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Why it’s unrealistic to peg the Suns attracting superstar free agents in 2019

With how daunting the Western Conference is set up, Phoenix might need to shift their plans for next summer if they want to achieve playoff aspirations by the self-imposed 2020 deadline.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Unless something drastic happens this upcoming season, the Phoenix Suns will not make the playoffs. Let alone, make it to the .500 mark. 35 wins should be a realistic barometer for Phoenix after their 21-61 disaster, because, unfortunately, they look to be another year away from breaking through on their own.

The thing is, General Manager Ryan McDonough might not be in a position of patience. At this point in time, it’s looking like the current roster will be what is utilized on opening night.

Not only is this roster now technically younger than it already was last year, but they are going to likely roll the dice with Brandon Knight as their starting point guard with two inexperienced playmakers, rookie Elie Okobo and Shaquille Harrison, as his backups.

Throughout Devin Booker’s tenure in Phoenix, there has been no stability around him. Igor Kokoskov is hopefully the right one, but this now his third coach heading into his fourth season (four if you want to include the year-long interim stint from Jay Triano).

Unless the Suns make historic jumps in win percentage that mirror the likes of what McDonough did with Danny Ainge in Boston 11 years ago, I don’t know if a team yet to reach even average marks since 2014-15 will be able to attract the big fish free agents of next summer.

That looks to be the plan for McDonough and Co., but is it realistic?

Sure, Booker might be a great recruiter and get in the ears of some of his USA basketball teammates next week in Las Vegas about their bright future, but it needs to be proven on the court. Deandre Ayton has to be a monster right off the bat and Josh Jackson needs to show consistencies on his jump shot. All the while, one of Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender needs to show they belong long term in the Valley. Then, Booker needs to take the true superstar leap this year, which I actually believe is the most realistic outcome of all of this.

Lets say the Suns finish next season at the 35-win threshold (35-47). Would Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and the rest of the elite crop of free agents really consider themselves the last piece of the proverbial puzzle? I doubt it, because they all want to win immediately.

If we’re being realistic and not using orange-tinted glasses, Phoenix’s window looks like it could begin the year after McDonough’s contract expires in 2021. At that time, their young big three of Booker, Ayton and Jackson would all be ranging from age 23-25.

But McDonough won’t be around to see that through unless this team sniffs the playoffs within the next two seasons, and likely crack the top eight seeds in the vaunted Western Conference for majority owner Robert Sarver to extend his contract once more.

This leads me down the most realistic path, maybe one some people don’t want to envision. For this team to take the playoff jump, unless Booker and Ayton are truly Shaq and Kobe 2.0 right out of the starting gates, that young core will need to be split up eventually.

I consider myself one of the biggest Jackson apologists in the Phoenix media with his sky-high two-way potential, but that jumper has to come around soon before people begin to clamor for Mikal Bridges to see more playing time. After McDonough moved the 2021 unprotected Miami first-round pick for Bridges, that in and of itself shows how high they value the 22-year-old wing from Villanova. Also, Bridges already has great defensive chops and his shooting stroke is levels above where Jackson is now.

For Phoenix to see the playoffs by the conclusion of their 2019-20 campaign, Jackson might be the swing piece in a trade for one of the star guards who is made available over the next year.

Kokoskov is someone who has great history in player development, but that process is just kicking off for the Suns. Compare that to teams like Golden State, Philadelphia and Boston who had multiple years already down with the same voice in their ears. I would say three years is the right amount of time for development under the long term voice to seep trough to everybody effectively.

Another area that is critical for this whole process to work is Ayton becoming at least an average, let alone above-average, rim protector within the next three seasons. Without plus defenders surrounding Booker, this championship plan could all be for naught down the line.

Wanting to upgrade the team exponentially into contention leads to tough decisions. Throwing on the GM hat for a moment, if I was in McDonough’s shoes, the big trade finally needs to happen within the next 365 days. Whether it’s at the 2019 trade deadline or next summer around the NBA Draft, it’s time to push some pieces to the middle of the table for the greater good.

Sure, it’s very, very risky but McDonough might be left no choice if he wants his second extension in 2020. From where they are now, significant improvement needs to happen.

