General Manager Ryan McDonough has mentioned in the past that the Suns have studied rebuilding plans not only in the NBA, but also Major League Baseball. The team landed on three years as the ideal benchmark for putting a stop sign up on intentionally losing.
On three separate occasions since the 2015-16 season, Phoenix has rested players with no injury related cause. The most obvious one came in 2017 when Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight all rode the bench, which led to Josh Jackson at No. 4 overall. This year, with less talent on the roster to begin with, they finished 21-61, which resulted in the franchise’s first No. 1 pick becoming Deandre Ayton.
Well, those three years are up, and the final tally of young talent accumulated is impressive, at least from an on-paper look of future potential: Dragan Bender,
Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Josh Jackson, Davon Reed, Alec Peters, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton and George King. Chriss, Ulis and Peters are off that list, but what remains is four top-10 selections and two guards with upside in two different directions (Okobo - scoring, Melton - defensive versatility).
By the end of Devin Booker’s rookie season, it was apparent he was a building block the Suns had to construct a roster around. Initially, he was coming off the bench, but once April rolled around, the No. 13 pick was one of the most talked-about first-year guards. Booker tallied six games of 30 points or more after the calendar flipped to January.
And if we had to guess the moment this rebuild really went into warp speed, it was when the front office realized a rookie Booker would be the one they committed to as their No. 1 option. Three years later, Booker was rewarded with a 5-year, $158 million max extension while that three year window of rebuilding closed.
Once the ink dried on Booker’s contract, it was obvious the Suns wanted to make things right by ushering in a new chapter by this time wanting to win. Before Booker signed, they drafted two eventual starters (one immediate in Ayton for the long term) and secured Trevor Ariza on a one-year, $15 million contract in free agency. When glancing with a wide scope over this summer’s overhaul, the arrival of new head coach Igor Kokoskov ushered in a much-needed culture change.
In: Ayton, Bridges, Okobo, Melton, King, Ariza, Anderson
Out: Chriss, Ulis, Payton, Williams, Len, Dudley
Possessing someone of Booker’s talent, whose career trajectory seems to be trending like that of James Harden, where he not only is the primary scorer but also playmaker, Phoenix wants to construct the best roster possible around his strengths. They have made it a priority this offseason to fill shooting and defense, which shows in the final results.
When Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets had eight shooters around him who shot better than 35% on threes. The way the roster is currently constructed in Phoenix, the Suns hope to have seven this season who could eclipse that benchmark (Anderson, Ariza, Bridges, Bender, Okobo, Daniels, Reed). Houston saw their win total improve by 11, and it increased every year after outside of one blip on the radar when the Rockets finished 41-41 in 2015-16. If the Suns were to improve by 11 wins (32-50) in this Western Conference, that would be considered a victory, though playoff appearances are being anxiously awaited by players and fans alike.
We could go further down the rabbit hole of how Phoenix is mirroring the Rockets’ rebuild around Harden, but we’ll save that for another time, and focus on what’s at hand: the massive change surrounding Booker.
It’s fair to say Phoenix intentionally put bad players around Booker to do better in lottery results and tried to capitalize by selling off assets for tradable future first-round picks. In the case of someone like Chriss, these gambles from McDonough failed. However, he realized the mistake, and moved on by adding an immediate contributor, Ryan Anderson, who can help the young core improve on the court with his spacing.
Zooming out to the larger picture, only Tyson Chandler and T.J. Warren remain from Booker’s rookie season. And it’s fair to say Chandler and Warren, via possible buyout or trade at a later date, might not make it through this season, leaving Booker by his lonesome.
Upon McDonough’s arrival, the Suns were one of the biggest surprise stories around the entire Association. Dragic and Eric Bledsoe led a ragtag group to a near playoff berth finishing 48-34. Then, it led to the Isaiah Thomas signing, forcing out not only Thomas but also Dragic in the process. From there, the official rebuild clock seemingly kicked off at the beginning of the 2015 offseason.
Who knows what would have happened if the first team McDonough had in Phoenix met realistic expectations, around 30-35 wins. Maybe Dragic is shipped out at that time instead, while the Suns begin 2015-16 as one of the league’s worst on paper. However, fate worked out differently (I shall say in a very good way) as instead of chasing the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell at the top of the lottery, they lucked into Booker at its later portion.
Through 208 career games, Booker has averaged 19.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists while hitting on 36.5% of his threes. Each year, Booker continues to improve and set expectations higher for not only himself but the Suns. After finishing a near-25 point, 5-rebound, 5-assist stat line in his third season, Booker earned his $158 million not only through on-court production, but based on what the front office expects their star guard to grow into during his second contract.
For reference, the only players in their first three seasons to average at least 19-3-3.5 while shooting +35% on threes are Vince Carter, Steve Francis, Brandon Roy, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Booker, per Basketball-Reference. That’s an impressive group to be part of.
With only two players around from Year 1 of Booker, it’s time to start judging what happens from this point forward. That’s a huge amount of change in short order, with another move for a starting-quality point guard seeming imminent before the regular season begins. The thing is, McDonough is on the clock to see this roster have success before his own extension runs out two offseasons from now, in 2020.
We have three key areas on the schedule to look forward to — 2019 trade deadline, 2019 offseason and 2020 trade deadline — for the front office to further surround Booker with talent great enough to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Adding in the likes of Bender, Jackson, Reed, Ayton, Bridges, Okobo and Melton is a nice foundation to build off of around their soon-to-be 22-year-old shooting guard, but results need to be seen on the floor in short order.
Sometime this season, a move for an All-Star likely has to occur for this team to reach it’s maximum ceiling. Whether it’s through trade or outright signing in free agency, the clock is ticking on this current regime before the strength of this Western Conference swallows it whole. McDonough and Co. have made substantial change to the roster since their one year of sudden success, but it won’t matter unless Booker reaches his ceiling while other draft picks hit along the way.
The three years of rebuilding are over. Now, it’s time to look forward to flipping the switch to victories soon, especially after inking the face of the franchise to his second extension at the highest dollar amount possible.