Tag Archives: DeAndre Ayton

What did we Learn from the Suns’ 2018-19 season?

In general, we learned that rebuilding is hard and veteran players matter. Having players that have been in the NBA for some time and have played in the playoffs is crucial to creating a winning basketball team. When you have a void of that, it will be tough to win. Thus, the Suns had their second-worst win total of 19 wins (only worse was the Suns inaugural season in the 1960s).

The average age of the Suns’ roster (minus the two-way guys who barely played) and minus Jimmer (30) and Jamal Crawford (39) is 22.9 years old. This team was basically a veteran college team. This doesn’t take into account Trevor Ariza (33), Tyson Chandler and Ryan Anderson (30) who started the year with the Suns and played mostly badly.

When you consider further that Troy Daniels (27) didn’t play much for most of the year and that Tyler Johnson (26) and Kelly Oubre (23), who are considered veterans, for the Suns’ roster at least (due to their playoff experience) were picked up via trade later in the year, this team is young (and didn’t get too many contributions from their vets). Of course, ageless-wonder Jamal Crawford has his flashes, especially his 51-point game in the season finale.

The Suns were also bitten by the injury bug (as most teams are), but when most of your team is unproven, losing a proven NBA-caliber player for any extended stretch really impacts the ability to stay competitive.

Devin Booker missed 18 games with various ailments, most notable that nagging hamstring injury. With Booker being by far the Suns’ best player, missing him for 22 percent of the season really hampered their win total. TJ Warren played even less than Booker, entering in only 43 games (barely half of the 82 games of the season). Seeing as he is probably the second-best player (debatable now with Oubre in the fold) that really hurt their competitiveness. Toward the end of the season (even after having top three lottery odds locked up – aka no incentive to tank) the Suns were missing their six best players (Booker, Warren, Oubre, Johnson, Ayton, Holmes). That’s basically a G-league team that’s left; especially when the good players left are mostly rookies or sophomores who as a general rule are notoriously raw and “bad”.

Enough of the tragedy the Suns experienced, let’s discuss the positives and breakdown what we learned about and from each player.

Devin Booker

He took another leap. Devin Armani Booker showed he could end up being one of the most prolific scorers the league has ever seen. He is constantly breaking records for “youngest to do this” etc including youngest to have back to back 50-point games. He had consecutive games of 59, 51 and 48 points and if not for a petty (but understandable hard double-team in the waning seconds of the game) it would have been three-straight 50-point games. We knew he could be a prolific scorer, but what we learned this year was what we surmised – that he could be more efficient. He was. Booker averaged 26.6 points per game (24.9 in 2017-18) which was good for 7th in the NBA this year (a tie with Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard) and better than Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Donavan Mitchell and Russell Westbrook to name a few. But it was his efficiency that was impressive. His overall field goal percentage increased from 43.2 percent last year to 46.7 percent, sort of crossing the threshold to elite status. His effective field goal percentage also went up from 50.1 percent to 52.1 percent.

Booker also got his teammates more involved this year. Somewhat a product of “Point Book” (aka high volume/usage rate) when Booker isn’t really a point guard, but Booker’s assist percentage skyrocketed from 24.4 percent in 2017-18 to 34.1 percent; good for 11th in the league. His assists per game went from 4.7 to 6.8 (good for 14th in the league this year). This is all more impressive when you see the names Booker is next to when most of the names above him have significantly better teammates and are a good 5-7 years older in their primes while Booker is only 22 years old.

Detractors of Booker say his defense (along with the Suns’ lack of wins) negates his ability to win “real” recognition for his achievements this year or validating what we are seeing on the court. He definitely made a better effort in on-ball defense this year and you can see it when you watch the tape of this season. His off-ball help defense is still lacking – and it’s still to be seen whether more time in the league, getting stronger, or having better teammates/less offensive load on his shoulders will make a significant difference on that end.

He is the leader of the team and his max contract kicks in next season so, we’ll see what the Suns, James Jones and newcomer Jeff Bower can put around him this offseason to help jumpstart winning basketball in Phoenix once again.

DeAndre Ayton

Ayton was the number one pick and I think we can say with a high degree of confidence that Ayton isn’t a bust. He averaged 16.1 points per game on ridiculous efficiency (58.5% FG) and an effective field goal percentage of 58.5 percent which is good for 17th in the league (not among rookies — overall). Ayton was 12th in 2-point field goals in the league, 14th in rebounding (13th in offensive, 16th in defensive) just absolutely dominating everything around the rim. He has some of the best hands I’ve seen for a big man and has incredible touch around the basket.

He is already better as a rim protector than people thought he’d be at the end of his rookie campaign, though it started out pretty rough for the first few months on that end of the court for Ayton. He was tied for 35th in the league in blocks with 67.

