When the dust had settled just past 1 p.m. Phoenix time on Thursday, the Phoenix Suns had used the trade deadline to do the most Phoenix Suns things possible — save money and deal a fan favorite.
Phoenix dealt perennial Dan Majerle Hustle Award winner P.J. Tucker to the Toronto Raptors for Jared Sullinger, Toronto’s own 2nd round picks in 2017 and 2018, which figure to fall in the 48-55 range, and cash considerations. Phoenix also dealt its own top-55 protected 2017 2nd round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Mike Scott, the rights to Turkish guard Cenk Akyol, and cash considerations. Keep in mind, though, the protections on that 2nd rounder surrendered to Atlanta are so onerous that the chances of it conveying are about as good as NASA scientists not only discovering life on one of those seven Earth-like planets just discovered orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1 but also seeing that life waving back at us as it sails above its alien world in a hang glider.
So that’s it. After all the rumors, Phoenix’s deadline haul was a couple players they’ll waive, a couple low 2nd rounders, the rights to a player never coming to the NBA, and cash. And all it cost them was the longest-tenured and hardest-working Sun on the roster.
“I’d be lying if I said this wasn't a tough day for me,” Tucker told Doug Haller of azcentral.com shortly before leaving for Toronto. “I dropped some tears. Phoenix changed my life. All the people here, all the fans, I couldn’t ask for a better place or organization. It’s been my family for the last five or six years. I’m so grateful about getting the opportunity and what they’ve done for me.
“It’s always nice to hear about people wanting you and (possibly) trading for you, but when it actually happens, it’s a whole different feeling that comes over you. I can’t do nothing but express my gratitude (to Phoenix).”
The news wasn’t just a blow to Tucker; it also landed as a blow to his teammates. Before the trade news came down, Eric Bledsoe told Haller that “I don’t want to lose him. He’s one of the hardest-working competitors I’ve ever played with.” Devin Booker was even less ready, reportedly telling Tucker he knew the veteran wouldn’t be traded just seconds before Tucker was informed.
Here’s Jared Dudley on twitter minutes after the news broke.
Tucker was Phoenix’s best defender this season despite losing a step over the years, which admittedly sounds like a backhanded compliment considering the sad state of affairs that constitutes the Suns’ defense. It’s not. Tucker was the strongest link in the chain, but when the other four links in that chain are nothing more than bread bag twist ties, very little can be done to improve the overall integrity of the system.
Tucker had also appeared in every game for the Suns in 2016-17, joining Marquese Chriss as the only players to do so. It wasn’t an easy 57 games to play, either, fighting like mad to return from back surgery in September to play in the season opener a little over a month later because he cared that much. He leaves ranked 20th in Suns history for games played, 18th for minutes played, 18th for total rebounds, 15th for made 3-pointers, and 14th for steals.
But why was it necessary to trade Tucker, a respected teammate and valued locker room presence, if this was the result? The Suns did not need to consummate the Tucker deal to reach the salary floor; the Scott and Ronnie Price (signed for the remainder of the season) deals alone could have done that.
The argument has been made that the Suns risked losing Tucker for nothing in free agency, but Tucker had given no indication he was unhappy in Phoenix or that he wouldn’t be open to re-signing over the summer. Was the opportunity to sift through end-of-the-draft talent with Toronto’s picks too tantalizing for Phoenix to risk letting him walk for nothing? Was it worth losing the passion and impact he brought to game and practice alike to potentially draft the next Alton Ford or Alec Brown? Just because it’s common to move expiring contracts for assets doesn’t make it the right move in every instance.
The move also doesn’t do much to free up time for younger players. Tucker was averaging 28.5 minutes per game with the Suns, but it is hard to envision a scenario where veteran Jared Dudley doesn’t just re-acquire most of his lost time, especially with Dragan Bender out. Head coach Earl Watson has yet to prove he can put development ahead of the pursuit of winning for any length of time. If he could, Tucker’s minutes would have been closer to 20 per game in February instead of 30.3.
And if the Tucker move was made as part of a greater effort to hamper their ability to win games and solidify a high draft pick, then Tyson Chandler would be gone, too. Surely a top-10 rebounder in Phoenix’s starting lineup will also contribute to winning games and could command a haul of below-average 2nd round picks on the open market.
The logic behind moving Tucker is sound in theory, but it breaks down when he is the only player moved and moved for pieces that could just as easily be bought during the draft. This trade was, in a word, baffling, and here’s hoping GM Ryan McDonough bothers to explain the rationale behind it at some point.
It will be weird to watch the Phoenix Suns and not see No. 17 out there scrapping for rebounds or getting under the skin of opponents, but at least Tucker will get to taste playoff basketball with the Raptors. Back in Phoenix, the burden will now fall to others to pick up the slack defensively and effort-wise, and we will see who, if anyone, is capable of filling that void now that Tucker is gone.
As for McDonough, he removed a single log from the dammed up river and received a couple meager assets in return. He didn’t full-on commit to “tanking” to stave off hard-charging teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. He didn’t acquire useful talent for either this season or beyond. He didn’t even rid the team of long-term salary obligations. All he did was save Sarver some money and ship out one of the few players who could be counted on to play hard every night.
As far as trade deadlines go, this one won’t feature prominently on McDonough’s résumé.