If I told you in October that by the end of the season, the Suns would lose Tyler Ennis, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, what would you have done? Laughed in my face? Threatened to meet me in Temecula?
And yet, here we are. With Brandon Knight injured, the Suns have been reduced to relying on Eric Bledsoe for as many as 36-40 minutes per game. When he comes off the court, both shooting guard Archie Goodwin and 10-day gamble A.J. Price are used to run the offense.
That is not a sustainable system for the future, even once Knight is back in the lineup.
Whether or not the Suns try to make a big splash this summer remains to be seen, but one hole that should be relatively easy to fill is the backup point guard spot. This does not need to be another Isaiah Thomas; the Suns only need a reliable distributor who can come in off the bench for at least 15-20 minutes per game and confidently run plays while giving Bledsoe and Knight some much needed rest. If the Suns are hoping to sneak into the playoffs next season, perhaps it would be a good idea to recruit a veteran with plenty of playoff experience. Or they could just go with the best option available.
I'll assume that with Bledsoe and Knight at the helm, management will stay away from top free agent point guards like Rondo, Dragic and Reggie Jackson. But here are some realistic and affordable options.
Career Accolades: 2009 NBA All-Star
The culprit behind this season's most surprising 50-point outburst, Mo Williams will hit free agency after playing as a fringe starter for both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets. However, he was a full-time backup for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2013-14, a 54-28 team. Convincing him to accept a bench role should not be a problem.
Williams' best years may be behind him, but he is proving that he can still produce on a nightly basis. He is averaging 14.3 points and 6.6 assists per game this season, and 17.2 points and 7.9 assists per 36 minutes. His field-goal percentage is fairly low (just 40%), but he is a career 38% shooter from three-point range and has no problem handling the ball. His 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks 18th among 51 qualified point guards; for comparison, Bledsoe ranks 46th and Isaiah Thomas 43rd.
Don't forget that Williams has playoff experience to add to his resume. He has appeared in 49 career playoff games, and started in 25 of those. He has fought postseason battles with stars such as Michael Redd, Lebron James, Chris Paul and LaMarcus Aldridge, and even made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.
Type: Player Option ($2.8 million)
Career Accolades: 2009 NBA All-Star
While Mo Williams assisted LeBron and helped the Cavs become an Eastern Conference powerhouse in the late 2000s, Jameer Nelson played a similar role alongside Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. Nelson played 44 playoff games for the Magic between 2007-2012, starting in 39 and getting as far as the NBA Finals.
Whereas Dwight Howard eventually alienated his coach, teammates and fans in Orlando, Nelson stayed with the Magic and continued to receive fan support. When he was eventually waived by the Magic last summer, this is what he had to say about the organization:
``All of the time I still hear fans saying, `Thanks for staying.’ I think they appreciate who I am. Who I am is a professional in everything that I do. I try to always handle myself the same way no matter where I am and who’s around or not around,’’ Nelson said back during the spring. ``I take so much pride in being with the Magic for as long as I have. I really think it says a lot about myself and this organization, as well. For a guy who slipped in the draft and the Magic traded for me and believed in me – really, it’s an honor for me to say that I’ve only worn a Magic jersey.’’
Since leaving Orlando, however, it's been a tough transition for Nelson. He first signed with Dallas, was traded to Boston as part of the Rondo deal, and was then flipped to Denver a couple of weeks later. Overall he's averaging 8.2 points and 4.2 assists per game as a backup, which equates to 13 points and 6.6 assists per 36 minutes. Like Williams, he is a savvy veteran with a good three-point shot (career 37% clip from deep) and a knack for distributing the basketball. The Magic under Stan Van Gundy made a living spacing the floor and finding open shooters behind the arc. Of course, with Dwight Howard down low that was easy to do.
Career Accolades: Worldwide Asian-American Sensation, creator of "Linsanity"
Despite being on a struggling Lakers team, Jeremy Lin has only 26 games as a starter this year. But that may not be his fault, as head coach Byron Scott has puzzled Lakers fans by often choosing to start Ronnie Price and Jordan Clarkson ahead of Lin.
Lin is averaging 15.9 points, 6.5 assists and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes on 43% shooting from the field and 37% shooting from three-point range. His numbers aren't as impressive as they were during his magical 2011-12 campaign with the Knicks, but they're nothing to scoff at either. Lin is more turnover-prone than both Williams and Nelson, as he ranks 38th among 51 point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio.
With Lin, you're going to gain popularity. You're also going to generate more of a media frenzy. The question is, does that do more harm than good for chemistry purposes?
Wherever Lin goes, that fanbase will suddenly experience an influx of "LOFs" (Lin-Only Fans), a term invented by the Rockets fanbase. Both in Houston as well as in Los Angeles, there have been notorious fans who openly support Lin over the rest of the players. As one could expect, that is not always a welcome sight. Just imagine a crowd of new Phoenix Suns fans calling for Hornacek to bench Bledsoe.
Lin is an intriguing player with undeniable skills, but he may not be what Phoenix is looking for.
Career Accolades: "That's two-time NBA champion Norris Cole to you, dammit!"