This leads me into how McDonough could attack the deadline or next offseason, where over 10 teams will have max cap space to work with on wooing potential superstars. Right now, I would lean towards the trade market being where Phoenix is able to find their avenues of advancement.

It’s revisiting old news now, but if McDonough would not have given out the contracts he did to Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley, they could have oodles of cap space available during this free agency period. Also, McDonough looks to be 0/2 on lottery picks that same year where he selected Bender and Chriss. (Both could still see developmental jumps, but the first two seasons weren’t promising, to say the least.)

The Suns could be confident in waiting to attack free agency next summer, as this year’s crop wasn’t great at all, but continuing to put all their eggs into the draft basket needs to come to an end starting right now.

Below, I’ve come up with three realistic trade targets for Phoenix to pursue either in February or June/July, but each opportunity that passes them by leads to pushing the timeline back.

Moving all-in on Damian Lillard

With Phoenix likely positioning themselves to swing for the fences sometime in 2019, the Portland Trail Blazers backcourt is one that I will be closely monitoring. I mentioned this in 2017 when Kyrie Irving was made available, but Portland is stuck in neutral — and might be falling down the Western Conference hill with more talent migrating west.

The retooling from General Manager Neil Olshey has to be coming soon, if he wants to keep his job, and one of Lillard or CJ McCollum has to go to give them some sort of future.

Personally, this might surprise some people after how they performed last season, but Portland might be on the outside looking in of playoff contention next season. That whooping by New Orleans opened up plenty of eyes towards how you could easily exploit this core, which was brought back again this summer by re-signing Jusuf Nurkic.

If the Blazers miss the playoffs, Lillard should ask out. However, in this scenario as the face of the franchise while showing immense loyalty towards Portland, he might not.

So, here’s how I could see the offer going for someone of Lillard’s caliber, if Phoenix believes he’s the missing link:

Suns receive - Damian Lillard

Trail Blazers receive - Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, Suns 2019 first-round pick, Milwaukee first-round pick

Giving up all of that capital is certainly swinging for the fences with Lillard, but it might be what it takes to get possibly the best player in Portland’s history outside of Clyde Drexler out of their grasps. Like I mentioned before, future drafts should not be something the Suns care about anymore.

This deal allows not only Phoenix their starting point guard for at least two seasons (I’m imagining this deal goes down before or on draft night next year), but it lets Portland hit the reset button.

If the Bucks pick were to convey this year, that allows the Trail Blazers to recoup some young talent while also nabbing an immediate building block in Jackson plus another project big with high upside in either Chriss or Bender. Also, if Knight shows he’s capable of producing next season, it gives Portland a stop-gap option on an expiring contract they could flip or allow his contract off their books to pursue their point guard of the future in 2020.

From the Suns’ point of view, here’s how they would make out of it with this starting lineup: Lillard-Booker-Bridges-Free Agent-Ayton. That right there is an attractive core that will bring big-time eyes upon it from future free agents in 2020 and 2021, with the missing piece at power forward.

Then, having Lillard under control for two more years allows them to continuously recruit him into wanting to bring a championship to the Valley with Booker and Ayton.

Out of the three trades mentioned in this piece, I consider this one the least realistic from both sides, but if Lillard requests out it might actually happen.

Take advantage of the Portland blowup with CJ McCollum

For this scenario, I’m still playing off the idea that Portland will be taking steps back during the 2018-19 season. If that were to occur, I think there’s a high possibility Olshey feels the pressure by making McCollum available at February’s trade deadline.

Again, unless Lillard himself requests it, I don’t see the Trail Blazers trading him. I can’t say the same about McCollum.

If the Suns want to try out the McCollum/Booker backcourt, which would be sniper-like from the outside, it could take way less than Lillard.

Unfortunately, Jackson still has to go out to Portland but it allows the Suns to still keep together more pieces of their young core.

Suns receive - CJ McCollum

Trail Blazers receive - Josh Jackson, Tyson Chandler, Troy Daniels, Suns 2019 first-round pick

This one seems very realistic, in my opinion. It allows Portland to nab an athletic wing who could pair nicely alongside Lillard long term, plus immediate salary cap relief (Chandler + Daniels expiring deals) and possibly a pick in the lottery once June rolls around.

From a pure shooting perspective, only five players shot +40% on catch-and-shoot 3s (minimum 200 attempts) and +35% on pull up 3s last season. Both McCollum and Booker made that list joined by Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry.

