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The Phoenix Suns held their annual Media Day for the upcoming 2023-24 NBA season on Monday, serving as the unofficial start of the new campaign. Suns Media Day was nowhere near as dramatic as last year, but there were a number of pressing questions that needed to be answered.
From the Deandre Ayton trade, to the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, to the Suns’ lack of a true point guard, to a ton of new faces, here are five observations from a jampacked day.
1. Saying goodbye to Deandre Ayton
Monday’s events felt like the dawn of a new era for the Suns, but before they could completely turn the page, the recent Ayton trade had to be addressed. Owner Mat Ishbia and general manager James Jones were straight-forward about the reasons Phoenix traded Ayton, the only No. 1 overall draft pick in the franchise’s history.
“Deandre Ayton’s a great player,” Ishbia said. “We loved to have him on the team, he was a great part of our organization. I think he’s gonna do great in Portland. I really think he’ll put up some great numbers and really impress a lot of people, which is exciting for us and I wish him nothing but the best. He’s a great person and a great guy. But for our team, Nurkic was a better fit for us.”
Ishbia called the decision “unanimous” between himself, Jones and team CEO Josh Bartelstein, the trio that now serves as the Suns’ primary decision-makers. Jones wouldn’t clarify how long Phoenix had engaged with the Portland Trail Blazers to make a deal, but the reasoning behind that trade was simple.
“Because we saw an opportunity to get better,” Jones answered. “There’s never a perfect time to make a move, but there always are moments where you can evaluate, ‘Is this a pivot point where we can improve?’ And I thought that was the case.”
The move cemented Devin Booker as the only remaining Suns player from the team that reached the NBA Finals just two years ago. Jones was the main architect behind that group and its feel-good playoff run, but as he’s frequently reiterated, he’s always looking for ways to get better.
“From a personal perspective, it’s always tough whenever you change teammates, right?” Jones said. “You do a lot with them. You overcome a lot of struggles, you put in a lot of time, a lot of sweat equity, all those things are true. But that’s backward-looking. I can’t afford to look backwards.”
Moving forward, the Suns will be hoping their addition by subtraction move pays dividends. For Booker, the last man standing from that 2021 Finals squad, the hope is that Ayton’s situation improved as well.
“Trades are the hardest part of this business, because I know me, personally, I’m so invested,” Booker explained. “But just understanding that people might be in a better situation. I seen Deandre get to Portland, he had a big smile on his face, and even when we shook hands before he walked out after the trade, you could tell his energy was a new opportunity, new momentum. So that’s all you can ask is that they’re in a better situation, they continue to flourish and get better.”
2. Jusuf Nurkic is the big story of Suns Media Day
The Suns weren’t giving any thought to the idea they made the Ayton trade just to get rid of DA, of course; they legitimately love Jusuf Nurkic’s fit.
“We’re trying to win a championship now, and what Nurkic can do on the court and what he’ll do off the court, it fit into our organization,” Ishbia said. “He’s a better fit for us, and that was the decision we made when we had the opportunity to make that decision.”
Both Ishbia and Jones cited how the Suns had targeted Grayson Allen and Nassir Little to help round out the edges of the rotation, believing this team got better in the process. But on the Nurkic front, how is he a better fit?
“His skill-set complements our best guys, and more importantly, he’s ready to win,” Jones said. “He’s been in a situation the last few years where they’re just playing to try to get to where we are, but we’re playing to win championships. And if you get a really good player who’s motivated and you give him an opportunity to win a title, you usually see the best versions of those players.”
Coach Frank Vogel had previously been high on restoring Deandre Ayton to “an All-Star caliber level,” citing the defense he showed against his own Los Angeles Lakers during the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Vogel will have his work cut out for him to get that same level of defensive engagement from Nurkic, but he still seemed optimistic about what his new starting center brings to the table.
“You just said the words, ‘the defensive anchor,’ and his ability to pass the basketball offensively with the perimeter firepower that we have really makes him a great fit for our system,” Vogel said. “He’s one of the best defensive rebounders in the game. So as we compete to guard, we’re gonna force a lot of misses, and we gotta board. If we want to get out and be a running team, we need somebody that can dominate the defensive boards, and he’s elite at that.”
Over the last few years, there have been questions about Nurkic’s focus and effort on a tanking Portland team, but joining a title contender in Phoenix, he seemed rejuvenated — and ready to do the dirty work that will make him a useful fit alongside the Suns’ Big 3.
“Nurkic might not put up the numbers that Deandre will put up, which is perfectly fine,” Ishbia said. “We want him to play the role. Just like I gotta be the best owner I can be, they always gotta be in their role. We’re building around three superstars, Kevin, Devin and Brad, and Nurkic is a great fit.”
Nurkic mentioned he’s never been part of a super-team, and said he was ready to experience it in the best possible way.
“I’m not here to replace no one,” he said. “I’m a Nurk. Playing the right way, I think it’s really fun, and they understand that they have three scorers, 30 points a game. It’s just, for the big, it’s amazing, man. To have the ability to see how they’re gonna guard KD, Beal or Book, or who they’re gonna double, it’ll be fun.”
