The NBA’s trade deadline at midday on February 23, 2017 is fast approaching. The Phoenix Suns (17-38, last in the Western Conference) play only two more games - at home on Monday and Wednesday - before an eight-day All-Star break.
While some of the Suns youngest players get to frolic and hobnob with the game’s best as part of All-Star Weekend (Devin Booker - Rising Stars and Skills, Marquese Chriss - Rising Stars, Derrick Jones Jr. - Slam Dunk), the rest of the roster gets an opportunity to decompress and rejuvenate for the final stretch of the season.
For the 7th straight season, there won’t be any playoffs in April. What was once as common as cacti, sand and rock, the franchise’s playoff reality is now a mirage.
How did the Suns get here?
- No star power: When Steve Nash retired in 2012 (let me have this one) two years after Amare Stoudemire took all the guaranteed Knicks money, the Suns were left without any stars. They treaded water for years, finishing just outside the playoffs and earning the unsatisfying 13th or 14th pick in the draft six out of seven times from 2009-2015 for their troubles. Drafting there almost certainly doesn’t get you a star (yes, stars were available in some of those years, but the odds are near-zero).
- Bad front office moves: Since Steve Kerr and David Griffin left in June 2010, the Suns have shown an maddening inability to string good moves together and/or find gems and/or keep them. For each each good move, a bad one followed to more than offset it.
Combining lack of talent with lack of team-building moxie is a dreadful concoction.
As a result, the seventh year of the seven-year playoff drought promises to leave the league’s fourth-winningest franchise in their worst position yet: dead last in the West.
Over the next 11 days - almost certainly on deadline day itself - the Suns’ longest-tenured GM since Bryan Colangelo gets one more shot to build a cohesive future for the franchise.
Ryan McDonough is finishing his 4th season at the helm, and reportedly has at least at least one more season under contract to go (the entire front office reportedly got extensions in summer 2015 as Lon Babby pulled back into a part-time role).
McDonough’s four seasons are already longer than any of his predecessors under owner Robert Sarver (BC - 2 seasons, Mike D’Antoni - 1 season, Steve Kerr - 3 seasons, Lance Blanks - 3 seasons).
If he wants to last more than five years on the job (there’s NO way I see him getting let go this summer), he’s going to have to nail this trade deadline and upcoming NBA Draft.
Anyone using a macro vision could see that the Suns failed to build from the middle out, and that now they must build from the bottom up.
The Suns have the makings of a new core for the future in Devin Booker (potential All-Star) and teenagers Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, plus this summer’s Top-5 pick.
If the Suns can glean a pair of All-Stars out of those four, the future could then focus on building the proper supporting parts around them.
On opening day of the 2017-18 season, the Suns have a clear chance to trot out a pair of potential All-Star talents. The remaining question is who that second All-Star will be, and how long it will take for that player to reach All-Star status.
Is it a rapidly developing Chriss or Bender? Or maybe a Nerlens Noel?
Or is it 2017 Draft Pick (Fulz, Ball, Jackson, Isaac, etc.)?
Or is it an All-Star talent from another team, finally acquired with the Suns’ cache of assets (ripe high-yield draft picks and youth, plus Warren, Len, and others)? Someone like Jimmy Butler or DeMarcus Cousins?
That’s why the trade deadline in 11 days is so important.
The Suns HAVE to come out of that day with a marginally clearer view of the future.
Tripling down on "young"
National observers chuckle when Suns fans say their team is so young, even while acknowledging the Suns are starting 19 and 20-year olds, plus bringing another teenager off the bench.
They laugh because they see 30-somethings Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker getting 30 minutes a night, with 30-somethings Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa frequently playing key roles.
They laugh because they see mid-career under-promoted star Eric Bledsoe out of place among the super-young and super-old, and because they really no longer see T.J. Warren (23), Alex Len (23) and Brandon Knight (25) as "young". Even Alan Williams (24) was referred to as a ‘veteran’ the other day.
The easiest road to travel these next four days is to continue the youth movement, especially as the season is now winding down and next year will bring a new dawn.
Acquiring that elusive All-Star right now
McDonough has been amassing assets for years to acquire that All-Star talent the team needs to sell tickets and win games.
Dumping everything for a DeMarcus Cousins or Jimmy Butler. Cousins or Butler would pair with Bledsoe to suddenly give the Suns a playoff-worthy team for 2017-18 - though it’s too late this year.
But here’s the problem I see with this deal - it would require the Suns to include their top 2017 pick, which promises to be a Top-5 pick if not Top-2. Why not wait until summer to make that big trade for an All-Star, AFTER you know what you’re getting in the draft?
Potential trade-deadline strategies
The Suns can go several ways next week. Let’s explore the "themes" they can follow.
Focused on keeping current core together and adding Draft Pick this summer:
- P.J. Tucker and/or Jared Dudley to a playoff team for a low-first or a pair of seconds
- Alex Len to another team for an even younger player, before he hits RFA status in two months and wants a big contract
- Brandon Knight to someone for a 2020 second round pick
You know you’re not going to give Alex Len 20-million to back up Chandler next season. Watson is right that the league is going too small to have TWO traditional centers in the rotation. And Chandler, no matter what you might think, is not going anywhere. He just sprained an ankle this week, so he’s not even a healthy trade piece even if the Suns wanted to trade him (which they don’t).
This would be the prior option PLUS going even bigger
- Bledsoe to a playoff team for even more picks/youth. One idea: The Bulls really need a lead guard, for example. The Suns could potentially acquire pick(s) plus a Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and/or Denzel Valentine who can’t quite fit into the rotation.
Trading Bledsoe, plus Tucker/Dudley, Len and Knight, would signal an all-in movement at least until summer to ensure the highest pick possible and laser-focus on Booker et al for the future.
- DeMarcus Cousins to the Suns for whatever the Kings want - 2017 Draft Pick, 2018 first (Miami), 2021 first (Miami), Warren, Len, Chriss/Bender
- Jimmy Butler to the Suns for a smaller package than Cousins would require, but still likely 2017 Draft Pick, Warren (to replace Butler in their lineup) and others.
Acquiring Cousins or Butler would mean the Suns are shooting for relevancy, which would mean keeping Dudley, Tucker, Chandler, Barbosa, Bledsoe, and maybe even Knight around for the longer haul while they position for the playoffs in 2017-18.
Left field - more high-yield young players
- Acquire Andrew Wiggins (21 years old) from the disappointing Timberwolves for Eric Bledsoe. Tom Thibodeau really wants to win games, and playing a trio of 21-year olds in Wiggins, Towns and LaVine have made that very difficult. He also has seen he can’t win with Rubio and/or rookie Kris Dunn yet. But after LaVine busted his knee last week, this potential trade might be deader than it already was.
- Acquire Nerlens Noel (22) from the Sixers. Both Noel and Len will be RFAs this summer. Noel just might garner a max offer from some team that wants to ignore his injury history and pay him based on age (still 22) and upside as an anchor in today’s switch-everything NBA. The Sixers, knowing Embiid is the true future at center, won’t want to match that offer and might trade him now to avoid losing him for noting. If the Suns acquired Noel, they would be committing to re-sign him at top dollar. But, in a perfect world, he would theoretically fit very well with Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker as the athletic defender they will need to succeed, while Alex Len has not shown that same potential. What would the Sixers need in return? Maybe a pick swap in 2017, guaranteeing the Sixers the highest possible chance at drafting their PG of the future? Maybe add in T.J. Warren? I dunno. Seems like a risky proposition but it should be considered.
What say you, Suns fans? Which of these is the most likely outcome on February 23?