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The Suns look better, but are they built more for the future or the present?

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The NBA has caught up to the notion that the Suns might be pretty decent. Now, the bar is raised.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Even despite their first real setback of the season against the Miami Heat on Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns remain a respected basketball team. The world has not ended after a 16-point loss, and national media members continue to praise the Suns’ newfound competence.

But that doesn’t mean all the controversy surrounding James Jones’ offseason is gone in the eyes of some.

“Yes, they built a better team”, Zach Lowe told FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring on the most recent episode of The Lowe Post. “They’ve got competent veterans in. Baynes has been better than I thought he would be, Rubio has been very good, and they’re gonna win more games. Doesn’t change the fact that they screwed up the summer.”

Lowe explains that the league is “still laughing at the Josh Jackson trade,” and continues to question moves such as trading down from the No. 6 pick as a rebuilding team. Above all, the point that he (and many others) continue to make is that while the Suns are winning right now, it doesn’t automatically signify an especially bright future.

And when you look at how the Suns are winning games without the presence of Deandre Ayton, you can see what those critics are getting at. Sure, on paper the Suns might be the youngest team in the NBA. But in practice, their second- and third-most important rotation pieces right now are arguably a 32-year-old Aron Baynes and a 29-year-old Ricky Rubio.

Kelly Oubre is flourishing, but is signed to just a two-year deal. Is the long-term plan for him to stay in Phoenix, or is management potentially eyeing a sexier name included in the 2021 free agent class?

Dario Saric is young, but his deal expires this summer. Same goes for the energetic point guard Jevon Carter. Ty Jerome has yet to play due to injury. Cameron Johnson has played about 12 minutes per game and looked fairly unremarkable in that playing time.

Perhaps most concerning of all, Mikal Bridges has still yet to find his shot through eight games, and has scored more than seven points just once.

None of this is meant to take away from the surprising early season successes of this team. For the first time in half a decade the Suns are playing solid basketball, and that should continue to excite fans.

But now that everyone is on the same page about this being at the very least a decent roster, we must once again raise the bar. And that begs the question, just how bright is the future of the Phoenix Suns? Are they still on a positive trajectory towards being a championship contender? Or are Suns fans just so starved for decent basketball that they’re willing to accept a core with the ceiling of an early round playoff exit?

What is reassuring to Suns fans is that when Deandre Ayton comes back, there will be two “prospects” on the roster with clear All-Star (or even superstar) potential. Devin Booker is a known commodity even at 23 years old, and Deandre Ayton is too polished offensively to not make a positive impact on the teams he plays for, as he already showed us his rookie season.

Conventional wisdom would say that a contending team usually needs a reliable 3rd option as well. On a core with the defensive limitations of Booker and Ayton, having someone who can help make up for those deficiencies is crucial. So scanning through this roster, who could be that third guy long-term?

Kelly Oubre certainly looks like he has potential. Oubre is averaging 17.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game on good shooting efficiency, not to mention a steal and a block for good measure. It’s precisely what Suns fans hoped for when he was re-signed this summer.

There’s just one problem with Kelly, and that’s that he hasn’t quite figured out how to complement other star players in an offense yet. That’s a nice way of saying he doesn’t pass.

So far this season, Oubre is averaging 19.9 passes per game. That’s only 0.6 more than Mikal Bridges, despite the fact that Oubre logs over 10 more minutes per game than Bridges and plays the same position. Even the rookie Cam Johnson who seems to barely touch the ball is logging more passes on a per-36 minute basis than Oubre.

Watching Oubre charge into three or four defenders at once, as you can see in the picture below, is not an uncommon sight. In this play he actually made up for an initial missed shot by grabbing his own rebound and scoring on a putback, but that’s not always the result of these drives.

With regard to Cam Johnson, perhaps he could be very good. I’d be willing to bet a three-point barrage from him is coming sometime soon. But so far he hasn’t shown us much else offensively or defensively, and his shooting stroke hasn’t been enough to make a positive impact overall.

Shooting was the reason Cam was drafted, above all other things. But if he wants to be more than just a role player at the NBA level, he needs to look a lot better at doing the basics like finishing layups in transition. His defensive reaction time was slow against Miami as well, such as in the clip below when he was guarding James Johnson.

Again, Cam is a rookie. It’s unfair to expect rookies to be good NBA players. But when projecting future potential, this stuff is important.

And with Mikal Bridges, it’s all about figuring out ways to involve himself in the offense beyond a couple of spot-up opportunities a game. We’ve seen flashes of Mikal attacking closeouts and taking pull up jumpers in the past few games. That, along with finding cutting lanes, needs to be an even greater part of his offense going forward to help contribute when his shot isn’t falling.

Perhaps the future “third-best Phoenix Sun” isn’t currently on this roster at all, but could be added through free agency or a trade. There are a million articles that could be written about those possibilities in the future.

Not to sound like a broken record, but none of this is meant to discourage you.

Feel free to give James Jones a pat on the back for assembling a solid roster, and take a lap for the (moral) victory that comes with national analysts admitting that the Suns are no longer the butt of the joke.

But you want to win a championship, don’t you?

Well, that’s a bit more of an intensive process. And it involves searching for the right puzzle pieces to perfectly complement this organization’s one-two punch of Booker and Ayton. Might as well start searching now.