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Phoenix Suns 2018 Offseason Options

Phoenix Suns 2018 Offseason Options

By Eric Saar (@Eric_Saar)

This is the most important offseason in Phoenix Suns franchise history.

While that is probably hyperbole, and there may have been other crucial off-seasons in Phoenix Suns history, the upcoming summer is pivotal to the health and direction of the franchise. The team is no doubt at a crossroads.

  • Blossoming superstar Devin Booker is due for his max rookie extension
  • The Suns just hired the first NBA head coach born outside of North America
  • General Manager Ryan McDonough has filled the “war chest” with assets that put them in the top-tier of teams in the league
  • The environment of the NBA is ripe for an absolute frenzy of crazy trades and free agency signings as tons of teams are anxious for a change

The Suns have their franchise centerpiece in Booker. As the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Booker’s salary was depressed more than his counterparts that were drafted above him. He made 4 million and change in his impressive first two years in the league and it set to make north of 5 million in the last two years of his rookie contract, according to Basketball Insiders’ Suns’ salary page. But that’s nothing compared to what he’ll make once he nets his max rookie extension that he is due for before the 2018 season begins in October. That would be a massive five-year deal worth an estimated $157 million.

He deserves it as he averaged 24.9 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game last year. The only other players in 2017-18 to hit those averages on the season were LeBron James, Giannis Atetokounmpo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and DeMarcus Cousins – The only difference is that all the other players but Booker were All-Stars this year. That’s impressive company. With the way that Booker has played, a massive contract extension is basically certain. The rising star is the leader of the team, their number one scoring option, both in general and in the clutch. He is the best player on the roster for the foreseeable future.

But that is only the foundation. Every team needs a superstar and Booker is it. But you need more to create a championship team – and that’s the goal, right?

It seems like Jackson could be another piece of the Suns’ core. His versatility around Booker is crucial to a switching and aggressive defense, while his secondary playmaking skills help make him a two-way player on the rise. His shot release is certainly better than expected during his rookie year. It shows promise, though the numbers are underwhelming. He shot 26.3 percent from behind the arc and 44.6 percent inside it on the year. He fits what you need around Booker. The rookie had vastly different numbers – and impact – in the two halves of the season. But there were flashes of his potential that can really excite a fanbase. One could envision a scenario where Jackson is a Defensive Player of the Year award winner and in a role that mirrors that of former All-Star and Finals MVP, Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala (but a more playable and useful version closer to Iggy’s prime). That’s another piece.

But what else do you have?

The Frontcourt Players

Tyson Chandler is the elder statesman (and though he can have a good game) he’s not the future of the franchise at center and definitely more of a veteran presence. The feeling in Phoenix—and everywhere — is that Alex Len is gone over the summer, though with his streamlined game he would be a great addition to any team at the right price. Alan Williams came back from the leg injury and showed the beautiful floater and great rebounding we know and love about “Big Sauce”. However, even if Len is brought back none of these players are starter caliber centers in this league, so McDonough and his team have some work to do.

One conundrum on the table is the twin power forwards of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Both players have been on a rollercoaster of development as throughout their rookie and sophomore seasons, we have seen incredible flashes as well as weird stretches, where they make mistakes and become “invisible” on the court, not making the impact necessary to keep consistent playing time. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on these players. Depending on who you talk to, the pair are either versatile big men who have the potential to be All-Stars or players who barely impact the game and won’t ever improve. It sure seems like at least one of the pair won’t be on the team in two years.

Then there is Jared Dudley. Dudley used to play small as a guard in his first stint with the Suns but has transformed his game into a lethal stretch-four veteran, a perfect player to insert into playoff roster. However, Dudley’s value is also found in his presence in the locker room and in the ears of one of the youngest rosters in the league. Dudley is always ready to contribute as an elite three-point shooter, communicating on defense — and even with his athletic disadvantage – always in the right place, making the right play.

The Backcourt Players

We’ve already mentioned Booker and Jackson, so the next logical place is TJ Warren. The small forward contributed to the Suns last year with his throwback style as his floaters in the paint, off-ball cuts and put backs continued to devastate opposing defenses who by necessity were determined to focus their schemes on Devin Booker. Unfortunately, Warren has two specific flaws in his game (maybe three if you add in his lack of passing, but since he is in there to score, it’s somewhat understandable). His lack of a consistent three-point shot and his defense are his liabilities. The shot release seems like it can’t be smoothed out (unlike Jackson’s which seems to already be on its way, and Jackson is younger with less time in the league). Warren’s on-ball defense leaves a lot to be desired as he tries, but seems to take bad angles, setting up wrong and getting blown by. His ability to score at will at the NBA level against all but the best lockdown defenders will keep him in the league for quite some time, but with these flaws it seems like his ceiling is capped unless he can improve past the time players typically improve. At some point in your NBA career you just are who you are.

