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Suns have got to add high caliber veteran this summer

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns have just landed the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft and will enter the 2018-19 season with Ayton/Doncic (20/19 years old) joining Devin Booker (21) and Josh Jackson (21) to form a very talented but very young team.

Does that equate to winning games?

The Los Angeles Clippers had Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan all 22 and under, but didn’t start winning a lot of games until they replaced one of them (Gordon) with All-Star Chris Paul.

The Minnesota Timberwolves had Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach Lavine and Andrew Wiggins, but didn’t come close to a winning record until they replaced one of them (Lavine) with All-Star Jimmy Butler.

On the other hand, the Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors just needed a year or two of incubation with their cores before they started winning on an annual basis.

What should the Suns do?

“We targeted a three year window for rebuilding,” McDonough said after the Igor Kokoskov presser earlier this week. “It’s been painful, but the three years is up and we’re going to make some moves to bring in some veterans and help the team hopefully take a big step next year.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that happens.”

After adding this year’s top overall pick to Devin Booker and Josh Jackson, should the Suns count on supplementary moves around TopPick/Booker/Jackson new coach Igor Kokoskov to see what happens?

Or should the Suns go all in and trade one of those three right now for a high-value veteran?

I think all of us would swap Josh Jackson for a healthy Kawhi Leonard, for example. Even though Kawhi has only one year left on his contract. Imagine Kawhi, Ayton and Booker playing together under Igor for year — don’t you think Kawhi would stay in Phoenix long term? I do.

And most of us would swap the #1 overall pick for Anthony Davis, or maybe even Karl-Anthony Towns.

But would you trade Booker, Jackson or the top overall pick for a Jimmy Butler “type” who is not a top-10 NBA player, but still an All-Star?

You: “I don’t know, Dave, but I’m down for whatever gets the Suns to 50 wins by 2019-20 at latest because I’m sick and tired of watching a losing team”.

I agree. That’s a great answer, you. And it’s my answer too.

Whether the Suns continue their incubation period, or jumpstart the process by swapping one of their top players for an All-Star caliber veteran right now, the right decision is the one that leads to winning the most basketball games.

And to do that, the Suns young players need to learn how to win, much like 20 year olds Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have learned to win under Brad Stevens.

“We have to create a healthy environment,” Kokoskov said of his future coaching staff and other supporting staff they will hire in the coming weeks.

A trusted NBA person made a really astute observation when the Suns hired Igor Kokoskov — he said Igor’s biggest challenge is teaching the Suns young players, especially Devin Booker, the difference between playing basketball and winning basketball.

In Booker’s three years in the NBA, he’s only won 68 of 246 games for a meager 27% winning percentage.

In that time, Booker has been excellent. He’s even won a handful of those game single-handedly with buzzer-beaters. He’s set league and franchise records for single-quarter scoring, including the fourth quarter. You can’t watch Booker closely and conclude it’s his fault the Suns lose games.

But Booker is not consistently playing winning basketball. No one on the Suns is.

During the Boston-Philly series earlier this month, Celtics coach Brad Stevens regularly reminded his players “to keep hitting singles” to chip away at early Sixer leads and stop trying for “home runs”. Over the years, Gregg Popovich reminds his players the same. I remember a mic’d up playoff game against the Suns in 2008 where he told his players to “calm down, no one’s ever won a game in the second quarter” and how the NBA games “is supposed to hard!”

Igor cannot do it all by himself. He needs help, and he needs it in the form of a high-value veteran or two who play the right way all game long.

I’m not talking about Jared Dudley or Tyson Chandler, bless their hearts. It can’t be a player on the tail end of his career, who can’t play every game all game at a high level. It can’t be a fringe guy either, or a guy on the near end of his career. The fact that the only real contenders for the Dan Majerle Hustle Award last season were a rookie (Jackson) and a G-league callup (Shaquille Harrison) should be embarrassing to the team.

I’m talking about a high-level player. Someone who plays 30+ minutes every night and is among the team’s most productive players. Someone who has been in a winning culture and can help Igor and the coaching staff implement discipline and maximum effort in their schemes.

The Warriors have star power with Steph and Klay, but are buoyed by Swiss Army knives Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. The Rockets have James Harden and Clint Capela, but wouldn’t win as much without Chris Paul and the likes of Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

GM Ryan McDonough has said several times this spring that the Suns will have a major roster turnover this summer. That he knows the Suns can’t go into next season with SO many young players and no playable veterans.

“We are going to be aggressive,” McDonough says.

