On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns hosted their fourth annual Bright Side Night where this very website helped send a new record-high 3,300 underprivileged kids to their first NBA game. Part of the night’s activities involved a 20-plus minute sit-down with Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones.
Some donors had the opportunity to ask Jones various questions related to the franchise. Ranging from Pat Riley’s advice to his rookie season in Indiana learning from veterans like Austin Croshere and Jeff Foster, Jones bounced around various topics.
However, what I wanted to focus in on today related to Jones’s comments about how the Suns believe they are positioned for free agency this year and beyond, plus how they plan to fill their longstanding void at the point guard position.
Earlier this season, Devin Booker spoke to Yahoo! Sports’ Vince Goodwill about wanting a superteam to join him in Phoenix. When you survey the NBA landscape, around half the league will have max cap space at their disposal with 200-plus names becoming free agents. Odds are it will quickly turn into a feeding frenzy with millions flying around, but Phoenix isn’t in the same position as teams like the Lakers, Clippers, and Knicks. Why? Well, the reasoning is due to market size. That’s why you hear names like Kevin Durant and other superstars wanting to go to the top two markets in the United States to build up their own personal brand.
If the possibility presents itself, though, which could possibly include a meeting with Kevin Durant, Phoenix has to capitalize for the greater good of their organization. Over the past few months, we have seen a turn in trying to change the Suns’ chaotic image. The first order of business was majority owner Robert Sarver firing Ryan McDonough and his top staffers while replacing him with Jones, who has many player connections around the league.
“Well, the Clippers and the Lakers, they are two teams who occupy the same building. They’re deciding which team really is LA’s team. This is Arizona’s team. Phoenix, we’re our own destination,” Jones replied when asked about the Suns’ marketability in free agency. “We have everything every other city has to offer. We have the weather. We have the lifestyle. We have the fan base. We have the history. So, from that standpoint, I think we’re well positioned when it comes to recruiting free agents.”
By only stretching the final year of Ryan Anderson’s contract, the Suns would easily be able to create flexibility to chase after superstars with max cap space. Based off my projected calculations, Jones and Co. would have over $38 million to work with after stretching Anderson. Cap holds for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Richaun Holmes weren’t included in the total, which would shorten it down to around $27 million, but would rise back up to max space if they outright traded Anderson’s expiring contract with no salary return.
Compared to places like the Clippers, Knicks, and even the Lakers (maybe Tobias Harris if he doesn’t leave, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?; Kristaps Porzingis or bust?; the Lakers’ young core ... aka the Anthony Davis package?), Phoenix has the best crop of young talent available. Not only is Booker blossoming into a star, but they also have players like Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, and T.J. Warren under long-term team control.
Jones believes the Suns’ under-23 talent could help recruit a star to the Valley, but upgraded team facilities at or near Talking Stick Resort Arena and instilling their new culture will go a long way in helping reach that sky-high goal. If that happens, the superteam comments from Booker could turn prophetic a year or two down the line as they position themselves even better for the next disgruntled star league-wide.
Phoenix’s front office has purposely preserved max cap space for 2019, though, which makes you think they have grandiose plans once June and July rolls around.
“Ultimately, the best free agents want to win. They want to see that they have players that they either could lead or players that they can follow,” Jones said. “I think we have players at this stage of their career that are really, really good players that an elite free agent would say ‘I think I can lead those guys to the promise land.’ But it still comes back down to facilities; it comes down to culture; it comes down to players and the opportunity to win. The best teams build it early and then that cherry (star free agent) comes on top. So, what Devin is talking about is having a core of young guys that have pride being here in Phoenix. Have the capacity to win and then adding a player who says, ‘You know what? I would like to be with you guys.’ Because, if we can get that leader in this building, he can lead our guys but at some point when that switch flips, our guys can carry him forward later into his career.”
Will someone like Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, or Klay Thompson qualify as Jones’s cherry on top of this rebuild? Very unlikely, but it doesn’t hurt to at least try and market the Suns’ promising young nucleus out to All-NBA caliber players.
Pivoting over to the Suns’ point guard woes, which have been an issue dating back nearly 18 months since the Eric Bledsoe fiasco, Jones was asked about his plans to fix it. Whether it’s via trade, free agency or the draft, something needs to be done eventually. Even though De’Anthony Melton has shown promise lately, he’s not the answer until he fully develops and gets comfortable sharing the load next to Booker as a defensive-minded point guard like Patrick Beverley was for James Harden.
Jones mentioned how the trade route is so unpredictable. Already, we have seen this issue pop up last month after the whole Brooks situation with Memphis where they thought they were sending MarShon Brooks, but the Suns wanted Dillon Brooks instead. The Suns’ co-interim GM who’s known around the facility as “Champ” pointed out how you have way more say on how things play out in free agency and the draft. And Jones also admitted that free agency will likely be the route Phoenix takes to fill this hole on their roster.
“I say it all the time, it takes two to tango. So, when your primary vehicle for acquiring a player is via trade, you don’t control that. We’ve seen time and time again you don’t control that,” Jones said. “At some point, the other team can back out or you can back out. So, the only way you can add is free agency, where you have more control, and the draft where you have complete control. That, for us, it will most likely be free agency. Just because when you look at our team and the way we construct it.”
You have to think Jones has been trying the past few months to find a point guard solution, but other teams just aren’t budging or wanting to simply finesse the Suns out of key assets altogether. As was reported earlier this season, Jones tried to re-engage Boston on trade talks for Terry Rozier before those talks quickly fizzled out. Could those discussions happen once more as we get closer to February’s trade deadline? Who knows, but the Suns will be an interesting team to follow leading up to it.
“Think about it: if you’re in the Western Conference, are you going to try to help the Suns take a leap? If you’re in the Eastern Conference, are you going to help the Suns, especially if you have that type of player that’s going to take a leap and help us and make you look bad? Like, okay they move to Phoenix and they thrive,” Jones said. “So, that’s why it’s a challenge when you talk about acquiring a guy via trade. We have to do it in free agency. We have to build it internally or via the draft.”
Jones also sounded like someone who’s very open to the idea of trading the Suns’ first round pick depending on how the lottery falls. If they don’t receive lottery luck in back-to-back years to secure the rights to Duke’s Zion Williamson, who is the best college prospect since Anthony Davis, don’t be surprised if Phoenix tries to package it for a star or an All-Star caliber player who fills a position of need.
As Jones said, the future is now. They have four lottery picks on their roster age 22 or younger who plan to be on their roster for years to come. Is drafting another 18 or 19 year old what they even want to do? Honestly, it might not be when you factor in their urgency to finally take the leap forward next season.
“When you draft as high as we have in the draft, top 5 / top 10, that’s a potential proposition where the best player could fit you right now maybe a college guy — a four year guy someone who’s more mature 22-23. But if you take a guy in the top five, everyone wants you to go get a guy who can be the next Hall of Fame point guard at 18 or 19. If you add an 18 or 19 year old with a 20 or 21 year old (current Suns core timeline), you have that “point guard of the future” but the future is now. So, that’s why free agency or the draft are your two options. For us, it’ll most likely be free agency.”
As we watch the second half of the Suns’ season unfold, don’t expect a trade for a point guard but also be prepared for Jones to get aggressive this summer. After drafting Ayton as the first No. 1 pick in franchise history, then swinging and missing in free agency with the Trevor Ariza signing last year, 2019 is setting up to be when the Suns finally push their chips into the middle of the table and go all-in.
Who knows what avenue that leads Phoenix down over the next six months, but the train is now on the tracks zooming ahead at full speed.