LOS ANGELES — The Phoenix Suns were one of the biggest surprise teams of the 2020-21 season. But now with a target on their backs, deriving from a trip to the Finals, they won’t be catching the opposition slipping from here on out.
That’s a commonplace challenge of trying to get back to the final round. But the young Suns perhaps could face another unfamiliar challenge this season: keeping envy and discourse away — due to money — from what is widely known to be one of the tightest locker rooms in the league.
In an exclusive interview with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, he explained the dynamic the team faces this season and why he’s confident they can overcome the hurdles on and off the court.
“Man, this is probably one of the best locker room that I’ve been in my whole career,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “Because we have young guys that are leaders and everybody leads in their own different ways. We communicate, we talk. It’s a real family over here. You celebrate the guys that got paid this summer.”
As for who didn’t get paid, this is a plot rival teams are hoping drives a wedge inside the locker room.
This past offseason, the Suns were busy consummating free agent signings, re-signings and extensions. The defending Western Conference champions forked out nearly $300 million in total deals.
Yet starting center Deandre Ayton — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft who was eligible in the summer for a rookie-scale max extension of four years, $173 million — did not receive a dime of that $300 million when both sides failed to reach an agreement.
The 23-year-old big man admitted he was not happy with how negotiations went and in turn will become a restricted free agent following the 2021-22 season.
“With D.A. and his situation, we talked about it,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “He knows what he has to do. The goal for everybody is to see everyone getting paid. His situation is what it is, but it’s going to work out for him. We hope it works out for him. The biggest thing we know we can do is go out there and win games.”
As the undisputed veteran leader of the team, Paul has seen the impact of sour negotiations and players feeling they deserve more money than a teammate or counterpart.
But he explained that it also can be made worse from one's inner circle.
“Sometimes it can be an outsider, sometimes it can be family members, it can be homies, it can be friends and a lack of communication,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “When I played for Doc [Rivers], he used to talk about clutter a lot. Monty [Williams] talks about it, too. When you lose a game and you go home, a lot of times everybody in your family thinks it’s everybody else’s fault that you lost. I’ll never forget Doc saying that. It makes sense.
“But when you mature, you start understanding that if that does happen in your house, you check everybody. You have to be like, ‘Nah, that isn’t the reason we lost.’ That’s maturity. And these are things that I’ve learned and things I’ve been able to pass on to some of the other guys. We talk about everything on this team. I’m not worried about any of that stuff here.”
Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the path to staying alive in June has begun and these young Suns will be navigating in uncharted territory to get there. Nevertheless, Paul says June isn’t on his mind at the moment.
“I don’t think I’m focused on getting back to the Finals,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “We lost. It was hard. But I’m more excited about the journey with this team. Last year was a lot of unexpected. The year that we had last year matured everybody. So we know not to get too high or too low. That’s what I’m excited about. This journey.”