Kokoskov’s work with the young players over the next month will make a big difference in exactly what changes will happen.

“The immediate work will be important,” McDonough said. “Having Igor get his hands on [the young Suns players like Booker, Jackson, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender], hopefully we will have the coaching staff in place in the next few weeks here and be able to have them have at least a full month or so to work with the guys before we have to make some tough decisions, because most of that will come between the draft and the start of free agency.

“[Igor’s] initial read will be important to us, and that will factor into our decision-making process as far as who to keep and who might not make it.”

They have a lot of assets to build around Devin Booker and the top overall pick.

“We want to make it easier on you,” McDonough says of his message to Devin Booker since the end of the season.

McDonough has already said he has no plans to trade the #1 overall pick for an established NBA player, unless that player is young and has years of salary control ahead of him. So, no Kawhi or Kyrie. Maybe if Karl-Anthony Towns is available suddenly?

But short of Towns or Davis, you will see Booker and the #1 overall pick in Phoenix Suns uniforms for the next decade or more.

“It would be hard for us to trade Devin or Josh or our pick,” McDonough said, “But we’re open with a lot of different avenues, a lot of different possibilities.”

Let’s run down the assets the Suns have to supplement those two potential stars?

  • #16 pick (Miami) this year
  • #31 pick this year
  • 2019/20 Bucks pick (protected to 1-7 and 17-30 in 2019, 1-7 in 2020)
  • 2021 Miami pick (unprotected)
  • 2019-to-forever Suns picks
  • T.J. Warren (NBA starter or sixth man, still just 25 years old on a great contract)
  • Marquese Chriss (2016 #8 pick)
  • Dragan Bender (2016 #4 pick)
  • Josh Jackson (2017 #4 pick)
  • half-dozen non-guaranteed contracts other teams can release to create cap space or reduce their luxury tax burden
  • up to $18 million in cap space without needing trades to dump more salary

Free agency

For the rest of this article, let’s focus on the $18 million available in cap space, assuming the Suns release all their non-guaranteed players and renounce Alex Len and Elfrid Payton.

“We are not going to be reckless with it,” McDonough said. “At the same time, the ability to add to our team without trading our draft picks or young players is intriguing.”

Recent rumor had it the Suns want to spend their money a talented young restricted free agent like Clint Capela or Aaron Gordon. If they take Luka Doncic #1 overall, one or both of these guys could be a target.

But neither of those players are the high-caliber veteran of which I speak. They play well and can be highly productive next to Booker, Jackson and the top pick, but neither of them is a guy who will facilitate a real culture change on the team.

And it would take more than $18 million to get either of them to sign an offer sheet anyway.

Restricted free agents who could likely be signed with that $18 million include the likes of former #2 overall pick Jabari Parker, or the Lakers’ Julius Randle. But neither of these guys would change the Suns culture, per se.

Moving on.

Unrestricted free agents Tyreke Evans, J.J. Redick Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Will Barton, Milos Teodosic, among others, could all be good Suns fits and highly productive (to varying degrees). But none of these guys would transform the Suns culture. It would be fun to see Milos’ passes to set up easy scores for the young horses, for example, but none of these guys would make the Suns a threat to win 50 games next season or the season after that.

Who can the Suns add this summer that could help shift and develop the Suns culture in a way that can support Igor Kokoskov’s schemes and enhance the effectiveness of Booker, Jackson and the top overall pick (DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic)?

LeBron James

Duh. It’s not going to happen, despite the Suns having an “in” with one of the King’s best teammates trying to sell him on the desert. And despite the King looking at the future of the Cavs getting worse and worse.

But would the Suns sit around and wait for James to decide his future?

“In late June, we will have to take a read,” McDonough said. “I think we will make an earlier call than we have in the past. In 2014, we would have waited until late September if that’s what [LeBron] wanted.

“It’s less likely [for the Suns to wait] if a guy wants to take a week, week-and-a-half,” McDonough said. “We’ll make some calls out of the gate. If it’s realistic, no it’s not, then who is Plan B and how do we kind of move down the line quickly.”

I listed LBJ because that’s how this article is angled. I’m not just looking for productivity. I’m looking for culture shift. You can bet that if LBJ joined the Suns, the young team would win 50 games and be a threat against anyone, and their level of professionalism would rise exponentially over the next season.

Please note that from here on, the rest of these guys would only be targets depending on who the Suns take in the draft. If they draft Luka Doncic, you won’t see Chris Paul in a Suns uniform even if he called Sarver himself. But if they draft one of the big men, Paul, Bradley or Smart would be great free agent targets.

