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The fight for 15 Suns roster spots — can Elie Okobo hang on?

The Phoenix Suns have to make some decisions this week on the back end of their roster.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns roster has been fairly simple to figure out this month. Each team is allowed to have 15 NBA players on the team at one time under NBA contract, and the team happens to have exactly that. They can also have up to five more players around on training camp or two-way contracts, and the Suns have four of those.

The simplest roster decision is to keep the 15 under contract, secure two of the other players on two-way contracts, and release the rest. Easy peasy.

But building the best possible roster is not about making the simplest decisions. All 30 NBA teams have to cut down their extra players, so there will be some fresh talent available in the free agent pool in the coming days.

The Suns could look around and see if another team’s castoff is a Valley treasure in the making, though I should caution you here. There will be no saviors being released this week from their own team’s clutches. Only a different kind of castoff than the ones the Suns have been looking at for weeks in practice.

These decisions will likely happen by Saturday, when teams start having to pay players the daily NBA rate because the real season has started.

Could the Suns replace one or more players on the back end of their 15-man roster and/or bring in new two-way contract players?

Let’s review the roster as it is. Remember, this was only a 19-win team last year, so all spots should be available. But also remember that these players have spent a whole month learning coach Monty Williams’ scheme, which is a big leg up on the competition around the country.

Roster Review

These roster spots are really solid, due to high value and multiple years of team control via guaranteed contracts or team options:

  1. Devin Booker — 5 years
  2. Ricky Rubio — 3 years
  3. Kelly Oubre Jr. — 2 years
  4. Cameron Johnson (R) — 4 years (2 guaranteed)
  5. Ty Jerome (R) — 4 years (2)
  6. Mikal Bridges — 3 years (1)
  7. Deandre Ayton — 3 years (1)
  8. Jalen Lecque (R) — 4 years (1)
  9. Frank Kaminsky — 2 years (1)

These roster spots are fairly certain even though they are only under contract for this year, due to high value on the single remaining year under guaranteed contract:

10. Dario Saric — RFA July 2020

11. Tyler Johnson — UFA July 2020

12. Aron Baynes — UFA July 2020

That’s 12 spots covered for certain on the opening day roster for the Phoenix Suns come Wednesday, Oct. 23, barring any major trades.

That leaves three remaining spots available for the NBA roster with arguably six players vying for those three spots.

Three of those six are on fully guaranteed contracts for 2019-20, meaning that if the Suns release the player they will still have to pay a full year’s salary (which can be offset by any money they make from another team this season). All are on minimum-salary contracts.

13. Jevon Carter — guaranteed this year, RFA July 2020

14. Elie Okobo — guaranteed this year, two non-guaranteed years after that

15. Cheick Diallo — guaranteed this year, team option for 2020-2021

That’s 15 guaranteed contracts for 15 roster spots. The Suns can just stay with these 15 guys and go into the season all set and ready to go.

But do they really, really need so many point guard types of guys who look out of place at shooting guard because of size, defense and/or shot making, plus would be playing behind Devin Booker, Tyler Johnson and Bridges/Oubre anyway?

PG depth (not in order behind Rubio): Ricky Rubio — Ty Jerome — Jevon CarterElie Okobo — Jalen Lecque

Five deep. When you consider Devin Booker and Tyler Johnson’s ability to run the offense and the Suns’ depth in wings and shooters, you will see Monty Williams have to sit all five of these dudes at once for stretches of each game.

“When you look at our roster, with Ty, Jevon and Ricky,” Williams said of the depth chart. “It’s hard to play that many point guards.”

But do the Suns even consider all of these guys point guards? I’d argue that Okobo and, for now, Lecque are seen more as combo guards who can pass.

Okobo, playing mostly an on-ball shooting guard role this preseason, led a late furious comeback on Monday night to bring the game within one point after it ballooning up near 20. He scored 9 fourth quarter points, including three-pointer and some lefty drives to the hoop. He was on the floor with the diminutive Jared Harper, who’s already on a two-way contract and expected to spend a good portion of the year in Prescott Valley with NAZ Suns.

“He’s made a name for himself,” Williams said of Okobo. “When he gets minutes, he plays well. He’s a good guy to have around in case you have an injury.”

When I asked Monty Williams after Monday’s game about Okobo’s role, he discussed the shooting guard depth chart.

“It’s a tough one for him,” Williams said. “We don’t have Tyler out there tonight, so Tyler probably plays those minutes. But when he’s had an opportunity he’s played well. But when you have Devin, Cam, Mikal and some of our guards that have taken a lot of those minutes, it makes it tough on Elie.”

I asked Monty about point guard minutes, but he shifted again to how Okobo has made a name for himself playing off-ball, or on-ball in situations like Monday in pick-and-roll situations.

Bottom line, Okobo is at least the fourth shooting guard or point guard. He’s behind Rubio, Jeromes and Carter at point, and behind Booker, Johnson, Johnson and even Bridges and Oubre at shooting guard.

It’s possible the Suns will release someone like Okobo, but the Suns would only release Okobo if there was a clearly better player available — either on the current roster or about to be waived by another team.

