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After a summer stuffed with an embarrassing Game 7 loss; Deandre Ayton contract consternation; Kevin Durant trade rumors; the NBA’s findings in the Robert Sarver investigation; and now Jae Crowder’s not-so-private trade request, the Phoenix Suns held their annual Media Day on Monday morning.
Here’s a look at a few of the biggest topics that general manager James Jones, coach Monty Williams and the rest of the players addressed.
Suns acknowledge the Robert Sarver they didn’t know
Aside from “control what you can control,” the only other buzz words that came up more frequently at Suns Media Day were “the Robert Sarver I know.” In the wake of an investigation confirming numerous instances of racist, sexist and misogynistic behavior from the team’s owner, everyone was forced to reconcile their own interactions with Sarver compared to the toxic and traumatic experiences of others.
“It was tough for me because that’s not the Robert Sarver that I know,” Devin Booker said. “That’s not the Robert Sarver that welcomed me to Phoenix with open arms. But at the same time, I’m not insensitive to everybody that’s involved in this situation. And I understand everybody’s personal experiences with other people are always gonna be different.”
“That’s the thing, in my conversations with Sarver, no, he’s not said [the N-word] in my conversations,” Cam Johnson added. “That does not negate the experience of other people and their conversations. And that’s kind of how I understand the whole entire topic is just because I’ve had certain experiences, conversations with somebody, that doesn’t mean that other people have had the same experiences, and that doesn’t mean other people have had the same level of comfort and safety in the workplace and their experiences. So I do not mean for mine to negate the feelings of anybody else.”
Jones, who joined multiple Suns executives in releasing statements in the wake of ESPN’s incendiary article that first brought these allegations to light last November, stood by his initial statement from that time.
“When I made my statements last year, I stand by that that’s my experience,” he explained. “And I still to this day, I can’t speak for others in their experience. But now that we know, like I said, those things aren’t acceptable. They’re not cool. And I think those that have been impacted deserve our respect and our support, and I’m here for that.”
Despite his own personal experiences with Sarver, Jones was adamant about it being an opportunity to improve the culture and using his power as an executive to better protect those within the organization. He and the rest of the Suns acknowledged everyone will be better off with Sarver selling the franchise.
“I think I’m in agreement with selling the team,” Jones said. “I think that’s the best outcome for everyone involved — the players, the fans, the staffers, everyone that was impacted on so many levels. It brings some closure to a long period of discomfort and uneasiness. But it also gives us a pivot point to continue to focus on raising the standards of our organization and leading by example.”
For Jones and Williams, their initial reaction to reading the reports was a state of shock. The two had conversations with new executive Morgan Cato about how they would handle the situation in a productive way while also being mindful of the very real victims of a toxic work environment. Chris Paul, meanwhile, tweeted out his reaction to the NBA’s lenient punishment for Sarver, and told reporters on Monday that he’d been having regular conversations with commissioner Adam Silver about the situation.
“That stuff going on in the workplace is really unfortunate,” Paul said. “So just, like I’m sure everybody felt, thoughts and prayers to all those involved. You try to control what you can control. I can’t speak for all the players and everything like that, but it was tough to read and it was disturbing.”
As easy as it’d be for the Suns to want to put this ugly situation behind them and just focus on basketball, that’s not realistic, even with Sarver selling the team. Cam Johnson said his first thoughts went to the people who stepped forward and were able to finally have their voices heard (to a certain extent). Deandre Ayton said he was disappointed and called Sarver’s behavior “unacceptable,” before saying his thoughts were with the people affected by it.
Sarver being pressured into selling the team took pressure off the Suns players to come out and take a stand on Monday, but this group is aware this is not something you simply move past by playing a game.
“I don’t think you can throw cliches and catchphrases on this one and be like, ‘Let’s move forward,'” Williams said. “I think that’s somewhat irresponsible. I always talk about this being a get-to and not a got-to, not allowing anything to affect our gym — I don’t think we can do that in this situation. But I do think if we continue to show a level of respect and love for one another, we can move forward the right way. And I think that will enhance our culture.”
