How many Suns this year are playing for their future on this team?
For the first few years of this rebuild, dedication to young players was such an active focus for the entire Suns organization that competition for minutes was rare. If you were young, and tried, and were selected using a high draft pick, you played. So it’s unfair to quite say T.J. Warren has gotten a raw deal, because this is the first season since he was a rookie in which he’ll have a legitimate competition for minutes, but he’s improved every season since being selected 14th in 2014 and yet faces an uncertain future.
There are a few reasons for that. Given a real opportunity to be the second scoring option in Phoenix, Warren last year was a notch below league-average efficiency as measured by true shooting percentage (he was at .541 compared with .556 for the league) despite scoring nearly 20 points per game. There were nights Warren dominated, and the Suns were better for it. Phoenix was 7-4 when Warren scored more than 25 points. But those games were and few and far between, and Warren’s offense wasn’t efficient or consistent enough to become a true bedrock for the team’s success.
Warren also struggles on defense, having never steals or blocks consistently despite his fantastic feel as a scorer and nimble touch. Every season of Warren’s career, the Suns have been worse defensively when he’s on the court than their overall efficiency per 100 possessions. As the NBA has changed around him, there has been optimism Warren could slide into a bigger role on defense by moving up a position to body up against bigger players. The idea is this would allow him to rely more on his strength and size on that end, but it hasn’t materialized.
Any flirtation with a 3-point shot is just teasing at this point. Warren has shown neither a willingness nor any adeptness to take 3s, to that point that even seeing a single attempt in the box score is cause for a double-take. That’s a problem -- one that makes it very difficult to craft a proper lineup around Warren which maximizes his potential.
All of those concerns have compounded to put Warren and the Suns in a situation where it may be difficult to find a consistent role for the 2014 first-round pick.
Last we heard from Warren, in the Suns’ postseason media day, the topic of coming off the bench was broached to him. The reaction was what you’d expect from someone finishing a great season who had just started 65 contests.
T.J. Warren on if he would be okay with coming off the bench behind Josh Jackson next year: pic.twitter.com/K830NReHr7— Evan Sidery (@esidery) April 11, 2018
Playing with the second unit would certainly maximize Warren’s strengths. As it currently stands, the Suns could surround him with versatile shooters like Elie Okobo, Mikal Bridges and Dragan Bender -- guys who fit much better alongside the soon to be 25-year-old scorer than the likes of Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len or Josh Jackson.
If things don’t work well, whether that be a result of a poor transition from the starting unit to the bench or an emphasis from the top of the organization on younger players, Warren could be on the move -- and quickly.
His salary dips from $11.75 million this season to $10.8 million for 2019-20, but it’s still the type of coveted middling salary that teams making big trades need. The Celtics had to sit somewhat on the sideline of trade talks in the past -- think Kawhi Leonard -- because they lacked salaries between their max-contract superstars and studs on rookie deals. It’s not solely the result of Warren’s lack of all-around value that he gets included in transaction rumors.
If the Suns are going to make a move to bring in a non-superstar veteran point guard, Warren almost surely will be included. His contract is large enough to match with several such guys straight-up, while he is the only player on the Suns’ roster outside Devin Booker not on his rookie contract that has trade value. Teams won’t value Tyson Chandler or Ryan Anderson in negotiations, so putting Warren and his deal on the table is the easiest path toward a middle ground.
Warren’s future is very much up in the air. He actually may not even have the chance to play for his Phoenix life, what with the Suns drafting two forwards and signing another over the past two summers.
It’s not terribly difficult to imagine circumstances in which Warren could thrive on a basketball court. But considering the convergence of players and ideas that seem to be coming to a head this summer in Phoenix, it’s just tough to imagine it happens with the Suns.