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Suns GM: Trade season could come early in NBA this year

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With most NBA teams still in the playoff hunt, Suns GM Ryan McDonough thinks there could be more December and January trades than usual.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday marked a soft milestone in the NBA, where nearly all free agents signed over the summer became eligible to be traded. The NBA trade season is now open for business, so to speak, with nearly every one of the league’s 450 players now available.

That doesn’t mean teams want to trade them, of course. But the complexities of NBA trades are difficult enough, with the salary matching rules, that the more players you can mix and match the better to make a deal.

This season, nearly every team is still in the playoff hunt with two-thirds of the season remaining.

Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough thinks that might spur teams into action sooner than later.

“If I had to guess I’d say there would be more early action this year,” McDonough said on Bright Side Night in an exclusive interview. “Where teams are saying all right, we’re not going to wait until February, the trade deadline. Let’s do a deal in mid-December and solidify ourselves that extra 2+ months to integrate a guy and climb up the standings to make sure we are in the playoffs.”

If anyone would know the heartbeat of NBA trade talks, it would likely be the Suns GM that has executed more than a dozen trades since taking over the team and has only P.J. Tucker remaining from the roster he inherited in 2013.

In the West, the worst team (Dallas) is only 6 games out of the playoffs with more than 50 games left to play. The same is mostly true in the East, meaning that every NBA team could delude themselves into thinking that the playoffs are just one move away.

Even the Suns could make that claim, being only 4 games out at the moment.

Two years ago, McDonough acquired veteran backup center Brandan Wright in December in an effort to solidify a good team, but while he wouldn’t mind a playoff run he doesn’t seem inclined to add more veterans.

“Let’s do it the right way,” he said of a potential playoff run. “Let’s not bury Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss and play the veterans 40 minutes a night to get it.”

McDonough talks of a patient, long-term rebuild.

Sure, he’d love to re-do the Boston Celtics model of 2007, where they turned a bunch of assets into multiple stars that went from 20-something wins to 60-something Finalists.

“I know the Suns historically haven’t done that as much,” McDonough said. “Or at least not to the level that we are doing it, but I feel like it’s the most sustainable way to build a contending team in today’s NBA.”

Even the Celtics model had a short window, and required everything to happen at once to make it work. Just acquiring Kevin Garnett OR Ray Allen would not have been enough to put the Celtics over the top. They needed both guys, plus incumbent Paul Pierce, to make it work.

Until then, McDonough seems content to build up from the draft.

So when he talks about an early trade market, he might mean that the Suns are ready to be sellers if the right deal comes along.

He says every GM handles trade talk differently, and some are more open to discussing deals than others.

“I think the key for me is being honest and open,” McDonough said. “I’m probably more open with other GMs - not about evaluating the players on our roster - but saying here’s what we are looking to do, who do you like on our roster? I’ll go through your roster and tell you who we like. Just because I think that’s how deals get done.”

He acknowledges that trading is a two-way street, and that not all GMs think like he does.

“As a GM, it’s hard to guess if teams don’t give you a whole lot,” McDonough said. “You’re like, all right I think every other team likes Devin Booker but we’re not trading him. So you waste a lot of time if there’s not that openness and honesty.”

But the Suns do have some increasingly attractive assets to discuss in trades to teams who legitimately think they need that one more veteran for a playoff run.

Under rookie head coach Earl Watson many of the team’s 30-something players are having their best season in years.

  • Center Tyson Chandler, now 34 years old, is inhaling his most rebounds per game (11.5) since since he was 25 years old. He just posted back-to-back 20-rebound games last week.
  • Small forward P.J. Tucker, 31, has spent the past week defending Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate while also making 37% of his threes over the last 10 games.
  • Combo forward Jared Dudley, 31, is currently 6th in the NBA in 3P% (45.6%), his best mark in six years.
  • Shooting guard Leandro Barbosa, 34, has shown he still has a lot to give in short minutes off the bench.

Coach Watson loves every one of these guys, and they have all expressed a desire to finish what they started in Phoenix.

Tucker plays exactly the way Watson wants to play, and has always been loyal to the franchise. Chandler asked not to be traded last summer when he had options. And Dudley and LB were signed specifically to help the Suns transition to their youth.

But the Suns are 8-19 even while playing those guys too many minutes, and it’s about time to start transitioning to the kids.

If I had to guess, I’d say the mostly likely trade candidates this season are Tucker, Chandler and even Eric Bledsoe, along with the uber-available (in fans’ minds) Brandon Knight.

But Bledsoe, Knight and even Chandler feel more like last-second deals in February.

If you’re looking at Christmas presents early trades, the guess here is that four-time defending ‘Dan Majerle Hustle Award’ winner P.J. Tucker would be the most likely to go the soonest. Most teams could use a P.J. Tucker for the same reasons Watson would hate to lose him.

It would be a dark day on the Bright Side if and when this happens, but the Suns need to find more minutes for the young guys. Tucker’s absence would start a domino shift in the rotation that likely would end up with more time for Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis.