The boos echoed while new Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia trudged from his courtside seat through the tunnel and toward a private room in the bowels of the Footprint Center.
Mateen Cleaves, Ishbia’s longtime friend and guest for the night, walked behind his former Michigan State teammate and offered words of encouragement after the halftime buzzer had sounded on Thursday’s Game 6.
“Chest out! Chest out!” Cleaves told Ishbia. “You all right! You all right!”
They returned to Ishbia’s seats, located in the corner across from the home bench, and watched the rest of the Suns’ elimination game despite the result being a foregone conclusion.
Most others in the home crowd didn’t have such patience, as many fans fled for the exits early in the fourth quarter, as the Suns’ season-ending 125-100 blowout at the hands of the top-seeded Denver Nuggets created some eerily familiar and painful feelings in Phoenix. (The Suns were eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in similar fashion at home in last season’s Western Conference semifinals.)
“This is two years in a row where we lost in an elimination game like this,” Suns coach Monty Williams said, “and it’s just a bad feeling.”
Suns superstar Devin Booker, the only player to start both of those games, had nothing to say after the blowout, uncharacteristically exiting the arena without speaking to the media.
While Booker has been a constant in the Suns’ rise to contender status, so much has changed for the team in the past year, most significantly Ishbia’s purchase of a majority share of the franchise ending Robert Sarver’s reign of incompetent and inappropriate behavior.
“We’re going to try to win championships,” Ishbia said during his introductory news conference in February. “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.”
Monty Williams reflects on Suns’ elimination
Monty Williams shares his thoughts on the Suns being ousted from the postseason after their Game 6 loss to the Nuggets.
Ishbia’s ambition and stated approach — which he backed up by making the blockbuster trade for Durant as the ink was drying on the deal to purchase a majority share of Phoenix’s franchise — has created the anticipation that this could be a summer of significant change for the Suns.
Some sources with other NBA teams have expressed a belief that the changes could include a reorganization of the Suns’ front office and potentially even put Williams’ job in jeopardy. Ishbia made one major addition in the front office in early March, hiring Josh Bartelstein as the team’s CEO. Bartelstein, 33, had been an assistant general manager with the Detroit Pistons after a stint as the team’s executive vice president of business and basketball operations.
“Some heads are going to roll for this one,” a scout for another franchise told ESPN at halftime, when the Suns’ 30-point deficit was identical to the halftime margin in last year’s Game 7 loss to the Mavericks.
There is also wondering around the NBA, according to league sources, about whether Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton — two players who were driving forces in Phoenix’s run to the 2021 NBA Finals but were sidelined for Thursday’s elimination game — will wear a Suns uniform again.
The challenge for Phoenix is to create a championship-caliber supporting cast around its pair of superstars. Paul and/or Ayton might need to be moved for the Suns to address their glaring depth issues, which factored into the heavy burdens placed on Durant and Booker, who rank first and second, respectively, in minutes per game during the playoffs. The priority is to surround Durant and Booker with quality role players who complement them well, not add another perennial All-Star.
“We need to understand each other on a different level individually and as basketball players, and I think that will come,” Durant, who was limited by injuries to only eight regular-season games after being traded to the Suns, said postgame. “So we’ll see what happens. Definitely frustrating and disappointing and embarrassing.”
Paul, 38, who missed the final four games of the series against the Nuggets because of a strained left groin and showed signs of decline throughout the season, is guaranteed a little more than half of his $30.8 million salary for next season. The salary would become fully guaranteed on June 28, and the Suns are expected to explore what they might get if they traded Paul before making a decision on his contract.
The relationship between Ayton and the Suns has been awkward for the past two years, due in part to Phoenix’s reluctance to award Ayton with a maximum extension of his rookie contract. Phoenix was essentially forced to pay up for Ayton when the Indiana Pacers signed him to a four-year, $133 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent last summer, leaving the Suns with the options of matching the deal or losing the 2018 No. 1 pick for nothing.
The relationship between Ayton and Williams publicly frayed after the coach benched the big man during that aforementioned Game 7 loss to the Mavericks and then refused to discuss Ayton postgame or during the next day’s exit interviews. Ayton revealed early in training camp that he did not have a single conversation with his coach all summer, even after signing his maximum contract. Sources told ESPN that Ayton’s teammates have shared their coach’s frustration with what they perceive to be inconsistent effort and aggression from the 7-footer.
Ayton would be excited about a fresh start with another franchise, sources told ESPN. The Suns are expected to aggressively explore the trade market for him this summer, league sources said.
Although Ayton had a disappointing series against Denver — getting benched down the stretch of the Suns’ Game 3 win and frequently dominated by two-time MVP center Nikola Jokic — league sources expect several teams to show interest in acquiring the 24-year-old, who averaged 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game this season.
“I come in listening, learning humbly,” Ishbia said during that February news conference. “I’m a mortgage guy. I love, love, love basketball. I love business, so I feel like it can be pretty good. But the next 60, 90, 120 days is about listening and learning.”
And the next 60, 90, 120 days will be about taking the actions necessary to maximize the Suns’ star duo’s chances of delivering the first NBA title to the Valley.