26-year-old Norris Cole has 60 career playoff games and two championship rings. In that sense, he's more of a "veteran" than either Nelson or Williams. He also played with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, which is a lot of pressure to handle as a youngster.
Cole also has a reputation as a pesky defender and a smart distributor, and that could be useful for the Suns. His assists per 36 minutes have gone up every single season, while his turnovers go down year after year as well. That's a great combination.
On the other hand, he hasn't improved that much in his four NBA seasons and still can't shoot particularly well or create offensive looks for himself. This season he's averaging 7.4 points and 3.5 assists per game, but on just 40% shooting from the field and 31% shooting from deep. His career-high PER this season is only 10.1, and the league average is 15.
So far Cole has stepped up for the Pelicans and is playing pretty well despite being asked to do more. He's a higher-usage player without the big three, but that hasn't effected his efficiency. Still, there are plenty of question marks about his game.
Career Accolades: Three-time winner of the "How is this dude still in the league?" award.
Andre Miller just doesn't miss games. For a 14-year period, between 1999 and 2013, he missed a total of 6 games. And yet after all those minutes logged, he's still in the league, and evidently has no plans to retire just yet.
Not only is he still in the league, but he's still playing pretty well, too. Miller has never been a terrific scorer (and has always had a putrid three-point shot), but this season he's shooting 50% from the field and averaging 10.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 8.3 assists per 36 minutes. In his very early days with the Cavaliers he once led the league in assists while not letting his turnovers get out of hand; perhaps Bledsoe could learn a thing or too from "The Professor".
You want playoff experience? He's got that too. Unfortunately for Miller, he has only ever made the second round once in his career. But overall he has been to the playoffs 10 different times, with four teams.
Unfortunately, Miller's defense has always been more than a little questionable. If McDonough is insistent on assembling a team of physical, tenacious defenders, Miller might not fit the bill.
Career Accolades: Member of the worst Knicks team ever.
Shane Larkin, a 22-year-old 2013 first-rounder, is an unrestricted free agent. That's because the Mavericks never picked up his first team option, and it wasn't until he was traded to the Knicks that he started receiving consistent playing time.
You may be thinking, "Why would we want a player that wasn't even valued enough to be kept on a dirt cheap rookie contract?". Well, despite the terrible team that he's on, Larkin is turning at least a few heads with his performance this season.
Overall, Larkin is averaging 9.1 points, 4.2 assists and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes. He's shooting 44% from the field and 33% from deep, though he doesn't take threes very often.
Those may not be flashy stats, but Larkin has already been praised for his ability to rack up steals and anticipate what's going to happen on the defensive end before it happens. At only 5'11", Larkin may have some trouble closing out on opposing shot attempts. But he can force turnovers, which is always a plus for the quick-paced Suns.
At 22, Larkin could continue to develop. His three-point shot improved quite a bit since his rookie season, perhaps giving him potential as a 3-and-D player. Or, perhaps he's an unproven commodity on the worst team in the league that isn't worth the guaranteed contract. It would be a risk, but you never know.
Career Accodales: First place in our hearts.
You should be familiar with this guy. He did a pretty good job in limited minutes for the Suns last year when Bledsoe went down, and right now he's playing great basketball for the Sixers. In 18 games with the Sixers, Ish is averaging 16.5 points, 8.8 assists and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes, and he's even shooting 38% from three-point range.
He's kind of like Shane Larkin, except with more years of experience. He may not provide playoff experience but he's a pesky defender who hustles and thrives in transition. He a good distributor as well as a good rebounder for his height. One of the only things holding him back from being a reliable backup point guard is his historical lack of a three-point shot. If he's managed to develop that in Philly, he could be a smart all-around guard for the Suns and is already familiar with many of the players and coaches. But banking on his recent success from behind the arc is a risky proposition considering such a small sample size.
Career Accolades: Established second-unit leader.
C.J. Watson has never been a terrific player, but for his entire career he's been a solid backup capable of taking the reigns when necessary. He's been to the playoffs with the Bulls, Nets, and now the Pacers, and this year without Paul George has stepped up his production. He's shooting 43% from the field and 40% from three, and is averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes. He has other experience stepping up in the absence of stars, notably when Derrick Rose struggled with injuries in 2011-12.
He's an above-average shooter who has the ability to spot-up, but other than that Watson doesn't have many strengths. He is a high-motor guy who plays decent but not spectacular defense, and his ball handling is nothing to rave about. He has also spent the last several years playing for slow-paced teams, though he did also play with Don Nelson and the all-offense no-defense Warriors. While he is a veteran who would be a solid pick up, I doubt he's truly the best option on this list.
There are plenty of other backup guards who I did not list. Aaron Brooks already had one stint with the Suns, but perhaps he could come back. If McDonough wants another undersized player, Jose Barea is always available. Cory Joseph, like Norris Cole, is a fairly young prospect who has already won a championship. And then there are some combo guards, such as Gary Neal, Alexey Shved and Rodney Stuckey.
Or hey, maybe A.J. Price will prove his worth and stick around.