The Suns have no All-Stars for the 5th consecutive season, a stretch not quite as long as the soon-to-be 7th consecutive season outside the playoff picture.
With a 15-31 record, the Suns have a tenuous hold on 2nd place in the reverse NBA standings, putting them in position to draft the highest they’ve picked since 1987 (Armen Gilliam, #2 overall) - a selection they likely need to nail in order to eventually end the dry stretch of playoff-less and All-Star-less seasons sometime soon.
Sure, Suns coach Earl Watson, his staff and the players have no intention of giving up on their playoff aspirations. And, losses in January are not the end of the world. The Suns still have nearly half the season left to make up a 5.5 game deficit.
But the Suns don’t actually have half a season left to make a playoff push with this roster. There are superfluous and overlapping parts, and the annual trade deadline is less than four weeks away.
GM Ryan McDonough told 98.7 FM ArizonaSports this week that upcoming games will likely set his direction for trades.
“If we’re within striking distance of the eighth seed at the trade deadline,” McDonough said to the radio station before Thursday's loss dropped the Suns to 5.5 games back. “That will probably help determine our approach. And if we’re not, if we’re not a viable playoff contender, that will probably determine it the other way.”
The other way means divestiture. While players like Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis should be off the trade table, as well as Eric Bledsoe (short of a blockbuster), the rest of the roster should be fair game for a net-positive return.
Of all those remaining players, the one most likely to the subject of a bidding war, albeit a low-stakes one, is swing forward P.J. Tucker.
Michael Scotto got a one-on-one with Tucker this week to get some candid responses to questions on the trade deadline and free agency.
VIDEO: Suns forward P.J. Tucker on trade rumors, free agency and guarding the opponent's best player from PG to C. https://t.co/XjwTyLsRXJ— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) January 25, 2017
First of all, Tucker said that he doesn’t pay attention to the trade rumors. But when pressed on how it might impact him, he gave this response.
“In this league, it’s part of the business,” Tucker said to Scotto. “It’s just staying focused, especially in a contract year. I just come to play every night.”
Tucker’s 3-year, $15 million contract with the Suns ends this summer, making him an unrestricted free agent in July, which may actually have a negative impact on trade offers to the Suns.
Under the new salary cap, mid-level players like Tucker can expect to see a big increase in their contract terms. Just last summer, Jared Dudley, Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer all received $10+ million per year in new deals and they weren’t alone.
Tucker can expect to command at least that much this summer in a new deal. An acquiring team would not want to part with large assets for a two-month rental, so they’d have to decide if acquiring him would increase their chances of re-signing Tucker this summer - and whether they’d want to spend $10 million per year to do it.
Tucker knows this summer is big for him. At 31 years old, this deal will be his last big one.
Does he want to stay with the Suns? And if not, what teams would interest him?
“Phoenix has been great to me the last five years and it’s somewhere I would love to be for a long time,” Tucker said. “So places like this where I fit, and they understand me and let me be myself. That’s a big factor for me.”
Tucker is still quite committed to the Suns, evidenced by his loyalty throughout the losing of the past few seasons. He’s taken the leadership and mentorship role to heart, working hard along with Tyson Chandler to instill discipline and effort among the young guys, including 20-year Devin Booker and the trio of rookies, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis.
“All these guys are getting better,” Tucker said. “We have so many young guys. From the beginning of the season you can see how much they’ve grown, how much their game has grown. Guys are growing up right in front of my eyes. We’re not winning as much, but it’s nice to see these guys growing up.”
He knows it’s a business, though, so you can't blame him for hedging his bets against being traded away.
"I gotta keep playing for my team,” he says of the rumors. “I’m a Phoenix Sun right now. This is my last year of my contract with the Phoenix Suns. I’m gonna keep playing here until somebody tells me otherwise.”
Who knows, P.J. might be able to net the Suns late first rounder in this deep draft, which they could use to parlay in other deals (like they did with the Keef, Mook, and IT picks to get Chriss, who was invited to the Rising Stars Challenge next month).
And even if that happens and P.J. gets a taste of the playoffs this spring, he could always still re-sign with the Suns this summer with even more knowledge and mentorship that includes playoff experience in his back pocket.