Nurkic believes his fit on offensive end will come quickly, but he’s aware he’ll have to hold down the fort on the defensive end. The 29-year-old is looking forward to learning under a defense-first coach like Vogel.
“First of all, Frank Vogel, I’m a big, huge fan, and I think that’s kind of the biggest reason I’m here,” Nurkic said. “I will have to figure out the defensive part with the team, and that’s coach coming in and do his part. So I think really I can thrive with his system and his coaching staff, and the organization really embraced me here in the best way possible, from the owner to the staff. So to me, it’s the dream to be in this system and the players we have.”
3. Suns believe they have enough ball-handling and playmaking
Chris Paul and Cam Payne are gone. Devin Booker and Bradley Beal will likely make up the starting backcourt, with Jordan Goodwin and Saben Lee being the lone point guards on the roster. The Suns no longer have a true point guard, but they don’t seem particularly concerned.
Devin Booker will likely take on the brunt of the playmaking load, but it’s a role he’s familiar with from his earlier days in Phoenix on far less talented teams.
“Devin’s a player,” Jones explained. “He’s been able to figure out how to be effective on the ball, off the ball. When you add him plus Brad, and the guys that we don’t really talk about — the Jordan Goodwins of our team, the Eric Gordons of our team — we have more than enough ball-handling. And when you have great players, they find a way to make great plays.”
Vogel, who has emphasized that Phoenix will utilize multiple ball-handlers, said he believes Booker’s past experiences at the point guard spot will make this a “seamless” transition for him. Booker acknowledged he’s had a lot more pressure on his shoulders in the past and doesn’t believe his job will be that difficult with the talent surrounding him.
“I just go out there and play basketball, man,” Booker said. “Take the best available shot and understanding the artillery that we have with us. So all these guys make the game easier for me, and I understand that.”
The Suns’ offense figures to be similar but different this season. It makes sense Phoenix would try to pick up the tempo with Chris Paul no longer in town, and Bradley Beal and Ish Wainright both alluded to the faster pace with early kickouts in their summer pickup runs.
“I think it’s not just gonna be one guy, we’re all gonna be leading by committee — whoever’s outletting the ball, whoever’s closer and gets the rebound, we’re all free to push and get our offense initiated,” Beal said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Like, if we had a traditional point guard, he’s not gonna be slowing our offense down, like, ‘Yo, hold.’ Like, no, get the ball to Kevin, get the ball to D-Book and let’s get this thing going!”
“Coach Vogel wants everybody to push it,” Wainright added. “Last year, I really didn’t push the ball, I didn’t get any outlets. We’re playing pickup [now], I’m getting outlets and I’m pushing the ball, ball screens, getting the bigs involved and getting K and Book the ball and stuff like that.”
Turning defensive stops into fast break opportunities negates some of the need for a more traditional playmaker. That starts with Jusuf Nurkic, who could help ease the load for a true point guard in two respects.
“The two things that stick out is that he’s a dominant defensive rebounder, and that he’s an exceptional passing big,” Vogel said. “So to be able to throw the ball to him and have our guys in movement, it just gives us a different dynamic than them just coming down and playing pick-and-roll or post-up or iso every time down. So whether we’re throwing it to him in the post and splitting and cutting or throwing it to him at the top of the key, we really want to get those guys in space, get bodies off of our elite scorers on the perimeter, and Jusuf does that for us.”
4. Phoenix is a Officially championship-caliber destination
Hearing Bradley Beal call this the best team he’s ever been a part of, or listening to several other newcomers describe the Suns like a super-team, it was striking just how far Phoenix had come from just a few years ago.
“It’s kind of hard to explain, like a kid in the candy store,” Beal said. “You’re just excited. Hard to put into words. You’re just embracing every single moment of it.”
Over the last eight months, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal essentially worked their way to Phoenix via the trade market. The Suns then signed a number of quality free agents to veteran minimum contracts, despite having little cap space to work with.
This franchise has gone from one of the cheapest owners in the league to one willing to spend in order to upgrade the experience of being a Suns fan in every conceivable way.
“I don’t care if it’s the fan experience, the community, a player, a free agent, we’re gonna try to get better and win,” Ishbia said. “I think that’s what you’d want from me, and if I was a fan, that’s what I’d want.”
Phoenix has long been an attractive destination, but one that rarely cashed in by actually landing high-end talent in free agency. Trading for Chris Paul and signing Jae Crowder helped change that perception, but even with those two and Monty Williams gone, this revamped organization has never been more appealing to NBA players on the market.
Ishbia cited Phoenix itself, James Jones, Josh Bartelstein and Frank Vogel as things that would attract talent, but in the end, it’s a simple pitch.
“The easiest one is I got Devin and Kevin, right?” Ishbia said. “People really want to play with those guys. Then we obviously traded for Brad as well. And so I don’t have to be that good of a salesperson or recruiter when I got all those great people behind me.”
