williams called it an internal matter after the game, a situation that’s still unexplained.
In reality, Ayton wasn’t the only Suns player who didn’t distinguish himself in the 123-90 loss. The team scored only 27 points in the first half, and Booker didn’t sink a field goal until five minutes were left in the third quarter.
Ayton and Williams still haven’t reconciled over the break. “I haven’t spoken to Monty,” Ayton told the media the other day. “I haven’t spoken to him at all. Ever since the game.”
Ayton was uncharacteristically sullen. “Nobody cares about the uncomfortable nature of it, it’s how you perform and what you bring to the table,” he added. “What’s said is already said.”
Williams said Tuesday after practice he has no plans for a heart-to-heart conversation. “We don’t need to air anything out,” he said. “I’m not going to keep addressing it. I’m the coach, and he’s the player just like any other player. That’s the point.”
When asked about Crowder, Williams said he was still in limbo.
That’s the same as the future of the entire franchise.