NBA Playoffs: After big splash with Kevin Durant, Suns look to improve off-season with limited opportunities

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Phoenix – Sun was shell-shocked, rattled, silent. Beneath the wishful enthusiasm of a poorly timed T-shirt toss, where GameDay staffers tossed free gear into the lower bowl of Footprint Center, which was already half-empty, Phoenix's coaches and players appeared less than lifeless.

The loss occurred with more than five minutes left in Game 6 against the top-seeded Nuggets on Thursday, ultimately resulting in a 125–100 loss that ended the Suns' season. But while Denver was embroiled in a rousing fourth quarter timeout, Phoenix ended stoppage with blank stars and no glimpse of the huddle. The entire home team bench, from head coach Montee Williams to injured center Deandre Ayton, sat there silently. A black towel covered Kevin Durant's face.

A lineup full of reserves simply stood on the court with their hands resting on 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 had only arrived in February, but the feeling was all too familiar from last season's sour conclusion. A surprising Game 7 loss, at home, at the hands of Dallas, where Phoenix trailed by 30 points. The Suns lost as much as 32, missing out on this year's playoffs. marking the third and fourth largest losses in NBA history for a team facing elimination – and in consecutive campaigns.

“Last year's team was a ball-movement, body-movement team. This year we were more pick-and-roll-oriented and iso-oriented,” Williams said. “It's two different situations at once. So it's something we need to look at to see what kind of combination of players we have that fits the of play. But 20 minutes after the defeat It's hard to quantify those kinds of things.

There will be reflections and reactions over time. Like last season, this iteration of the Suns certainly won't return to Phoenix in its entirety. The emotions after the game were raw and fresh, but the clock will soon start ticking on a front office decision to be made, which landed Durant at the trade deadline with a roster under an aggressive new owner in Matt Ishbia. Spent too much to do. Only four contracts guaranteed in full for the 2023-24 season.

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

Chris Paul being out with a groin strain and Ayton being out with a rib injury are important contexts, but the post-game availability of both Durant and Williams was one of the topics that eluded the Suns from any explanation. Could have made a border on some pretext. Not when Phoenix mortgaged the promising futures of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, as well as four first-round picks between 2023 and 2029, and swapped an additional 2028 pick 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 like the Suns to further improve their rosters. By finding ways to

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant put up a brutal first half in Game 6, scoring 8 points on 2-of-11 shooting. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Paul has only $15.8 million of his $30.8 million salary guaranteed for next season, and there will be a league-wide discussion surrounding Phoenix's options for moving the future Hall of Fame point guard. League sources told Yahoo Sports that before the Suns pulled off that trade deadline blockbuster for Durant, the Suns had already left rival teams with the impression they were looking for a long-term replacement for Paul. VanVleet to Terry Rozier.

Then there's future Ayton, the franchise's No. 1 pick from the 2018 NBA draft, who signed an offer sheet from the last offseason in restricted free agency before Phoenix signed a four-year, $133 million contract. Could Ayton play his last game in the Valley? Indiana went ahead and re-signed starting center Myles Turner to a two-year, $60 million extension in January, but the league's smartest hat minds touted his declining salary as one of the more tradable deals in the NBA. The structure is estimated. The aforementioned Mavericks are another team often mentioned as being interested in Ayton's services. Perhaps there is another club that would prefer Ayton and allow the Suns to break down his hefty contract into two contributors who could provide the depth the unit desperately needed against Denver.

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The truth of the matter is outside of Ayton or Paul moving on, Phoenix has few resources to improve this team, hoping it will contend for the 2024 championship. With Cameron Payne's non-guaranteed salary, as well as a team option for Ishmael Wainwright, Phoenix stands at approximately $165 million for next season's payroll. Add in six minimum-contract salary slots — a mechanism not exactly mature for major impact players — and the Suns are about $7 million shy of the new second tax apron, with only one taxpayer mid-tier available. The math gets even more interesting in 2024-25, with Devin Booker's salary rising from $36 million to an average annual value and a rising supermax projected slot above $50 million.

A rival team strategist told Yahoo Sports, “I think they have to take advantage of the veteran minimap and hope they can get something good in exchange for Ayton.”

Next is the matter of personnel. head coach Kevin Young has emerged as one of the league's hottest candidates for a headlining position. He was a finalist for the Utah Jazz's bench a year ago Interviewed for Discover and Be a Part of Houston This Off-Season Toronto's process to replace Nick Nurse also has those in the league's coaching ranks talking about Young's eventual elevation to the bench somewhere as a matter of when, not whether this summer or some summer coming soon. Is.

The 2023-24 campaign will mark Williams' final season of the original five-year contract he signed in 2019, before signing an expensive contract extension last summer for 2024-25 and beyond. However, that sense of security hasn't stopped Williams' name from picking up steam among league personnel — including several figures present in 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.

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“It's hard for me to even look past today,” Williams told reporters. “I'll go out there and talk to the coaches, and we'll reevaluate going forward.”

That seems constant, the tandem of Booker and Durant, with the holding opposing defenses scoreless in these playoffs for the last six quarters of the Suns' season. Booker's smartly played game and excellent scoring chops helped draw the attention of Durant from Brooklyn. And there are few opponents who wouldn't want a foundation starting 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 position he requested to join in February.

“Yes I am. I am. I had a great time playing with these guys, being in Phoenix, playing for Coach Monty, playing for the staff, getting to know these guys,” Durant said. “So, just More reps, that's all. More reps for that, continuing to build with each other, and understanding each other on a different level and as basketball players. And I think it will. So we'll see what happens, you know? It's certainly frustrating and frustrating and embarrassing to lose, but it's also how you can get up and find ways to be better. That's really the mantra.”

It is a wonder just how many avenues of improvement can actually be found.