Suns navigate a tough Jae Crowder situation
The other big topic for players to address at Suns Media Day was Jae Crowder’s expected absence from training camp. Crowder was not present Monday, with both parties agreeing it was best for him to remain at home while they work out a trade to move him elsewhere.
“I’ll let the nature of our conversations — out of respect for the personal and professional nature of those conversations — remain private,” Jones said. “But it’s an opportunity for us to navigate this and for our guys to step up. We’ve always said this is about the team. It’s never about one person, it’s never about one player. It’s a collective.”
Williams added those conversations will remain private because he always wants his players to feel comfortable coming to him with their thoughts and problems, knowing that whatever they have to say won’t be broadcast out to the public.
Even so, it’s a tough middle ground to be in, with the team seeking out a Jae Crowder trade scenario that makes sense in the days before training camp begins. Like most of his players, Williams is focused on the upcoming season but appreciative of what Crowder brought to Phoenix over the last two seasons.
“He brought a number of intangibles to the team,” Williams said. “I think all of our guys would speak in that way about him. At the same time, these things happen, when you have to transition and move forward. I totally am behind James and how we are handling this, and again, all the stuff that went on behind the scenes will remain private. But I think all of our guys learned a ton from being around Jae.”
Losing a starter just before training camp is a blow, and it’s one the Suns are grappling with because of their personal connections to Crowder.
“It sucks,” Mikal Bridges said bluntly. “I love 99. I remember telling him all the time, he’s like one of my favorite vets ever. It’s just the business, how things goes, and I knew, especially from the Finals, just knowing when I look around, like, I know everybody’s just not gonna be here forever. It’s just how it is, you know? So, yeah, it’s kind of sad. That’s my guy though.”
“I’d say it’s a little unfortunate,” Booker added. “Jae came in here a couple years ago, and we’ve done a lot of really good things here and we’ve shaped and shifted this culture. But at the same time, I wish him the best moving forward. That’s a friend and a brother that I’ll have forever, and ultimately it comes down to a business. The team and him have made a choice, and we’re gonna move forward and respect both sides.”
Moving forward, and perhaps even before Crowder used social media to essentially force his way out, Cam Johnson slotted in as the Suns’ starting 4. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, it was that potential lineup change — with Cam moving into the starting unit — that triggered Crowder’s trade request.
A source also told PHNX Sports that Crowder’s displeasure stemmed from wanting a contract extension of his own after watching Booker, Ayton, Paul and Bridges all receive new deals over the last calendar year or so. When the Suns wouldn’t budge, the discontent started to build. When he was told he wouldn’t be starting anymore, it may have reached a boiling point.
For his part, Johnson is thankful for the lessons he learned during his time playing alongside Crowder.
“There’s no bad blood between Jae and I. Jae’s looked out for me over the past couple of years. He’s taught me a lot, he’s shown me a lot, and he’s somebody that I could always call and be like, ‘What do you see during this? Talk to me. How do you guard this? What is your advice on this?’ So at the end of the day, I feel it’s just business, it’s him trying to do what’s best for himself.”
The question now is what kind of trade the Suns can work out with the start of the regular season just over three weeks away. Multiple teams will take interest in a 3-and-D veteran with his defensive instincts and experience, but Crowder’s publicly disgruntled behavior isn’t going to do Phoenix any favors in terms of leverage.
“It’s an ongoing conversation, and after very fruitful and deliberate conversations, we just decided it was best that he wasn’t with us for training camp,” Jones said. “What that means going forward? I don’t know, we don’t know. But as of right now, it allows us and affords us the opportunity to focus on the guys that are here, and focus on continuing to build a foundation that will carry us through the rest of the season.”
A subdued Deandre Ayton
For years, Deandre Ayton has routinely been the most bubbly personality in the room. But at Suns Media Day 2022, his demeanor reflected that of the entire fanbase: Weary, subdued and just down.
When asked about his feelings over the Suns matching his max offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers, Ayton simply replied, “I was happy. It was all done, I guess.”