Chris Paul

(if the Suns take Ayton)

Same as LBJ in terms of culture shift, but only slightly more attainable. Meaning, 2% chance instead of 0.5%. Don’t hold your breath for a two percent chance.

Chris Paul would change the Suns culture for sure. Maturity, professionalism and productivity would all go through the roof. Booker, Jackson, Chriss, Bender and Top4 would all progress under Paul’s leadership on and off the court. They would mature or be beheaded. One of the two.

But that’s the last time I mention Chris Paul, despite him being a free agent this summer. He’s not coming to Phoenix.

Michael Beasley

lol jkjk

DeAndre Jordan

(if the Suns take Doncic)

Jordan isn’t a pure leader, but his incredibly massive presence in the middle of the Suns defense would change the culture in a positive way for sure.

Jordan would give the Suns one of the best defenders in the game, as well as one of the most aesthetically pleasing players to play in a Suns uniform in a decade. Highlight reel blocks and dunks would bring the crowd to their feet a few times every game, and his workmanlike rebounding and post defense would help the Suns become a top-10 defense for the first time since, what, the Kidd days?

It’s possible that Jordan could follow the J.J. Redick and LeBron James model of signing a two-year deal with a player option for big money, saving the Suns from a long-term albatross and giving Jordan a chance to control his destiny if Phoenix isn’t where he wants to retire.

If the market completely dries up and Jordan finds himself unsigned in mid-July, he might take a Suns offer of $18 million for one year with a second-year player option, and get himself back on the market when more teams have money a year from now.

Derrick Favors

Favors fits the same narrative as DeAndre Jordan, just without the flash. Plus, he could play alongside Ayton for stretches rather than having to split center minutes. So with Favors it doesn’t matter if the Suns take Ayton or Doncic (though it’s a cleaner fit if the Suns take Doncic).

Favors won’t bring the crowds to their feet, but he could help the Suns change their culture by deploying a Top-10 defense because he’s still one of the best defenders in the game. Favors has been minimized a bit in recent years by Rudy Gobert’s brilliance in the middle coupled with Gobert’s inability to play power forward for any stretches. That forced Favors to live on scraps at center or playing extended minutes at power forward.

But he’s at his best as the man in the middle, defending the rim and rebounding like a boss. With him, guys like Booker, Jackson and whoever the Suns bring in at point guard would look a lot better on defense.

Favors would be the perfect fit for Igor Kokoskov, having worked together the last three years in Utah to great success. He could help install Igor’s defensive schemes and make the Suns a respectable opponent for the first time in years.

Favors could make a four-year contract look like a bargain, as long as he stays healthy enough to play most of the games. And thanks to his health and playing time issues, his price tag is much lower than DeAndre Jordan’s.

Marcus Smart or Avery Bradley

(if the Suns take Ayton)

Along the same lines as Favors, neither of these guards would bring the Suns fans to their feet with many highlight reel plays.

But both Bradley and Smart are defensive difference-makers who can survive at point guard for stretches while also being comfortable playing off the ball.

Smart is younger and a better distributor than Bradley (his 23.7% assist ratio is just slightly behind Booker’s 24.4%), but either player could be Robin to Booker’s Batman as the plus defender he needs. Surrounding Booker’s offensive brilliance with Jackson and Smart/Bradley’s perimeter defense could really change the Suns image.

On the downside, neither can shoot the rock all that well. Smart is particularly awful, recently being profiled as the playoffs’ most important sub-30% shooter. Here’s a perfect profile for what Smart brings to his team.

Celtics big man Al Horford calls Smart the “soul” of the Celtics and he might also be the poster child. Battered and bruised, Smart is out here helping the Celtics win games on little more than hustle and grit, and even those little on-court flare-ups that distinguish Smart from everybody else.

Most of all, though, Bradley (from his Celtics days anyway) and Smart would both bring a new energy and work ethic to a Suns team desperate for high-caliber role models. Either would be an instant finalist for the 2018-19 Dan Majerle Hustle Award.

Summary

I have no idea what the Suns are going to do this offseason after taking Ayton or Doncic at #1 overall.

But whatever that is, I hope that the summer brings a new culture to the Suns in the form of players who know how to win and will carry the rest of the team toward that promised land.

In my opinion, Derrick Favors would be an excellent addition no matter who the Suns take at the top of the draft. And he’s attainable for the money the Suns have at their disposal.