If “The Phoenix Suns’ Goal Heading During the 2019 Offseason Was To Add A Good Player At This Key Position” was a Jeopardy question, then any player, even the non-sports fans who are usually on the show, would quickly buzz in: What is a point guard.
Any primary play-maker available starting from the moment the Suns traded Eric Bledsoe was linked to the Suns. Analysts connected them with everyone from Tyus Jones to Mike Conley Jr. It wasn’t until July that the Suns finally and truly patched the hole, signing Ricky Rubio to a contract that despite filling the exact void they’d been hounded for not addressing, was panned immediately.
An overpay. Too present-minded. A bad fit with Devin Booker. All fair descriptors for the Rubio contract, but all ignoring the same reality that put the Suns in desperate position to sign him to it. Without a true play-maker, everything else looked flat-out bad.
One of the more legitimate gripes with the Rubio deal coming out of free agency is that the Suns wrongly prioritized Rubio’s skill set and could have found better value elsewhere. To me, Rubio’s $17 million average annual value (AAV) was no issue, but it was fair to wonder whether a different player on the same salary or even a lesser player on a cheaper salary would have suited the Suns better.
But so far, nearly every other candidate has disappointed, while Rubio has flourished.
Terry Rozier (signed with Charlotte for three years, $58 million; $19.3M AAV)
You can read more of my thoughts on Rozier and how this contract hamstrung the Hornets here. As we discussed on this site at the time, Rozier was reportedly in talks with Phoenix before Charlotte swooped in to overpay him.
Calling it simply an overpay probably also discounts the bind Charlotte was in. They actually signed and traded Kemba Walker as a last gasp to recoup value after keeping him for far too long on his second contract. Rozier was on his way out of Boston and represented the Hornets’ best guaranteed chance to replace Walker via trade. The contract was likely signed in part to make salaries match.
That doesn’t make it any less of a mistake overall. Chasing value for the sunk cost of Walker’s departure is silly, as is giving a solid role player superstar money. Rozier currently has the sixth-lowest Player Impact Plus-Minus of all NBA point guards. Charlotte is 12 points worse per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, and worst of all, he’s an impediment to the development of breakout star Devonte’ Graham.
This one pretty easily looks like a mistake avoided by James Jones and the Suns’ front office.
Malcolm Brogdon (signed with Indiana for four years, $86 million; $21.5M AAV)
After giving up a first-round pick and two seconds to acquire Brogdon in a sign-and-trade, Indiana found a perfect fit next to Victor Oladipo for less than a max salary. Because Brogdon has long been red-flagged among certain teams based on lingering foot injuries and the cost of snaring him from Milwaukee, the Pacers were somewhat brave to get out and get Brogdon.
The fourth-year guard looks like an All-Star now. With Oladipo still recovering from a knee injury, Brogdon is scoring 19 points per game on a stellar 57.6% true shooting percentage and dishing eight assists a night. The former Wahoo is behind only five point guards in PIPM: Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Bledsoe, and a mystery player who I will keep secret for now.
Based on his defensive versatility, continued improvement and being just 26, Brogdon still looks like someone who would have been fantastic in this Suns system. But considering how many emergency moves the Suns made just to get everything done they wanted this summer, giving up another first-rounder as well as a huge four-year contract to get Brogdon balances out the value he would have provided on the floor.
D’Angelo Russell (signed with Golden State for four years, $117 million; $29.25M AAV)
Injuries make this one hard to measure. There’s not anything new we’ve learned about Russell this year. Questions about his ability to be a No. 1 or 2 scorer on a great team remain because he relies so much on hitting really hard shots. Many players have come out just fine playing this way, but the Suns don’t necessarily seem like the right one to take that chance at this number.
Seeing how much improved defensive talent around Booker has made him better this season, Russell looks like a worse option in hindsight.
That said, the silliness put out on local radio about how Russell dominated the ball too much to play with Booker is ridiculous. Passing is one of Russell’s best attributes, and he and Booker are close friends, which has to be a factor when we think specifically about their fit together.
Defense is more of the problem here by my eyes, though how Russell plays next to guys like Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be interesting and could change how we think of his defense just like it has for Booker. There is still a lot we don’t know five years into Russell’s career.
Ricky Rubio (signed with Phoenix for three years, $51 million; $17M AAV)
What we can definitively say about Rubio after weeks of watching him thrive in Phoenix is that he was seriously miscast with the Jazz. No matter the unfortunate concerns his value to the Suns over the Jazz bring up about his future as a playoff player, Rubio’s impact in Phoenix is unmistakable.
The entire identity of the Suns stems from Rubio’s talents, more so even than Booker’s. Pace is up in Phoenix because of Rubio’s comfort making the right decision at full speed as well as his ability to create turnovers and rebound from the point guard spot. Booker is cold right now but his efficiency benefits from having Rubio on the court, and Monty Williams praises constantly the pair’s communication when they play together.
Let’s flip back to the mystery player who’s ahead of Brogdon in PIPM. That’s … Rubio!
Among point guards, only Patrick Beverley, Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn, Alex Caruso and Bledsoe are more valuable defensively by that statistic. Phoenix’s defense is 7.6 points better per 100 possessions when Rubio is on the court.
The steam engine powering the Suns’ surprising start is clearly Rubio. While $51 million is a lot of money, the Suns did score by only having to pony up for three seasons. As a part of a locker room, Rubio also has value as someone who is proud to help build a culture and identity, impart knowledge on the likes of Ty Jerome and Elie Okobo, and make people better. That stuff matters more to the Suns right now than it would other franchises.
The impact Rubio might have on Ayton is also still unknown. For the Suns to feel Rubio’s value so strongly already without seeing the partnership he will have with one of its core pieces is impressive.
There are warts. Rubio has already missed five games and is shooting just 39 percent from the field. Over the past week, he hasn’t looked like himself as he recovers from long-lasting back spasms. At some point, maybe Jerome or someone needs more playing time and Rubio’s place on the team becomes more of a conversation.
No one guessed Rubio would be among the best free agent signees a quarter of the way through the year. No one can say if it will continue. But after an offseason in which the Suns had numerous other high-profile options and their priorities began elsewhere, Rubio has been a revelation.