These other players have been around all month and are trying to make the Suns roster, for sure. Could any of the next three guys make such an impression that the Suns are inclined to cut a relatively unused player like Elie Okobo to keep them?

16. Jared Harper — point guard; two-way contract with the Suns

17. Tariq Owens — active string-bean combo forward; Exhibit 10 contract can be converted to two-way

18. Norense Odiase — burly-ish big man; Exhibit 10 contract can be converted to two-way

19. David Kramer — shooting guard; Exhibit 10 contract can be converted to two-way

The Exhibit 10 contracts expire before the regular season, so the Suns will have to do something: Release the player, sign them to an NBA contract (the Suns have none left, unless they release a player), or sign them to a two-way contract like Jared Harper.

The Suns can have up to two players on two-way contracts that have elevated salaries over a standard G-League contract. The two-way contract is coveted by young players who cannot get a full NBA deal.

Harper’s two-way contract is not guaranteed. It’s quite possible the Suns could release him from that contract if they like two of Owens/Kramer/Odiase better. However, Kramer is dealing with a long-term rehab after suffering a fractured tibia bone, so he almost certainly will be released this week. That’s just the way this goes.

That leaves Harper, Owens and Odiase fighting for a pair of available two-ways or even to replace Okobo on the big squad.

Unleeeessssss the Suns like a player or two from another team that get released this week as all 30 teams must pare down to 17 contracted players.

The list of possible available talent is long and too much for me to analyze, so just keep an eye out on the news front around the league.

I do think it’s interesting how many FORMER Suns might become available this week on the open market, as they are on the end of the roster of some other teams as we speak.

Former Suns who might be available this week

Marquese Chriss (Warriors)

LOLZ, I know I know. But you’ve all heard that he impressed the Warriors this past week after signing an Exhibit 10 contract with them earlier in October. The Warriors have sustained heavy injuries to their center position in training camp (Willie Cauley-Stein, Kevin Looney and a rookie second rounder have missed time) though they should be ready to play soon. In their place, Chriss had a good game or two and some good practices. But the Warriors are hard-capped and cannot keep Chriss unless they release a player on a non-guaranteed deal.

With the Suns new offense centered around quick decision-making and the center position already loaded with Ayton and Baynes, I don’t see Quese coming back here.

Shaquille Harrison (Bulls)

The Bulls went out and got themselves a few point guards this summer, and now have a five-man depth chart of their own in Chicago. Kris Dunn, Tomas Satoransky and Coby White figure to get all the time they can use, leaving Shaq and Ryan Arcidiacono to fight leftovers and/or looking for another job.

With Jevon Carter being so loved in Phoenix and Harrison having been released in favor of Isaiah Canaan and two second-round rooks a year ago as one of the first moves by GM James Jones, I don’t see this reunion happening.

Tyler Ulis (Kings)

Ulis signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Sacramento Kings but has been rehabbing from hip surgery and not played much yet. He plays behind De’Aaron Fox, Cory Joseph and Yogi Ferrell on his best day. The Kings roster is 19 deep right now, so Ulis looks like one of the odd men out once the Kings have to make decisions.

I don’t see him making it anywhere, especially given health issue related to his size, let alone back with the Suns.

Dragan Bender (Bucks)

Folks who still own a timeshare on Bender Island have been excited by Dragan’s play this preseason for the Bucks. He’s been aggressive and care-free. Still, it’s possible Bender will become available anyway as his contract is only partially guaranteed this year, but that would only be if the Bucks really like another available player once rosters are cut down this week.

With Bender’s talents already upgraded in Saric and Kaminsky, don’t expect the Suns to want to bring him back to Phoenix if he finds himself on the open market.

Josh Jackson / De’Anthony Melton / Miles Plumlee (Grizzlies)

Three former Suns figure out round out the back end of the Grizzlies roster this season. Jackson has already agreed to stay away from the team until he rehabs his game and image in the G-League, Melton is rehabbing a back issue and hasn’t played at all this year, and Miles Plumlee is... well... Miles Plumlee. The Grizzlies have 16 players under contract, so it’s possible one of these former Suns ends up on the street later this week.

I don’t see the Suns bringing back any of these guys. They don’t want Jackson and don’t need Plumlee. Even Melton, who has lots of fans in the valley, appears a bit redundant with the much-loved Carter. Both make their living on being a defensive pest. Melton is a bit bigger, but Carter shoots a lot better.

Bottom line: James Jones wants 2018-19 in the rear view mirror, so I doubt he considers any swap of Melton for Carter on his roster if given the chance.

Bottom line

I think there’s a good chance that James Jones swaps Elie Okobo’s guaranteed contract for some other’s team disenchanted former draft pick this week, as long as it’s not a point guard. Elie has no future here, so maybe one team’s castoff is another’s treasure.

I also think the end of the roster is entirely predicable. Tariq Owens will likely get the final two-way contract, and Odiase and Kramer will be released.

Stay tuned this week, as teams finalize the back end of their rosters now that they have to get down to 15-man limits, plus a pair of two-ways.

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