He is a fluid athlete and the flashes we saw in this rookie year show how dominate he can be once he gets in the gym, works on his game and gets even stronger than he already is as a 7’1” 250-lb human. He has the right attitude to make it in this league as seen how he talked after the inevitable bad games and how he responded out on the court afterwards. The Suns got a good one despite Ayton decidedly coming in third in the rookie “standings” behind a duo of guard phenoms in Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks) and Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks).

Kelly Oubre Jr.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was certainly the best addition of the season for the Suns. Oubre brought a youthful, but experienced voice to the Suns and an indisputable energy that this struggling Suns team needed desperately. He has the combination of speed, athleticism, shooting, determination along with the ability to “go get a bucket” that fits so well with Booker and Ayton. He doesn’t “need” the ball to be successful, but can have it in his hands, run the offense and be successful as the primary ball handler. He rebounds, plays hard and has the perfect combination of boundless energy and positive attitude combined with the calm and undeterred focus of a battle-tested veteran that was lacking on this Suns’ roster. It certainly seems like Oubre wants to stay in the Valley of the Sun going forward. He is a restricted free agent and the Suns have the ability to match anything one of the other teams may offer him. But with the news that Oubre trademarked the term #ValleyBoyz it seems like he would come back. That would be fantastic for the culture and demeanor of this Suns team.  We learned about Oubre how great he would be for the culture and how great a fit he would be long-term around Booker and Ayton.

Tyler Johnson

With the addition of Tyler Johnson to the Suns, we got a peek at what a veteran point guard-led offense would look like – it would be spectacular. With a threshold of 50 minutes played together, Tyler Johnson was a part of the two best lineups for the Suns on the season at +13 and +12 (so was Booker, Ayton, and Oubre). The interchangeable pieces to fill out those lineups were Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges. Go play with the lineup data on Basketball Reference. It’s pretty interesting.

Johnson isn’t a point guard or probably even part of the Suns’ future, while also being overpaid (there is a near 100 percent chance he opts-in to his $19+ million player option, as he should). However, he helps make the Suns go. He is unflappable, a steadying presence on offense and a gritty defender who knows where to be. As a 26-year-old who has been in the league for a while, he just isn’t going to make as many mistakes as younger players.

Mikal Bridges

The Dan Majerle hustle award winner really had a great rookie season. It seems evident that Bridges is – so far – the third piece as a part of the Suns future core alongside Booker and Ayton. He drained threes and played solid defense (even receiving a few votes in The Athletic’s anonymous NBA player poll as the “best defender” which is remarkable for a rookie). He also stole the ball – a lot. He had 129 steals in his rookie campaign (one less than LeBron James’ rookie year) and ends up 12th among rookies in steals since 2000-01. If you add in his three-point acumen, there are only four other players to match Bridges’ combination of 129 steals and 105 made threes in their rookie season all-time. The other rookies to do that were Stephen Curry, Mario Chalmers, Allen Iverson, and Kerry Kittles. That’s pretty amazing company for Bridges.

The most promising thing is how Bridges now projects for the rest of his career. Coming out in the draft a year ago the “best case” for Bridges was an elite “3-and-D” player. Well, he could achieve that by the end of his second year once he his able to work on his strength and not go through the struggles of being a rookie in the league. We saw some flashes of some other things Bridges could do on the court that could raise his career trajectory. He showed us some one and two-dribble pull-up jumpers as well as some great drives that utilized his length. We learned a lot about how long Bridges will stay in the league. He could have a long 15+ year career. Hopefully, in a Suns uniform for most, or all, of that time.

Josh Jackson

We learned a lot of interesting things about Josh Jackson. He can reign-in his shot selection and still be aggressive without being reckless. It’s looking as if his defense probably won’t be elite, but also probably won’t be miserable.

His three-point accuracy soared this year. Just taking the raw year-to-year numbers, his three-point accuracy improved from a horrendous 26 percent to a respectable 32 percent. If you saw the progression during the 2018-19 season, that number could jump to elite level next year and going forward. The hitch in his release is gone. Looking at the month-to-month splits and you can see the improvement.

He may not end up being a key part of the Suns’ future core, but it seems like he’ll stick in the league longer than it may have seemed as the percentage chance of him being a bust continues to go down.

T.J. Warren

Well, we learned two specific and opposing things about Warren in the 2018-19 season. Someone can be an absolute non-shooter and turn into a knockdown three-point shooter, seemingly overnight. The other is that despite improving in ways it seemed would never happen, Warren is probably not in the Suns’ long-term plans.

First, the positive. Warren re-worked his three-point shot and had career highs in three-point percentage of 42.8 percent (absolute elite level percentage-wise). The volume also went way up. Warren’s 77 made threes nearly caught his 79 threes combined his first four years in the league. With his free throw percentage also jumping from 75.7 percent to 81.5 percent, he also had a career-high effective field goal percentage (that takes into account the math involved in comparing threes, twos and free throws). Despite averaging fewer minutes per game, Warren’s assists, steals, and blocks improved a bit compared to last season.

