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It will take a stroke of luck, but here’s how the Suns’ assets could lead them into a Celtics-like overhaul 11 years later

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If Phoenix actually wants to make an aggressive ascent up the Western Conference next season, emptying their war chest of assets would result in the end of #TheTimeline. What could that create?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the summer of 2007, current Suns general manager Ryan McDonough was helping his boss Danny Ainge facilitate the biggest overhaul in NBA history. Overnight, the Boston Celtics went from a lottery team ready to bottom out for good and transformed into one with a +42 improvement in wins.

Eleven years later, Ainge’s protege sits nestled in a familiar position.

Phoenix just bottomed out, but they also have flexibility to go into many different directions. Whether it’s sticking with this young core and playing the long-term game or tearing its foundation down with an immediate playoff rise, everything is on the table this summer.

If the Suns landed Mike Budenholzer, David Fizdale, or any other top-tier coaching candidate as their leader moving forward, this type of avenue to turn to wouldn’t be shocking.

I’m an advocate of #TheTimeline myself, but this is just one scenario that could actually happen this summer. Both Kawhi Leonard and Kemba Walker will be the two top names on the market, as were Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen over a decade prior.

The likely choice of action, and the smartest one, for this team is sticking with their young core and adding their final foundational piece at the top of this year’s draft. Then, this summer and beyond the team will require win-now talent around them to help their ascent up the standings.

However, today is not that day to talk about ideal courses. We’re taking the super aggressive approach because this could be on the table. Might as well cover all turns in case we are thrown a major curveball this summer.

As we stand right now in mid-April, Leonard and the Spurs’ relationship seems to be reaching its end. Leonard is still rehabbing in New York instead of being with his teammates supporting them against Golden State, but head coach Gregg Popovich’s comments recently seem to indicate never ending friction.

If they are only communicating through the media and backchannels between Spurs and Leonard’s officials, that’s not good at all. That seems to signal the beginning of the end to me, so this could lead us toward another summer full of drama like we had with Kyrie Irving.

Then, add Mitch Kupchak’s hire in Charlotte as Michael Jordan retools things around with the Hornets. Could this hire lead to a full-scale rebuild towards future contention 2-3 years from now? It seems like the best course for a franchise that’s been stuck in neutral throughout Walker’s career.

Now, that there seems to be two All-Stars who are closing on teams ready to field offers for both around June and July. Phoenix will likely be linked to them early and often, as they are one of few teams outside of Boston who can have ample flexibility to play with.

Even the players on the Suns now expect some movement. Jared Dudley said at exit interviews that he expects plenty of changes, as did Devin Booker earlier on a 98.7 radio spot. If they expect what’s incoming, then we should plan for whatever options are scattered across their board right now.

Booker is an ultra competitive person. He even put the pressure on himself Wednesday to never miss the playoffs from here on throughout his career. That’s a tall task, especially heading into the 2018-19 campaign with a young core around him, but as we know that can change immediately in this league.

Well, let’s step into this realm of possibility as the Suns land at No. 1 in next month’s Draft Lottery. Kicking off this scenario’s domino effect, it leads toward Phoenix selecting Arizona big man Deandre Ayton, although he is No. 2 overall on my board.

With Ayton and Booker secured, where do the Suns go from there May-July? Well, they could then look toward this model Ainge followed in Boston as they faltered for a year around Paul Pierce, but immediately brought him help with two other future Hall of Famers.

It would take Leonard demanding a trade, which actually seems likely at this point if they can’t resolve anything soon, but this model could send us into overdrive if the Suns want to achieve easily a +20 turnaround, let alone likely eclipsing 50 wins.

On the topic of Budenholzer, an Arizona native, I was doing some research and it turns out he was the one who helped convinced Popovich to pull the trigger on trading George Hill. It was one of toughest decisions he had to endure, but Budenholzer was a big believer in Leonard, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It led Budenholzer developing Leonard his first two seasons, which happened during the lockout as well. He has an affinity for The Klaw, but does he have a similar feeling towards Jackson? Who knows, but we see the history between them already.

If he asked out, the Suns should absolutely try to trade for Leonard if they know he will sign an extension here. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

This would immediately create a winning environment, but we still haven’t even discussed what domino would occur before Leonard and that’s making a draft night move for Walker.

Below, I’m going to run through my most plausible option on both of these trades, including how I would structure this roster with the salary cap + CBA in mind.

Suns receive: Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams, No. 55 pick (via Cleveland)

Hornets receive: T.J. Warren, Troy Daniels, Jared Dudley, No. 16 pick, 2020 1st (lottery protected)

Suns receive: Kawhi Leonard

Spurs receive: Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss / Dragan Bender, No. 31 pick, No. 59 pick, 2019 1st via Milwaukee, unprotected 2019 1st, unprotected 2021 1st via Miami

Why would both teams do this? Well, from the Charlotte perspective, it’s a deal that rewards them with flexibility they desperately desire. After trading Marvin Williams alongside Walker, Charlotte now has an extra long-term contract off their books.

Instead of Williams, they have Warren locked in for five years as their small forward as they look to then move on immediately from Nicolas Batum. For Charlotte as well, Daniels and Dudley are valuable expiring chips they can use later on or keep as veterans to let go of after a year for extra cap room.

Also, the Hornets are now in possession of two picks in the top 16. This allows them to retool on the fly with younger pieces and allow themselves to bottom out for a season to reign in a top five selection in 2019.

I don’t think this specific deal gets done without another sweetener being thrown in, which would be a protected 1st coming from Phoenix in 2020.

I have a hard time seeing how the Hornets would say no, especially if it came on the clock June 21.

