NBA playoffs: After making major splash with Kevin Durant, Suns head to offseason with limited avenues to improve

PHOENIX — The Suns were shell-shocked, rattled, silenced. Underneath the wishful enthusiasm of an ill-timed T-shirt toss, where gameday staffers hurled free gear into the Footprint Center lower bowl that was already half-empty, Phoenix’s coaches and players appeared just short of lifeless.

Over five minutes still remained in Game 6 against the top-seeded Nuggets on Thursday, an eventual 125-100 loss that concluded the Suns’ season. But while Denver was entrenched in a rousing fourth-quarter timeout, Phoenix finished the stoppage with blank stares and no semblance of a huddle. From head coach Monty Williams down to injured center Deandre Ayton, the home team’s full bench just sat there quietly. A black towel shielded Kevin Durant’s face.

A lineup filled with reserves simply stood on the court with their hands stapled to their hips.

“It sucked. It was a bad feeling. It was embarrassing,” said Durant, who scored just 8 points in the first half on 2-of-11 shooting. “They came out and hit us in the mouth, and we couldn’t recover.”

The all-world scorer only arrived in February, but the sentiment was all too familiar from last season’s sour conclusion. A stunning Game 7 defeat, at home, at the hands of Dallas, where Phoenix trailed by as many as 30 points. This year’s playoff exit saw the Suns face a deficit as large as 32, marking the third- and fourth-largest deficits in NBA history for a team facing elimination — and in consecutive campaigns.

“Last year’s team was more of a ball-movement, body-movement team. This year we were more pick-and-roll-oriented and iso-oriented,” said Williams. “It’s two different situations all together. So that’s something that we need to take a look at to see what kinds of combinations of players we have that fit a style of play. But it’s hard to make assessments about those kinds of things 20 minutes after a loss.”

In time, there will be reflections and reactions. Like last season, this iteration of the Suns surely won’t be back in Phoenix in its entirety. The postgame emotions were raw and fresh, but the clock will soon begin to tick on decision-making for a front office that spent so exorbitantly to land Durant at the trade deadline, under an aggressive new owner in Mat Ishbia, with a roster that has just four contracts guaranteed in full for the 2023-24 season.

“It’s hard right now to see what the future holds for our team,” said Durant, who finished Game 6 with 23 points.

Having Chris Paul sidelined with a groin strain and Ayton out with a rib contusion is important context, but one theme from both Durant’s and Williams’ postgame availability was the Suns straying from any explanation that could border on an excuse. Not when Phoenix mortgaged the promising futures of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, plus four first-round picks between 2023 and 2029 and an additional 2028 pick swap to land Durant. Not when a new collective bargaining agreement goes into effect at the start of the NBA’s next calendar year, with plenty of provisions designed to handicap teams with expensive, star-studded rosters such as the Suns from finding avenues to further improve.

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts to a turn over during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball Western Conference semifinal game against the Denver Nuggets, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant had a brutal first half in Game 6, scoring 8 points on 2-of-11 shooting. (AP Photo/Matt York) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Paul only has $15.8 million of his $30.8 million salary guaranteed for next season, and there will be plenty of league-wide discussion surrounding Phoenix’s options for moving the future Hall of Fame point guard. The Suns already left rival teams with the impression they were searching for a long-term replacement for Paul before they pulled off that trade deadline blockbuster for Durant, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and have been linked by league personnel to ball-handlers from Fred VanVleet to Terry Rozier.

Then there’s the future of Ayton, the franchise’s No. 1 pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, who signed an offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers last offseason in restricted free agency before Phoenix matched his four-year, $133 million contract. Could Ayton have played his final game in the Valley? Indiana went forward and re-signed starting center Myles Turner to a two-year, $60 million extension in January, but the league’s smartest cap minds have pegged his declining salary structure as one of the more tradeable deals in the NBA. The aforementioned Mavericks are another team often mentioned to have interest in Ayton’s services. Perhaps there’s another club that will covet Ayton and allow the Suns to break his hefty contract into two contributors who can provide the depth this unit so desperately needed against Denver.

The truth of the matter is outside of moving Ayton or Paul, Phoenix has few resources to improve this team in hopes it will contend for the 2024 championship. With Cameron Payne’s non-guaranteed salary, plus a team option for Ishmail Wainright, Phoenix already stands at around $165 million for next season’s payroll. Add in six minimum-contract salary slots — a mechanism not exactly ripe for major impact players — and the Suns are hovering about $7 million shy of the new second tax apron, with just a taxpayer mid-level available from there. The math gets even wonkier in 2024-25, when Devin Booker’s salary soars from $36 million to a supermax estimated slot above $50 million in average annual value and rising.

“I think they’ll have to leverage veteran minimums and hope they can get something good in return for Ayton,” one rival team strategist told Yahoo Sports.

Next is the matter of personnel. Associate head coach Kevin Young has emerged as one of the league’s hottest candidates for a lead job. He was a finalist for the Utah Jazz’s bench a year ago, has already interviewed for Houston’s search this offseason and is part of Toronto’s process to replace Nick Nurse as well. Those in the league’s coaching ranks speak of Young’s eventual elevation on some bench, somewhere as a matter of if not when, whether this summer or some summer coming soon.

The 2023-24 campaign will mark the final season of the original five-year contract Williams signed in 2019, before a pricey contract extension he inked last summer kicks in for 2024-25 and beyond. That sense of security, though, has not prevented Williams’ name from gaining steam among league personnel — including several figures present at Game 6 — when discussing potential candidates for the Bucks’ head coaching vacancy, sources said. Milwaukee is expected to pursue various experienced coaches who are currently employed by rival franchises. Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue is another opposing play-caller on the Bucks’ radar, league sources said.

“It’s hard for me to even see past today,” Williams told reporters. “I’ll go in there and talk to the coaches, and we will re-evaluate as we go forward.”

The constant, it seems, is the tandem of Booker and Durant, the former having scorched opposing defenses throughout these playoffs until the final six quarters of the Suns’ season. Booker’s deft playmaking and elite scoring chops helped draw Durant’s eye from Brooklyn. And there are few rivals who wouldn’t want a foundation that starts with these two All-NBA talents on the books for the next three seasons.

Despite an overwhelming sense of disappointment, Durant still expressed confidence in the situation he requested to join in February.

“Yeah, I am. I am. I had a great time playing with these guys, getting to know these guys, living in Phoenix, playing for Coach Monty, playing for the staff,” Durant said. “So, just more reps, that’s all. More reps to that, continue to keep building with one another, and understand each other on a different level individually and as basketball players. And I think that will come. So we’ll see what happens, you know? It’s definitely frustrating and disappointing and embarrassing to lose, but also it’s about how you can get up and keep pushing and figuring out ways to get better. That’s really what the mantra is.”

It’s just a wonder of how many paths to improve are truly out there to be discovered.