While tanking has obvious merit for a rebuilding NBA team, there has to be some point at which it stops. The hope is that a tanking team gets to the point where their losing bears enough fruit to field a competitive roster and transition seamlessly toward winning. This Suns season has the feeling of a year in which the team, for better or worse, has decided it is done losing intentionally.
The question remains whether drafting Deandre Ayton first overall was the climax to the Suns’ tanking or just another pick. By consolidating their assets to acquire Mikal Bridges, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, Phoenix surely looks to have a more competitive roster than in 2017, but predicting the Suns’ eventual success this season is more difficult than pointing to their additions and assuming more victories in the record.
The Suns’ rotation will look drastically different in March than in September. Assuming a point guard trade before training camp, as it stands now, the Suns have a starting lineup bloated with veterans and frankly too many young players who deserve playing time. But because of the Suns’ likely desire to move T.J. Warren in a trade for a veteran playmaker, combined with the team’s ability to move on from its expiring contracts by the playoff-eligibility deadline of March 1, there is flexibility to construct a vastly different rotation come March.
That would leave the Suns about a quarter of the season to play completely through the youngsters, assuming as most do they will be out of the playoff picture by that point. That number of youth movement games could increase if the Suns are active at the trade deadline. You can lock in Troy Daniels (and of course Darrell Arthur) being moved if their contracts aren’t used for salary-matching purposes in trades.
From the trade deadline through the end of the year, the Suns play 23 games.
So while the Suns have an issue now creating a rotation that properly devotes developmental opportunities to the likes of Bridges, Josh Jackson, Davon Reed, Elie Okobo and others, there is an easy path for those guys to get more minutes by year’s end. And in the meantime, it’s not as if the coaching staff would be angry to see youngsters demand time with impressive play.
How might this look on the depth chart?
Let’s start with this: Ayton and Devin Booker are going to play. A lot.
I would expect Dragan Bender to get a majority of backup minutes as the first big off the bench, while Jackson and Bridges both ought to be the primary wing depth pieces. That leaves Okobo, Reed, Melton, Richaun Holmes and Shaquille Harrison without a clear role.
We can bet that whomever survives the expected deal for a point guard will become the Suns’ backup. I would expect Harrison to be the favorite heading into training camp based on ESPN’s report that the Suns will give him a bigger role with Brandon Knight gone.
“Second-year guard Shaq Harrison is expected to get minutes as a backup point guard, and rookie guard Elie Okobo, the 31st pick in the June draft, could see minutes too,” Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after the Knight deal.
Melton, a rookie with a questionable jumper who has not played competitively since March 2017, may be a candidate for the Suns’ second two-way slot if he is not traded. The deadline to sign players to contracts for the 2018-19 season was Wednesday, but we have to assume Melton was signed and the deal was not announced in case he were dealt again.
Following what Woj reported would mean an active effort on the Suns’ part to develop those guys this year, a far cry from the panic that could materialize on the big man depth chart.
If Anderson indeed starts and Ayton gets upward of 30 minutes per night, that leaves Bender, Holmes and Tyson Chandler scrounging for time off the bench, while smaller lineups featuring Warren, Bridges or Ariza at power forward need to be factored in as well. There’s just not enough to go around, which is why Chandler may be the odd man out and simply not play much at all.
A quick projection
I think we could see something like this early in the year:
G - Veteran X, Harrison, Okobo
G - Booker, Jackson, Reed
F - Ariza, Warren, Jackson, Bridges
F - Anderson, Bender, Warren, Bridges
C - Ayton, Holmes, Chandler, Bender
And it could translate to something like this after February or March:
G - Veteran X, Booker, Harrison, Okobo
G - Booker, Reed
F - Jackson, Bridges
F - Anderson, Bender, Bridges
C - Ayton, Holmes, Bender