Phoenix Suns: What’s wrong with this franchise has become systemic

The Phoenix Suns are a dumpster fire yet again, and while there are various problems that need fixing, this franchise’s illness has become systemic.

If Tuesday night’s story looked familiar for Phoenix Suns fans, that’s only because it was. It was the same horror film this franchise has had on loop for five years now: For every step forward, it’s been three steps back.

“We were talking about making progress and trying to take a step forward coming into this game and we definitely didn’t do that,” Kokoskov said. “We made three steps backwards.”

Just for this week, the step forward came in the form of a rousing 102-100 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, punctuated by another virtuoso Devin Booker performance in the fourth quarter — complete with a game-winner.

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Two days after the fans of Talking Stick Resort Arena were going nuts down the stretch of a fun — and more importantly, close — game, the three steps backward came in the fourth quarter of a double-digit loss to the Brooklyn Nets, as the boo birds serenaded the Suns and their lackluster effort all the way to the locker room.

“I’d be doing the same thing if I was up there,” Booker said. “I understand it, but at the same time we need to fix it and at least show effort. I think that’s what they want to see and we haven’t given that.”

This wasn’t just an isolated case, however. It was yet another game in the 2018-19 campaign where the Suns were playing meaningless fourth quarter minutes. In an even broader scope, it was yet another double-digit defeat characterized by a lack of effort, disgruntled fans, nonexistent defense, underperforming youngsters, apathetic veterans and an overwhelmed head coach trying to figure out how to reach his team.

The fans aren’t happy. Neither are the guys in the locker room. Neither is the team’s notoriously impatient owner, Robert Sarver. The Phoenix Suns used to be one of the winningest franchises in NBA history, a team known for fun and fast-paced basketball dating back to the glory days of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson.

Now, they’re off to a 2-8 start following a 21-win season. They have the worst point differential in the NBA (-13.4) by a wide margin. Only three of their games have been remotely competitive, and even the gauntlet Phoenix has endured schedule-wise doesn’t excuse the lack of effort seen on a night-to-night basis.

“One of the problems was focus wasn’t there,” Kokoskov said. “Body language wasn’t there. Effort wasn’t there. It’s hard to find something positive about the game, but definitely I’m not happy and pleased with how we performed tonight.”

So how do you fix effort? How do you fix the one thing that shouldn’t need fixing for a rebuilding squad, especially 10 games into the season?

It’s not an easy answer. The blame extends for miles, but it’s troubling to see the same kind of poor body language, matador defense and double-digit deficits that characterized Earl Watson‘s tenure already returning under a new head coach.

“I still stick with what I believe in strongly, that it’s hard to coach effort,” Kokoskov said. “Your job is to correct the guys, to guide them, to coach them, teach them to the level of your knowledge and ability and experience that you have. But that’s hard, because that’s one click in your mind: I want to do it or I don’t want to do it. I still believe that it is hard to coach effort.”

“I feel like that’s something we have to bring,” said Richaun Holmes, who finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks off the bench as one of the only bright spots of the night. “It’s a mindset. Just go in there and play as hard as you possibly can for as long as you possibly can.”

Kokoskov and the players seem to agree that he can’t coach effort, but something has to change in how he’s reaching these players — and fast. Even after making obvious changes to the rotation like giving Holmes backup center minutes or playing Mikal Bridges over Josh Jackson, the Suns quickly slipped back into bad habits including turnovers and defensive problems.

Falling back into an uncompetitive game after only two competitive ones doesn’t just require scrutiny for the head coach, however. The veterans have been as guilty as anyone.

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Tyson Chandler, who was recently bought out, was a nice presence to have in the locker room for such a young team, but contributed very little on the court and his lone voice of experience was drowned out because of it. It was the same with Jared Dudley.

It’s frightening how quickly Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson have joined them in the category of washed up vets who aren’t doing much to instill good habits in the younger cornerstones.

To be fair, 10 games is a short amount of time for a group of new veterans, young players and four new rookies to come together, especially under a first-year head coach. However, even with the age gap, the forging of chemistry and the growing pains of learning a new offense, the example the veterans have set is unacceptable.

