After the Phoenix Suns finished up one of their worst seasons in franchise history at 21-61, there is still optimism abound from most about their long term future. Spearheaded by Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges, they now have an attractive young core that could now grow together on the same age timeline towards competitiveness spanning into their late 20s, early 30s if all goes well over the next few years.
General Manager Ryan McDonough mentioned at Trevor Ariza’s introductory press conference that if they take steps forward toward being one of the most improved teams in the league, like he expects them to, they are set up for 5-10 years of sustained success.
However, McDonough is on the clock to see them take that jump either this season or next. With the Western Conference getting even stronger with names like LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers, it will be a tough task to see Phoenix see significant organic growth in that timeframe, but the current regime has put all their eggs into that basket.
During the 2018-19 campaign, Phoenix will likely have 10 players in their rotation who have less than four years of experience (including Booker, and he’s the only one over that threshold). By 2020, they need to be in the playoffs comfortably for McDonough to keep his job seeing his full vision through.
Obviously the Suns won’t be an underrated title contender this season or next, but when should we expect that to occur
Even though Booker is signed through the 2023-24 season after signing his 5-year, $158 million extension, the clock has officially started on this era of Suns basketball. By the time his final year under contract rolls around, Phoenix needs to be one of the best teams in the league with how much potential is surrounding their franchise star. Not only that, but the Suns will have the ability to create max space next summer plus in 2020 and 2021 with how flexible they want to be with current pieces on their roster.
The timeline for #TheTimeline is something that all the sudden is something that will be intriguing to follow along with heading into the 2020s.
Here’s how I see it going, with realistic win ranges attached, before many league insiders will be pegging Phoenix as one of their dark horse contenders down the line. Luckily, it sets up well for them to capitalize when timing out their primes with current stars throughout the Western Conference.
18-19: 30-35 wins
Heading into Year 4 of their rebuild, which McDonough has said on multiple occasions that three years is the ideal time to grow before taking the necessary steps forward towards competing, Phoenix expects to see their first developmental jump. The thing is, I’m worried about the point guard situation — right now Brandon Knight, Elie Okobo and Shaquille Harrison is their rotation — one that is filled with uncertainty.
Not to bring football into this discussion, former player all throughout my athletic career before college, but point guards are the proverbial leaders on the court in terms of getting others into the right places every possession. Knight could provide that, bouncing back towards his stellar play when McDonough traded for him from Milwaukee, but they are taking a big risk in betting on that, especially after he tore his ACL 13 months ago.
New head coach Igor Kokoskov has hinted at Knight already being the starter at Summer League minicamp. Unless the Suns pull off an unexpected trade before training camp, Knight is in line to see 30 plus minutes per game.
The thing is, there still could be some upside hidden with this Knight-Kokoskov pairing. Knight has played under the likes of Lawrence Frank, Jason Kidd, Jeff Hornacek and Earl Watson. Kokoskov, at least from an innovative X’s-and-O’s standpoint, will be Knight’s best voice to learn under.
Before McDonough acquired Knight at the 2015 trade deadline, he averaged 17.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 40.9% on 3s. If Kokoskov is able to tap into that version of Knight, one that actually could fit well next to Booker with his shooting and defensive prowess back then, it changes everything for this team’s outlook for 2018-19.
Outside of Booker’s expected rise into stardom, the Knight question will be one of the bigger storylines to follow this upcoming season.
Depending on if Knight bounces back or not, the Suns should at least win 30 games. Booker flanked by Ayton, Jackson, Bridges, Ariza and T.J. Warren — coupled with no intentional tanking this time around luckily — will cross that benchmark.
Then, the question is whether Knight could be the correct conductor for Kokoskov’s offense. If that happens, 35 wins isn’t out of the question for a respectable number of victories.
From McDonough’s point of view, it’s a year with upmost importance to help them lure stars towards the Valley next summer. The .500 mark seems unrealistic, but Booker leading this group towards that goal and surpassing it would make me eat my words for sure.
19-20: 40-45 wins
Another reason why Knight has to have a great year is to help him build value around the league. If they were to move Knight outright in a trade without having to stretch his contract, Phoenix would immediately gain the requisite amount for obtaining the all-important max free agent slot. Plan B would be stretching Knight while declining the fourth-year team option on Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender.
Going down the avenue of the Suns not attracting that max talent next summer and instead using around $20 million in cap space, .500 would then turn into the realistic goal. However, that could all flip in the appropriate trade or free agent signing.
The Suns would likely follow a similar plan to this summer and reload for 2020 on 1-year deals, but McDonough’s contract expires then, so it’s an interesting bind he would be in. That thought leads me toward McDonough, if he swings and misses, pivoting towards making an aggressive trade.
With that being said, whether it’s signing a point guard like Kemba Walker or Ricky Rubio, or even going all in on a trade for someone like Damian Lillard, Phoenix could reach that 45 win mark if their core continues to take steps forward too.