At Suns Media Day, Yuta Watanabe mentioned Durant as one of the main reasons he decided to sign in Phoenix. Bol Bol said KD was his favorite player growing up and someone he looked up to. And listening to Beal talk about Booker, the level of mutual respect for his new teammate was clear.
“I’m gonna continue to push him and push him and push him and push him until he can reach that level that we know he can tap into and whatever that is, ’cause he can still be better,” Beal said. “He can still grow, he can still improve, just like I can, just like everybody can. But I think his sky is unlimited, honestly. And I think he’s just now scratching the surface and people really waking up and respecting him and respecting his game and understanding that he can carry a team.”
Even Durant, who’s had his fair share of experience with super-teams, sounded optimistic about the ways he, Booker and Beal would push each other every day in practice.
“Being around talent with this game is always about putting yourself in position to be around the best of the best — coaches, players,” Durant said. “I think it’s important for my development as a player to constantly be around greats, and these guys have portrayed that in this league for a long time.”
However, as alluring as Phoenix’s Big 3 is, Ishbia shouldn’t downplay his own role in helping lure talent to the Valley. The Suns were able to sign a high number of key role players at the onset of free agency because they had a plan and aggressively pursued it.
“We thought strategically about it,” Ishbia said. “We analyzed every free agent, every possibility, and we targeted people and we got the guys we wanted. And some of ’em, it surprised us that we could get them, because it surprised a lot of people. But they were so excited to be part of a championship team. When you talk to people about, say, ‘Hey, let’s try to play into April, May and June on national television,’ they said, ‘I want to be part of that.'”
The allure of Phoenix is clear, but in the past, tight spending limited what the Suns were able to do. Max contracts for Booker, Durant, Beal and Ayton propelled this year’s group well past the second luxury tax apron, but they didn’t let those incoming penalties stop them from executing Ishbia’s vision.
“When the new CBA came out and we spent a ton of time evaluating the second apron, Mat, he was like, ‘Let’s just blow right through it,'” Bartelstein said. “‘Let’s go get a star player in Bradley Beal. Let’s go add the most depth. Let’s look at ways that we can add money in trades and bring back real rotation players.’ Having been in the NBA now, this is my ninth season, that’s not common.”
Keita Bates-Diop described his decision to sign with the Suns as “quick” and “easy.” Drew Eubanks said the same, noting the Suns had been interested in him for years dating back to his 2018 pre-draft workout in the Valley and that “nothing beats Phoenix.” And in addition to the talent and coaching staff, Eric Gordon cited the team’s “hungry owner” as a reason he chose Phoenix over other suitors.
“When you collectively put that all together, I’m like, ‘How can you not?'” Gordon said. “You’ll very rarely get a chance to be in situations like this, so I thought here would be a great decision. It’ll be a great chance to win something.”
What the Suns are left with is a highly motivated group of individuals who feel wanted, believe they can achieve great things by simply filling their role around the Big 3, and want to contribute to a culture of relentless work horses.
“We know how much talent we have, and we know it’s not gonna be easy at the same time,” Booker said. “So just hold each other accountable, keep competing at a high level, and I think it’s a domino effect from everybody. Once you see KD or Brad getting after it every day in practice, it’s just, ‘How am I gonna be the one not to?’ And I think everybody feels that same way.”
5. Let the training camp battles begin!
All that competitive fire is great for the culture, but it’s a potential nightmare for the coaching staff. Figuring out who will fill that fifth starting spot — let alone the rest of the rotation — will be a real challenge for Frank Vogel, especially with how many guys can play multiple positions.
So is it a fun challenge or something that keeps Vogel up at night? It’s a little bit of both, but the real challenge will be overcoming their “continuity disadvantage” compared to teams like the Denver Nuggets.
“There also can be a huge spark from a new group coming together like we have,” Vogel said. “And that’s what my focus is on, that we’re gonna take advantage of that first-year energy, the refresh energy that we’re gonna have with our group, and hopefully that overcomes any type of continuity disadvantage.”
Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop, Eric Gordon, Nassir Little and Yuta Watanabe could all be legitimate candidates for the fifth starting job. Grayson Allen just started 70 games for the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks last year, and he joins a crowded backcourt rotation that includes Booker, Beal, Okogie, Gordon, Jordan Goodwin, Saben Lee, Keon Johnson and the injured Damion Lee. Figuring out the right lineup combinations will take time, and the competition for minutes under a brand-new coach will be intense.
“Fierce but healthy,” Vogel described. “We’re all on the same team. There will be an element of winning the job, but there will also be an element of this stretch, I’d like to see this combination play for the next five games, or for the next 10 games. Or I’d like to see a smaller lineup or a bigger lineup. I want to see how these two players play with one another. So I don’t want the competition to distract my purpose in exploring the roster and all the combinations that we can look at throughout the course of a season.”
As Suns Media Day kicks off training camp with an almost entirely new roster, at least the focus can finally return to basketball.
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