Thinking about this trade from that viewpoint, it could be absolute dynamite offensively surrounding Ayton with four plus shooters from beyond the arc with McCollum, Booker, Bridges and Ariza/Bender. The big selling point would be that Bridges and Ayton would need to be plus defenders soon thereafter to reach championship potential.

Like Lillard, McCollum is under contract through 2021, allowing the Suns to attract other names to surround this core and convince McCollum to stay around as well.

If the Trail Blazers start off slow this upcoming season, I’m going to circle back around and suggest this deal during the new year. For both sides, it makes too much sense to not at least discuss parameters of it.

Rolling the dice on Aaron Gordon

Even though Gordon just signed his 4-year deal with Orlando during the first week of free agency, his contract is one that decreases in annual pay year after year. That suggests to me that he’s someone who could be in the same position Blake Griffin was last season. After signing his new max extension with Los Angeles, Griffin was then flipped to the star-craved Detroit Pistons.

The same fate could easily occur with Gordon, if Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac prove to be legit here soon. I still don’t see why they view Gordon as the small forward, because, ideally, he’s one of the most versatile 4s in the NBA.

Here’s how Gordon’s contract is set up, which I find very interesting (numbers are rounded):

2018-19 - $21.6 million

2019-20 - $19.9 million

2020-21- $18.1 million

2021-22 - $16.4 million

For this trade, it would go down in similar fashion to Griffin around February’s trade deadline. If Orlando starts out slow, maybe even one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference if their frontcourt isn’t working together, I would expect them to take calls immediately on Gordon for future salary relief.

That’s where McDonough could come in and get the athletic forward they planned on targeting during this free agency period, per Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro.

With the way their roster is currently set up, there are too many minutes to go around for not enough people. Going out and securing Gordon on a team-friendly deal seems like something Phoenix would be all over in a few months time.

Also, it helps even further in the Suns’ favor when you see how many expiring deals they could throw Orlando’s way to help clear off their biggest contract. With that being said, here’s how I could see this deal playing out:

Suns receive - Aaron Gordon

Magic receive - Trevor Ariza, Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender, Troy Daniels, Suns 2019 first-round pick

Originally, the framework of this proposed deal included T.J. Warren, but from Orlando’s point of view, I don’t think they would bite on his salary that lasts the same amount of time as Gordon’s even though it’s significantly cheaper. Instead, they receive Ariza’s expiring, who could temporarily slide in as the small forward next to Isaac and Bamba.

Also, Orlando receives one of the Suns’ former lottery picks in Chriss or Bender and an additional first round pick. In the process, Orlando gains over $20 million in cap space for 2019, if they decide not to keep Bender/Chriss (closer to $15 million if kept around).

Still, if Orlando doesn’t see this experiment going well early, that’s a big win for them to get off that contract.

Meanwhile, the Suns get another building block in Gordon while keeping all of their young core together. Phoenix would still need to find their point guard of the future, but the starting lineup of Knight-Booker-Jackson-Gordon-Ayton is one that could be tempting enough to attract that missing backcourt piece in 2019’s free agency period.

The Suns also don’t really lose much depth in this proposed trade as Daniels and Ariza wash off their books anyways a year from now, while having to give up on one of their 2016 lottery picks has to happen here soon anyways.

This exercise I conducted is something that Phoenix needs to really consider themselves throughout this upcoming season. That big move from McDonough needs to become reality within the next year, or odds are he won’t see another contract extension.

If Phoenix can flip the switch on its own led by their young core without outside help, I would love to be proven wrong but this seems like the correct course of action for long term stability.

For the Suns, it’s time to start considering how they can make the playoffs in the now even more wild Western Conference instead of worrying about ping pong balls on lottery night.

Poll

Which deal is most realistic for both sides, and would you pull the trigger on it?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Lillard for Jackson, Chriss/Bender, Knight, Two first-round picks
    (376 votes)
  • 30%
    McCollum for Jackson, Chandler, Daniels, 2019 Suns first-round pick
    (309 votes)
  • 31%
    Gordon for Ariza, Chriss/Bender, Daniels, 2019 Suns first-round pick
    (313 votes)
998 votes total Vote Now