Brandon Knight is the next best player on the backcourt depth chart. Both he and Warren are best fitted for the sixth-man role for different reasons. We haven’t seen Knight for quite some time as he was sidelined with an injury during the entire 2017-18 season and he may have improved during his absence. However, Phoenix can’t go into the season with him as their best point guard if they have designs on a playoff berth in 2019. At the moment, the backup shooting guard is Troy Daniels. He is a shooter who tries to do everything else, but just seems limited. He is valuable, but replaceable with someone who also brings veteran savvy, defense, or playmaking or a combo of those skills — though the player will almost certainly not be as knockdown a shooter as Daniels. The other potential guys on the fringe of the roster are Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed, Shaq Harrison and Isaiah Canaan. We’ll see who actually makes the roster out of training camp of these players. A lot of it will come down to what happens in the NBA draft and free agency.

The NBA Draft

The Phoenix Suns have the number one pick in the NBA draft for the first time in franchise history. Unfortunately, it isn’t in a draft such as the LeBron James or Anthony Davis drafts where there was a clear-cut player who that first team could select and know they got the right guy. This year there are two such players, making the decision-making process all that more crucial and stress-inducing.

There is a lot that could be said about these players vying for the honor of being selected as the best basketball prospect for an entire year and the comments below are in no-way exhaustive. There is almost no way for whoever Phoenix picks at number one to “bust” (this isn’t Anthony Bennett and the 2013 draft). Whoever they pick will be good to great and McDonough and his staff will build a roster around the core from there.

DeAndre Ayton

DeAndre Ayton played at the University of Arizona and showed his physical dominance and versatility. His shot release is already quick and smooth and there are still some aspects of his mechanics that could be improved to get him to the level of a good shooter – and not JUST for a big man. His footwork is pretty elite, and that is such an important part of being a leading center in the NBA. His body and athleticism are not just good, they can help set him apart even by NBA standards and he hadn’t even lifted a weight until a few months before his college career began in his one year at Arizona. He can defend on the perimeter and supposedly wasn’t used correctly at UofA so he could be a defensive presence at the NBA level. All of this is incredible as Ayton has yet to turn 20 years old, having already earned the Karl Malone award, among a plethora of other awards during his brief college career.

In terms of comparisons, he could be Dwight Howard with a jumpshot and better lateral quickness (though almost certainly not going to challenge Howard’s three-peat Defensive Player of the Year reign from 2009 to 2011) In his pre-draft media session with the Suns, Ayton said he models his game after Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon. Some have said he could be David Robinson.

If Ayton even gets close to any of these comps the pick is worth it (yes, even if any other top end picks finish their careers as better players). Ayton is potentially the perfect center for where the NBA is at.

Luka Doncic

Then there is Luka Doncic. The Slovenian superstar still has eight more months of being 19 years old and has these accolades under his belt:

  • Euroleague MVP (youngest in history)
  • Euroleague Final Four MVP
  • Spanish MVP
  • Euroleague Rising Star
  • Euroleague Champion (as best player)
  • Euroleague 1st team
  • Eurobasket 1st team

He is a sharpshooter, has played against men for years (as opposed to teenagers in college), has incredible passing ability and vision, and is 6’8” and therefore a good rebounder (which should translate as a wing which he will be in the NBA) and is elite at running the pick and roll (the main offensive set in the NBA). He has a passion and fire for the game that is hard to find.

According to Basketball Reference, Doncic averaged 6.6 assists per 36 minutes in Euroleague play (adjusted because Euroleague has shorter games, 36 minutes is about what starters play in the NBA per game). The amazing part is that overseas scorekeepers are supposedly significantly more stingy handing out assists than in the NBA, so with slightly more minutes per game, longer games to gain momentum and better players around him (maybe a lower usage rate), it’s reasonable for Doncic to average eight or nine assists per game in the NBA in a year or two. That would put him in the top three in assists among all NBA players per game in 2017-18 (Russell Westbrook led the league with 10.3 per game).

As I’ve said on the podcast, if you add him to Booker and Jackson, the Phoenix Suns won’t have a bad offensive possession for the next decade. His comparisons are difficult because he seems to be in a different stratosphere than any other international prospect. Some have said he’s the best international player since Dirk Nowitzki. Some say he’s like Steve Nash.

For more on Luka take a listen to my podcast with David Pick who knows and has covered Doncic for years.

To reiterate, either player would be a welcome talent influx to the Suns’ franchise that had been sorely lacking young, upcoming stars (that began to be mitigated when Booker was drafted). There is no right answer. Head coach Igor Kokoskov was brought in for player development, but has a history as the head coach of the Slovenian national team last summer, helping Doncic and his team win the championship. Suns’ owner Robert Sarver is a University of Arizona alum and has connections there, will he want a UofA guy at number one? Will McDonough and crew get the go-ahead to go off the board with Marvin Bagley, Mohamed Bamba, or Jaren Jackson Jr.? Doubtful.