Anderson was never a defensive stalwart, but his efforts on that end have somehow reached a new low, and even worse, he’s not spreading the floor or doing anything to counterbalance those defensive shortcomings. Averaging 5.4 points per game on a disastrous 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 24.1 percent shooting from downtown, Anderson certainly isn’t justifying his minutes.

Chandler was a horrendous backup center, and it’s been a Godsend to see Richaun Holmes eat up those minutes now. Jamal Crawford hardly plays, but when he has, he’s shot 30.8 percent from the floor while putting up his typical level of defensive resistance.

The worst offender, however, has been Trevor Ariza. His 10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game may sound terrible on paper … until you throw in his .374/.352/.900 shooting splits, his team-worst total point differential of -108, or the $15 million he’s being paid to try and change the Suns’ losing culture.

It’s not just the raw numbers that are bad though. Watch Ariza for even a single game and his lack of effort is hard to miss. He — and Anderson — looks like a guy who’s mentally checked out, simply here to collect his pay check while already thinking about where he’ll play next once he’s traded or bought out in February.

He’s been a step slow defensively, which is to be expected of a 33-year-old, but not to this degree. He gambles for steals he won’t get, jogs back on transition defense, throws his hands up after his young teammates make mistakes and in general, exudes the exact kind of body language that has infected Phoenix’s basketball culture for years now.

Still, Kokoskov insists the team must remain united and fight through these struggles together.

“That would be the last thing that we do is point fingers at some specific group,” he said. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about, where there is a fragment in the group, the vets against the younger [guys] — it’s a team.”

He’s right; blaming the vets gets the Suns nowhere, especially when the youngsters have been just as guilty on the effort front.

Devin Booker has been banged up and has a ton of responsibility offensively, but his atrocious defense hasn’t improved. He’s as much of a liability on that end as ever, and perhaps even more so with opposing offenses now targeting him to get him in foul trouble, tire him out or capitalize on his mental lapses to minimize his impact on the game.

Deandre Ayton is double-double machine. He’s a welcome presence on the glass, regularly commands double-teams to open things up for the offense, and his underrated passing ability keeps things flowing when the help arrives. However, his defense — particularly when it comes to help-side D and guarding the pick-and-roll — is as bad as many feared.

He’s also gotten in his head quite a bit, like Tuesday night, when the Nets had Jarrett Allen sagging deep into the paint and leaving him so wide open for mid-range jumpers that the No. 1 overall draft pick was thrown off his game, overthinking when he should shoot and when he should run the offense.

Josh Jackson gives 100 percent when he’s on the floor, but it’s been like trying to direct a runaway train through a hedge maze. Mikal Bridges is showing plenty of promise and deserves more love, but he’s still a first-year player prone to making rookie mistakes and not capable of being a legitimate difference-maker on a night-to-night basis.

Aside from Jackson, Holmes is the only player whose effort stands out, and he’s a very limited backup center whose stay with the franchise — a couple of months — is far too short for him to be disillusioned or jaded yet.

“I’d take five guys exactly like that with a lot of effort,” Booker said of Holmes. “That’s for all of us, that’s myself too. I’m holding myself accountable and each one of us in this locker room.”

On paper, the Suns have the right blend of young, promising talent mixed with veteran influence and an intelligent offense to produce better results. In reality though, the vets don’t give a damn and are setting a poor example for the youngsters, while those same youngsters’ mistakes are frustrating the vets, draining them of their hope things will improve and their will to set the right example.

So how are the Suns supposed to break that kind of cycle that constantly breeds hopelessness?

“Holding each other accountable, and being okay with that,” Booker said. “I think all good teams have that trust and chemistry where they’re able to get on each other and know that it’s for a better purpose. So for us, I don’t think we have that right now. We’re not comfortable with each other. We don’t step on each other’s toes. We don’t push each other and I think that’s what we need to do.”

The problem is, it’s not just about getting more effort from the players or the strategy of the tactician in charge; the roster is inherently flawed too. Former general manager Ryan McDonough failed on this front time and time again. It wasn’t just that he put the wrong head coach in charge with Earl Watson, or that his moves were heavily influenced by a meddling and overbearing owner.

The roster never had the right blend of youth and veteran experience under his reign. His draft history is littered with bad misses, and his track record on the trade market is even worse. You may have also heard, but the Suns currently don’t have a starting-caliber point guard. That might be the most important position on the floor league-wide, but it’s even more vital for a team that needs 3-point shooting, facilitating and above all, defense, to pair alongside Booker.