Let’s remember that if Leonard asked out, it would be even more of a trading frenzy than Irving ever was. His two-way value is way more, but it could be hampered by this season alongside the lack of commitment, if that plays a role.

Not only would Phoenix be in this race, but I imagine teams like the Celtics, Lakers, and Clippers would be as well. However, I can’t really think of many options that could appeal San Antonio outside of those four mentioned.

San Antonio tried to move up themselves for Jackson near the draft by dangling LaMarcus Aldridge, but the Suns wouldn’t bite then. However, would San Antonio bite if Phoenix offered them Jackson for their disgruntled superstar? It’s possible, because that report could signal a possible preference over other young wings like Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, but it’s impossible to tell from the outside looking into the Spurs right now.

This deal would allow San Antonio to not go into the cellar of wins and losses, but actually stay afloat. I’m a big proponent of Jackson taking another step next year and I 100% bet he would under Popovich. Also, if they were to get their hands on whoever they preferred between Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, they likely turn productive immediately, too.

Outside of those two proponents, mainly Jackson, it would be selling them on unprotected draft capital. They can throw in multiple second round pick this year, but the main hinge rests upon the 2021 Miami pick they acquired from the Goran Dragic trade.

Phoenix seems to covet that unprotected asset as its superstar chip, which should be pushed in for a player of Leonard’s caliber. San Antonio would also be able to pry out another unprotected first from this incoming bidding war, so throwing them a 2019 1st shouldn’t scare the Suns off if they plan on finishing with around 50 wins.

Also, it’s fair to point out why I would move so much for Leonard. Well, it’s actually easy. It’s because he’s a superstar and other wings moved recently like Paul George and Jimmy Butler aren’t on his level.

When healthy, Leonard is a top five player in this league. I’m taking my chances on that if it ever became available, especially if I already had two formidable pieces locked in via the draft like Booker and now Ayton.

Stick with me here, because then you would have to decline Alan Williams’ team option but he would have to once again restructure his deal at a way cheaper amount than $5 million to stay on this version of the roster. Lets say the Phoenix, Arizona native does so he will play behind Ayton and Chandler.

After renouncing the rights on contracts like Alex Len, Elfrid Payton, Shaquille Harrison, and Tyler Ulis, Phoenix would then have around $10.5 million, including the mid-level exception, in cap space to work with to sign critical pieces to round out their second unit.

Entering a summer where the market is expected to be tight on budgets, this could be the ideal time to find 2-3 pieces on below value deals.

Candidates for those types of deals include ones who can shoot and play defense, but fit into at least one category.

Even if the Suns brought back one of Ulis or Harrison and Reed, that should still allow flexibility. And that would then create a 17-man roster (House/Reed, 2nd round pick on 2-way deals) that goes a solid 10-12 deep in production.

That signals not only a drastic turnaround, maybe not to Celtics-like quality, but it’s very close in terms of possible win-loss differences.

PG: Walker, Knight, Ulis/Harrison

SG: Booker, Ellington (MLE), House/Reed

SF: Leonard, McDermott, Mbah a Moute

PF: Chriss/Bender, M. Williams, Peters

C: Ayton, Chandler, A. Williams (restructured contract)

2 way: House/Reed, No. 55 pick

Starters: Walker, Booker, Leonard, Bender, Ayton

Bench Mob: Knight, Harrison, Ellington, House/Reed, McDermott, Mbah a Moute, M. Williams, A. Williams

Phoenix would be pushing right along the luxury tax line, but no need to fret because the following summer all of these contracts wash off their books: Chandler, Ulis/Harrison, Peters, Reed/House, and other FA’s they might sign to 1-year deals (see J.J. Redick in Philadelphia).

That opens up enough space to continue adding in depth with Warriors-like cheap veteran deals alongside late draft picks moving forward.

After Booker signs his extension this summer, if all goes to plan Leonard and Walker would sign theirs before even having a chance to enter free agency. By that time, McDonough and Co. would hope that a likely top 5 seed in the Western Conference alongside smooth sailing operationally keeping that foursome together (Booker, Kawhi, Kemba, Ayton) signals imminent long-term stability.

If there’s even some chance that both Leonard and Walker stay past 2018-19, I believe you pull the trigger on this but, again, it’s if the dominoes fell perfectly their way from an asset capital standpoint.

You could sell not only Leonard and Walker on staying around this for the long haul, but Booker as well. Not only would he consistently be making the playoffs every year, but there’s high-end upside of title contention quickly if Ayton is legitimate and Booker takes another superstar type of leap.

When looking ahead two years from now, would you bet against a Booker-Leonard-Ayton-Walker core? Not me, especially if the Warriors reach their crescendo and split ways like all dynasties do eventually.

If McDonough wants to swing for the fences like Ainge did to lead Boston to its first championship in 22 years, why not go all-in on something like this? Not only would the Suns maintain two young pieces in Booker and Ayton, but two win-now stars who will help push them towards immediate victories.

Automatically, the Suns went from a nobody to somebody in one summer. Let’s see if McDonough chooses this path or something different, as Bright Side of the Sun will cover all routes leading up toward the new league year on July 1.

Attached our screenshots of how the salary cap for Phoenix would look after each step in this plan {2017-18 season, Draft (Kemba trade), Post 7/1 {Kawhi trade)}. Special thanks goes out to David Nash, @TheIVpointplay, for helping make these graphics and spreadsheets for this piece.

Poll

Would you be in favor of this scenario occurring?

This poll is closed

  • 61%
    Yes, that’s an immediate contender
    (616 votes)
  • 38%
    No, stick with #TheTimeline
    (378 votes)
994 votes total Vote Now