Unfortunately, much of this great story is dampened by injury. In 2018-19, Warren played only 43 games, a low for his career (apart from the 40 games his rookie year). Warren just always seems to be banged up, and injuries seem to linger for him. It’s not a toughness issue either it seems, just very unfortunate. We’ll never really know how injured he was toward the end of the season as other injuries and jockeying for lottery position made it pointless to bring him back early (despite Warren being close to a three-point attempt bonus). However, as Warren was injured during the Suns’ great stretch of games where they did play well, Warren seems like the odd man out in the plethora of wings the Suns have (Bridges, Oubre, Jackson, most notably). He’ll always get buckets with his great touch around the basket and instinct for offensive rebounding and off-ball cutting, but it seems like this is the player he’s going to be for the rest of his career. The three-point improvement will mean the Suns can get more value in a trade, but it’s looking like he has played his last game for the Suns due to other Suns’ wings bringing more to the table.

Richaun Holmes

Holmes was a great find by the Suns’ front office “hiding” behind Joel Embiid in Philly. His energy is infectious, he always plays hard and, while a limited player on offense, he is the perfect backup center for NBA teams. He can still score, is athletic and big enough to play tough defense down in the paint and doesn’t give up or back down from a challenge.

If Holmes can work on his interior passing vision and skill while developing a jumpshot, he could be even more valuable. The Suns will probably look to lock up the unrestricted free agent who will get paid handsomely as he’ll, in all likelihood, double (or more) his career earnings thus far.

Jamal Crawford

We learned that “JCrossover” can still ball out sometimes, but on the court probably can’t contribute too much in terms of winning basketball at the age of 39. Certainly, any illusion of defense is gone. The good part is that most of Crawford’s value to this Suns’ team is off the court in terms of mentorship. Nearly every teammate kept discussing Crawford’s significant impact on them, not only as a player but as a person. With him dropping 51 points on the final game of the season, I could see the Suns’ re-upping Crawford on a vet minimum deal again after seeing the positive impact he had on the players.

Troy Daniels

We’ve really known it his whole career, but man can Daniels shoot the ball! Daniels even showed a little better defensive positioning and effort this year along with a little dribbling and driving improvement. Daniels will basically be in the NBA for as long as he wants with that impressive shooting stroke, but his contracts will be pretty close to the minimum unless those flashes we saw become more consistent. This one is a toss-up in terms of him being on the Suns or not in October. It will depend on trades and what the free agency landscape looks like for Daniels.

DeAnthony Melton and Elie Okobo

The rookie season was certainly a roller-coaster for Melton and his fellow rookie point guard Elie Okobo. Both went from times starting to having stretches of DNP-CDs (did not participate – coach’s decision). Melton is seemingly more athletic and longer and definitely better at defense, but Okobo seems a bit more polished, is a better passer and certainly a better shooter. Unfortunately, neither are near good enough to start in the NBA as of yet, as the mid-season addition of veteran Tyler Johnson (who isn’t even quite a point guard… and yet… results) showed. With just seeing them on the court and not knowing them personally or lockerroom interactions, I would keep Melton (just because it is easier to teach to his deficiencies than Okobo’s, making Melton’s future ceiling easier to hit). If they can hold on to both for their sophomore seasons, even better.

Ray Spaulding

Spaulding didn’t play much this year but certainly seems like an NBA player (and not someone who will wash out of the league). He’ll need to put on more weight (i.e. get stronger) to bang with the bigs down in the paint, but he has some great touch around the basket on offense and projects to be a prototypical mobile big so essential in the modern game.

Jimmer Fredette

In one sense (being in the NBA realm), you’ve gotta feel bad for Fredette. He has a great college career, some time in the league and then washes out to overseas leagues. He plays well over there and reinvents himself then makes it back over – then shoots ZERO percent on threes in his short time with the Suns. I don’t envision the Suns bringing him back for the second (non-guaranteed) year, but I hope he gets his chance either with the Suns or with one of the other 29 teams.

Igor Kokoskov

Igor Kokoskov had an interesting year. He had tons of experience as an NBA assistant coach, but being the boss is a whole different ballgame. It’s all on you, regardless of the factors that are out of your control. The Suns only won 19 games and that’s not great. However, Kokoskov is good at player development and that’s what we saw. Jackson, Warren, Booker, Ayton and others all improved in key areas. Kokoskov definitely had problems he’ll need to improve on as a coach, but the Suns should keep Igor around at least one more year for a couple of reasons. The Suns didn’t have the talent to let a coach really do his thing (the lack of point guard which Igor is especially good at utilizing was especially problematic). Igor did not really let the offense bog down as it has the past five-plus years despite the lack of NBA starter ball-handlers (minus Booker). Also, consistency is so important, and the culture seems to be shifting with James Jones, Igor, Crawford, Oubre, etc so it seems like it would be a mistake to let the head coach go at this juncture. Also, the Suns really worked to rehab their image around the league and did so seemingly by helping players get to desired destinations through dead money on their books. Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, which could come into play this offseason.

The future is bright if you look at the silver linings!

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.