With so much roster fluctuation, instability, imbalance and bitterness, it’s no wonder the majority of Phoenix’s players failed to develop, respond to the coaching staff or connect with the front office during McDonough’s tenure.

These constant drawbacks have been a never-ending cycle, and even with Booker, Ayton and Bridges looking like future stars, the same pattern of dysfunction has already taken the Suns’ 2018-19 season by the throat.

The cornerstones may be structurally sound enough to build upon, but what happens when the ground is unstable and the foundation crumbles into a gaping abyss?

Even after signing Booker to a five-year max extension and drafting two top-10 picks, the clock is already ticking. Book wants to help Phoenix win now, but there’s only so much losing a competitor of his caliber will tolerate.

“This losing by double-digits has to stop,” he said.

Trading for a point guard won’t fix everything, which is why even hearing a name like John Wall — the star point guard but deficient leader of the Washington Wizards who can’t shoot and will be paid $47 million in his age-32 season four years from now — being associated with the Suns is enough to send shivers down the spine.

Trying to pin down the biggest problem with the Phoenix Suns is like trying to label the one atom in the chemical reaction that set off a raging fire, or identifying the one infected cell that caused a terminal virus to spread across the globe. It’s a fool’s errand, mostly because there is no quick fix.

It’s not just the owner. It’s not just the head coach failing to reach his team. It’s not just the mistakes of the GM. It’s not just the vets not giving a damn, the youngsters not being talented, or the disillusioned fanbase whose justified negativity only breeds more negativity.

It’s all of it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the permanent storm cloud that hangs over an organization located in 110-degree weather.

Veterans come here because they know the Suns will overpay for their short-term services, automatically preventing them from entering the season with the right mindset of changing the culture. Young players are drafted here and fail to find their way because they’re constantly being developed in a bad environment without the right accompanying talent to help them improve.

Losing has become the norm in Phoenix. It’s seeped into the tunnels of Talking Stick Resort Arena, and though double-digit defeats are hardly liked by anyone involved, they’ve still become the status quo.

Just like how everything seems to go right for winning teams and championship contenders, the Suns are mired in an unending series of unfortunate events that would make Lemony Snicket wince.

Each chapter is more bruising than the last, but even this team’s rock bottom is built on unstable ground that gives way to something worse. Changing one part of the equation only allows it to morph into some new and equally daunting challenge.

After Point Hydra, the Brandon Knight trade, Goran Dragic‘s exit, Markieff Morris‘ towel-throwing, public trade requests, fired head coaches, 40-point losses, and so, so much more turmoil that can’t even fit into one sentence, the Suns are trying to focus on the here and now lest they feel the weight of a haunting 50-year history that includes zero championships and an eight-year — going on nine-year — playoff drought.

For this poor group, that means attempting to right the ship with a collective effort to hold everyone accountable.

“I think it’s an all-around thing,” Booker said. “I don’t think every team has just one leader. If you look at all the good teams and all the championship teams, I think they all have people that all get on each other. But like I said, it’s for a better purpose and it’s better for our team that people are uncomfortable. It brings the best out of us.”

True change is hard. Sarver selling the team alone won’t fix Phoenix’s problems; it’d just leave some new billionaire with a severely flawed structure to build up. Trading for a point guard, hiring a new GM or firing Igor Kokoskov (should the losing continue) won’t do it either; it’d just pass on the problems to some other newcomer working under the time restraints of Sarver’s patience.

At some point, there has to be stability. If the situation sounds hopeless, it’s because the only realistic shot Phoenix has of defying those odds and returning to contender status in the next decade is the sheer talent of Booker, Ayton, Bridges and another likely top-five draft pick winning out over relentless dysfunction, lackluster supporting casts and organizational incompetence.

The sad truth is, the problem with the Phoenix Suns is systemic. From their culture to their reputation to their front office to the guys in their locker room to the on-court product, the Suns and their regularly scheduled chaos have been the laughingstock of the league for years now.

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Booker was the first major step forward to fixing that. Ayton was another lunge forward, and Bridges very well might be too. But as we’ve seen with the Phoenix Suns over and over again, for every step forward, it’s been three steps back.

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