Lost amid the disappointment of this 21-win Suns season, perhaps the worst in franchise history, is the fact that things could have been very different had the Suns traded for Kyrie Irving last July.
Irving would have created a very different set of circumstances for the Suns. Not only was it striking just how putrid the Suns were this year as they became the first team in league history to finish 30th in both offensive and defensive efficiency, it was remarkable just how bald-faced the losing became. Tanking happens every year in a half-dozen NBA cities, but we rarely see a team blatantly decide to hide talent on the bench and choose not to improve their team in the manner of the Suns in 2018.
Several different packages were rumored in Irving trade talks, but regardless of how a deal went down, it would have improved the talent level on the team and blasted expectation into the atmosphere.
The final offer reported included Eric Bledsoe, Dragan Bender and this year’s Miami Heat pick (which we now know to be No. 16). The writing about Bledsoe’s unhappiness was already on the wall by that point -- he was as good as gone after the team benched him to finish out the best season of his career in 2016-17. He had value to Cleveland as a perfect point guard for a LeBron James offense and a Rich Paul client, but from the Suns’ perspective, grabbing Irving with Bledsoe as part of the package would have been a huge victory no matter what else was included. Bender and the pick were the biggest sacrifice Phoenix felt comfortable stomaching.
As is true for every team, there are certain lengths to which the Suns were willing to go following their interest in a personnel change. Josh Jackson and Devin Booker were off limits, and judging by their performances this season, maybe that’s for the best. Booker and Jackson together are under team control for potentially the next six seasons, whereas convincing Irving to remain in Phoenix after next year would have been a tall order.
Looking back on this season in which Bledsoe changed teams after all, Bender made substantial progress, and the Heat pick conveyed higher than most expected, what can we firmly say would have been different for the Irving-led Suns in this alternate reality?
A more balanced rotation
Take a look at who didn’t play for the Suns this year, rather than who did -- Jared Dudley, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler were Nos. 8, 9 and 10 in minutes played this season. If the team had been competitive (and never traded for Greg Monroe), those three would have been more involved, as the playoffs remained within sight deep into February or March.
Outside youngsters like Shaquille Harrison and Isaiah Canaan, it was indeed Dudley in the end who led the team in total plus-minus after being the catalyst so often for comeback runs throughout the year. Dudley was third in that stat for Milwaukee in 2014-15, and third for Washington in 2015-16. When he is on the court for a competitive team, good things have happened over the course of Dudley’s career.
One could say the same about Chandler, who revitalized a hapless Mavericks team during his return there in 2015-16 and was solid for the Suns the last two seasons.
Len finally showed out as a real rotation player after a taking a qualifying offer last year. He was basically on the ropes of his NBA career and turned it around, likely setting himself up for a payday from a good team in July.
The Suns may not have been a great team, with so little time to add other veteran pieces considering Irving asked to be traded so late in the summer, but with good players earning more minutes, the Suns would have unquestionably been more competitive.
Earl Watson lasts the whole season
Watson’s abysmal effort as a tactician and schemer clearly made the Suns’ offense worse, though in the end it was likely the team’s lack of defensive effort that stole Watson’s job. While Irving would have done little to individually enhance the team’s defense, simply having experienced competitors on the court for a greater chunk of the minutes would have likely preserved Watson’s job through at least this season.
For one, Irving dancing in isolation with the spacing provided by having Chandler, Dudley and Booker on the court could have moved the Suns into at least the top 20 in offense. Cleveland had the No. 24 offense in Irving’s rookie season before moving to 19 the next year. Even then, Irving had few weapons at his disposal, and none at the level of Booker.
Playing for a coach like Watson who allowed isolation possessions to dominate his offense, Irving would have roamed free. He ranked in the 84th percentile as an isolation player this season with Boston, according to NBA.com data. The Celtics space the floor and make smarter decisions without the ball than the Suns’ youngsters, but Irving’s performance put him above great iso scorers like DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James.
Playing a slightly more balanced game than the last few seasons in Cleveland, Irving’s 30.7 assist percentage (the percentage of made baskets that he assisted while on the court) would have been the Suns’ best mark this year. He is a match made in heaven for Booker -- a guy who can handle the bulk of the scoring load and create open jump shots for Booker.
By giving the Suns more to play for and ultimately changing the complexion of the lineup, Irving would have raised the Suns’ defensive ceiling while simultaneously taking their offense to another level as an individual scorer and playmaker.
Devin Booker looks even better
During Elfrid Payton’s first two weeks in Phoenix, Booker looked refreshed, a sign that perhaps he still was not ready for the first option role he seized hold of for the Suns after Watson was fired. While he carried the Suns to some impressive victories (Washington and Philadelphia on the road, Oklahoma City at home), he often finished those games completely spent.
On nights that didn’t end in victory, things sometimes spun out of control for the third-year star. With Payton next to him, Booker took more spot-up 3s, scored more efficiently and was able to play a more balanced game.
As I mentioned in our season-end stock report podcast, if we break down the Suns’ defensive matchups by opposing players’ Offensive Real Plus-Minus, we see that it was Booker who most often guarded the opponents’ best offensive player. Giving Booker less offensive responsibility and putting a decent defender next to him made life easier on both ends.
Irving is a fine on-ball defender when he puts effort in, and at least represents an upgrade over the likes of Tyler Ulis, Mike James and Isaiah Canaan. His offense would have eased Booker’s load to an even greater degree than Payton could.
On a more competitive team in a more efficient offensive situation, I think we would have looked back on this Booker season feeling better about his overall value.
The Suns still miss the playoffs
Alas, if we use Irving’s second season in Cleveland as a template (Chandler as Anderson Varejao, Booker as Dion Waiters, Dudley as C.J. Miles, a young supporting cast that overachieves) but adjust for Irving’s improvement, you’re probably still looking at a 30-ish win team.
The Suns would have played meaningful games later in the season, but an Irving trade so late in the summer would have restricted their ability to further improve the team and left them relying on young players. That Cavs team won 24 games -- how much better could the Suns have expected to be?
Looking further into the future, the Suns would have also added about $9 million in salary for next season, limiting their flexibility this summer as well. The Heat pick would belong to Cleveland, while the Suns’ own pick would be a little deeper in the lottery in a draft heavy at the top.
Yet another important metric -- attendance, or fan engagement, or whatever you call a city of 1.6 million people actually giving a crap about their basketball team as it celebrates its 50th anniversary -- would have surely ticked upward. That’s tough to undersell.
The Suns’ horrible performance this year clouds our judgment of what could have been. When a team is not putting its best players on the court consistently or running a system that maximizes the talents of its most effective guys, what do we really know about that team?
Boston decided, after passing on Jimmy Butler and Paul George, that Irving was worth finally using the best collection of tradable assets in the league. The Suns are at a different point, with maybe only one or two scuba dives into the trade waters available to them based on what they have to offer.
But in an alternate reality, a team led by Irving and veterans would have won many more games and changed the franchise’s trajectory in Phoenix. They are still searching for the answer Irving might have provided last August.