With all of this, only time will tell.

Then the question is what to do with the rest of the picks in the draft?

Other than the first overall pick Phoenix owns:

  • #16 (via HEAT/Goran Dragic trade)
  • #31 (their own)
  • #59 (via Raptors/P.J. Tucker trade)

Because the Suns have one of the youngest rosters in the league already and will be adding the number one draft selection (a 19-year-old) to that, it stands to reason – if they can – they will try to either consolidate the picks to trade up for one young player or package some assets and these later picks for an established veteran in the league.

Free Agency

Let’s get this out of the way, there is probably a combined 3 percent chance that either LeBron James (because one of his best friends James Jones is Phoenix’s Vice President of Basketball Operations) or Kawhi Leonard join the Phoenix Suns this offseason. Also, don’t even think Chris Paul, Paul George or Kyrie Irving are coming to the valley of the sun. Just get it out of your head right now.

The Suns’ franchise needs to focus on manageable steps to bring them closer to contending for the Larry O’Brien trophy come June. That means a young core of promising players surrounded by a handful of veterans who can still contribute.

But who should they sign and/or trade? The direction of the next five years of Suns basketball rests on McDonough making those decisions in July.

If you go with Doncic through the draft, then the obvious next step that has been floated out there is grabbing Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in restricted free agency (Here is the report that the Suns are “enamored” with him). Phoenix would need to throw a max contract (remember all “max” contracts are different and based on years played, etc) at the Swiss defensive stalwart, though Houston would probably match the offer sheet. The caveat is if LeBron James or another star joins Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston, then they wouldn’t feasibly have enough cap space to match, giving Suns a great up and coming defensive anchor.

If you go with Ayton, then you have your center for the next decade. At that point, you hope he can improve on defense and be a top-ten center in the NBA. Then you need a point guard – though Booker as the primary and Jackson as the secondary ball-handler isn’t terrible. What Phoenix doesn’t want to end up is with any of Brandon Knight, Elfrid Payton, Shaq Harrison, Isaiah Canaan or Tyler Ulis as the starting point guard – it just won’t cut it in the Suns’ stated mission to be aggressive in free agency and to stop “tanking”.

The expensive option is to really through all your chips in and grab a star point guard. It would really propel the team to the playoffs giving Booker, Jackson, Bender, and Ayton a chance to get experience while being successful. In a trade, Phoenix could go after Damian Lillard (Portland Trailblazers), John Wall (Washington Wizards), or Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors). A less expensive option is Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets). I’m not going to try and speculate what these trades would be as the trade market is all over the place for stars the last year or two. The issue is that all these are score-first guards – though they certainly can pass well – this would somewhat limit Booker’s effectiveness by taking the ball out of his hands for many possessions per game.

Probably the best option would be nabbing unrestricted free agent (UFA) Avery Bradley. It would keep the ball in Booker’s hands enough (along with Jackson and Bradley) and wouldn’t cost as much. The best aspect would be the defense he would bring. Bradley would be able to defend the best wing player on the opposing team and then Booker/Jackson/Bradley trio would be able to pretty much switch anything.

Some other players the Suns should take a look at as veterans include Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics’ RFA), Danny Green who has a player option (San Antonio Spurs’ PO), Ian Clark (New Orleans Pelicans’ UFA), and Fred Van Fleet (Toronto Raptors UFA).

Also, some bigs to go after (if they go Doncic) could be restricted free agent (RFA) Jabari Parker along with Derrick Favors (UFA). Just some ideas for McDonough and Suns’ management.

Another potential trade that fans seem to be split on is adding Kevin Love via trade (which would supposedly be possible if LeBron left Cleveland). The reason adding Love is advisable is that adding someone that can go for 20/10 a game, rebound well and is versatile would help the Suns improve before the Suns’ core hits their prime.

It’s also important to note that elite free agents don’t join mediocre teams. Those specific players survey the terrain of the league and see which players have young, improving players and a quality, balanced roster around them. Those players want to think they are the missing piece to a championship contender. You can only get there if you acquire the talent. Look at the Philadelphia 76ers. Previously, no one on the level of LeBron James would even be linked to the 76ers. But with blossoming stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the fold and led by Brett Brown, they are in the conversation. Until the Suns start winning, top-flight free agents won’t be attracted to the valley of the sun – and you need those players to be a championship contender.

Whichever way the Suns go this offseason, they will have an intriguing young core on the rise, ready to try and make the next push to the playoffs.

It certainly is an important summer for the Phoenix Suns.