McDonough’s final season of guaranteed security could lead towards easiness of another extension incoming with Booker and Ayton leading the way. The other route could be panicking for his job, moving off some of this core for short term gain.
20-21: 45-55 wins
This is the year where if Booker has truly become one of the best players in the league, Phoenix could be a team where they make noise earlier than expected. That all depends on the growth from Ayton, Jackson and Bridges, though. If they develop rapidly, Phoenix now has four pieces age 24 and younger ascending.
One name that I’ve been pondering about whether the Suns throw a max offer sheet towards in the summer of 2020 is Draymond Green. At that time, Green would be 30 and he’s already been mentioned saying he will not take another discount to keep Golden State’s dynasty together. By then, I expect the Warriors’ reign to be coming towards an end, if it hasn’t already with Kevin Durant bolting elsewhere.
That’s just one scenario it could go down, but it really does make a lot of sense with what this core is building around with ample versatility and shooting. Green would not only be the ideal pairing next to Ayton, but he’s very close off the court with Jackson, another Michigan native. Draymond was the one who exposed Jackson early to the NBA lifestyle while he was one of the best high school prospects, as he told me on Locked On Suns.
The year previous would be Knight’s final year on the books, if he’s still on the roster. Stretching Knight still leaves his $5.2 million for another two years. It’s a safer play to either let his contract run out, or have him play well and then ship him off in 2019.
With that being said, Okobo could then be developed enough to be an NBA starter with developments as a playmaker and defender. He’s built similarly to Knight, which might be an archetype McDonough looks for with his floor generals. And in 2020-21, Okobo would be entering the final year of his rookie deal making only $1.6 million.
If Phoenix were to trade Warren at this time, if he hasn’t already been moved, the Suns would then have around $64 million in cap space with only their core four and Okobo under contract. More than enough to do significant damage as an attractive free agency destination.
Playing the long game is risky, but if McDonough has clearance he will be staying around even longer they could have great recruiters with Booker and Ayton.
By this time, I expect a star to be within their roster in some capacity. A starting lineup of Booker-Bridges-Jackson-Green-Ayton, at least for one year, would carry immense potential as a switch-heavy unit with plus shooters.
Then, after signing a max free agent in 2020, they could roll over most of their money by using it on 1-year deals allowing them to hit the max button again in the super class of 2021.
During the 2020-21 campaign, I expect the Suns to be thick in the Western Conference race even with their core still being rather on the young side. Acquiring and developing all of this lottery talent around Kokoskov should start to pay big-time dividends by then.
21-22: 50-60 wins (championship window begins to open)
Four years into this plan, with Booker still having three years left on his new contract, the Suns are set up to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Again, that’s based off everything going well around their young core, building the right way around Booker with stars and above-average role players within Kokoskov’s scheme.
Take a look at how the Western Conference’s current stars would be during this time. Hint, they are all now exiting out of their primes while the Suns are now entering into it themselves.
Fast-forwarding in this long term scenario sees LeBron now age 36. Durant and Stephen Curry would be 33. Oklahoma City’s duo of Paul George (31) and Russell Westbrook (32) are reaching their end. Houston’s backcourt pairing of James Harden (31) and Chris Paul (36) are now tumbling down, in terms of championship hopes. Kawhi Leonard, wherever he ends up, would now be 30.
Now, for the Suns, Booker (25), Jackson (25), Bridges (25) and Ayton (23) are the perfect age to begin talking about making title runs. Add a max free agent around them and it could begin a year early, but this seems to be where the first chance of their title window opens.
If we stick to playing the long game once more, staying patient while this core grows, 2021 is a year where everything could change. Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, unless they both sign max extensions, will be unrestricted free agents.
Imagine if the Suns had maximum cap space and have the chance of adding either one of them into it’s bright outlook. That seems like a similar path Golden State followed when Durant joined on, but on a lesser scale.
Even if they don’t and already have that star piece well within their roster, Phoenix is a roster set up for long term stability. Like Los Angeles (Lakers), Utah, Denver and Dallas, Phoenix definitely has a Western Conference core with title aspirations during the 2020s.
Whichever direction you want to slice it, the Phoenix Suns are in position to capitalize, but it’s still years away. Using this exercise as a platform, two more years of internal growth followed by a franchise-altering signing or trade will vault this roster into being a contender within the next three seasons. And if it breaks the right way with correct development, they could become an underrated title contender who's winning +50 games during the 2021-22 season.
The clock has begun as the Booker era is now in full swing. By the time 2023-24 arrives, it’s paramount for them to be within reach of winning championships. Bringing back the Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni era vibes is something Booker has spoken of before, and it could happen once more at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
With the way it’s set up, Booker should be able to achieve it and possibly exceed expectations when you see the current talent around him and the free agency capabilities in their arsenal over the next few years.
#TheTimeline movement could definitely become a franchise timestamp that is one full of high aspirations met consistently. When examining it all over through this multi-year lens, McDonough’s moves over the next 18 months could make or break the current core full of promising prospects and maximum cap space to be aggressive.