DA’s short responses continued throughout his eight minutes at the podium. It was an uncharacteristic presser for the usually energetic 24-year-old, but after a summer filled with Kevin Durant trade rumors, speculation over his Game 7 sideline blowup with Williams, sign-and-trade buzz, having to sign an offer sheet to force the Suns’ hand, the Sarver news and now Crowder sitting out, there’s something to be said for not putting on a front.
“I approach the game like this all the time,” he said. “I’ve always had that professionalism in me — never get too high, never get too low. And at the end of the day, it’s business. I don’t take my personal feelings in this thing. And you have a team that you trust that can handle all the other stuff while you just work on your game to better yourself.”
Whether this was in reaction to all the drama of the offseason or simply letting the media know what he thought of their summer storylines remains to be seen, but taking pictures and walking around the building after his press conference, Ayton seemed to be his typically colorful self again.
Meanwhile, Jones, Williams and the rest of the Suns were more visibly optimistic about the big fella’s return.
“I’m not on social media, as much as many, but that is what I call a noise box, where narratives start to go and people start to speculate,” Jones said. “They speculated that we did not want Deandre. I think it was evident we were very proactive in matching and making sure that he stayed here in Phoenix. So we were consistent, and we’ll continue to be consistent. Our focus is to help him continue to grow and to help him establish himself as an All-Star, because if he does that for us, we’re pretty good team and I think we’ll have a very, very bright future for years to come.”
Months after their sideline spat in Game 7, Williams was on the road somewhere when he heard the Indiana Pacers were signing Ayton to a max offer sheet. Jones told him the Suns were going to match right away, and the Suns coach felt immediate relief — for his team and for DA.
“I think having all that stuff behind him has given him a sense of relief,” Williams said. “I think when players know you want them around and value them, it gives them confidence. That doesn’t mean you don’t have situations that come up; that’s part of coaching and part of being on a really good team with competitive players. So I agree with James, I echo what he just said, like, there wasn’t a scenario where we felt like he wasn’t going to be around. He’s just too good of a player, and he’s a good dude. There’s times where you bump heads on certain issues, but that doesn’t define a person in totality. And I think sometimes that stuff just gets blown out of proportion, and rightfully so when you don’t know all the facts.”
In almost every way, the Suns are eager to look forward. Ayton is no exception, especially on an unusually subdued day.
“Yeah, I mean, why look back?” he said. “I don’t want to take no steps back, I just want to move forward.”
A potential Cam Johnson extension
While Jones’ media session didn’t quite offer enough time to get his thoughts on a potential Cam Johnson extension, it’s no secret the two sides have been working on a deal ahead of the mid-October deadline, just before the start of the regular season.
Fortunately, Johnson offered a quick update.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s exciting any time you’re dealing with something like that, and we’re working on it. We’re working on it, both sides together, and my hope is that we can come to a good deal.”
Last year, Johnson got an up-close look at the two ways that kind of rookie-scale extension can play out between Bridges and Ayton. The Suns gave Bridges a four-year, $90 million extension before the season started, but DA didn’t get the five-year max he wanted, pushing their situation back to restricted free agency.
Johnson obviously won’t be vying for max money, but Bridges has been giving him advice on navigating this time period.
“I’ve been telling him, ‘Control what you can control. You already did your part,'” Bridges said. “That’s why you have great agents that you love and care and they’re going to help you get what’s best for you. But like I said, he already did his part: Play hard every day, hooped, did everything he could do. So it’s always just that phase, that waiting phase.”
As Johnson waits, with training camp and preseason nearly underway, the 26-year-old wing is excited about the prospect of staying in Phoenix for the long-term. For now though, he’s trying not to get too wrapped up in thinking about contract talks.
“With things like this, I feel like if you obsess over it, get yourself all wrapped up mentally in it, it’s only detrimental,” Johnson said. “I feel the process will play out as it will and as it’s supposed to. It’s the reason why you have agents and people in your corner to help you negotiate these things. I love being here, I love playing in the city. The city has been great to me. I’ve loved what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team, and I’m looking forward to continue that.”