Will they/won’t they suspense makes for great entertainment in the NBA but it hasn’t helped the Suns one bit during the eight straight seasons they’ve missed the playoffs.
Wandering about in the wilds of rebuilding does no one any favors and it seems Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones realizes this. Chart his comments about the Suns’ priorities under his guidance since he took over and the faint outline of the right priorities are there. Under former General Manager Ryan McDonough, the Suns would meet each season of losing with a subsequent summer of big-name free agent dreams, creating a lack of clarity in the organization’s direction that hurt their flexibility.
Now, Jones is at least publicly crafting a message that he plans to be more frugal and future-minded in his approach. He told Bright Side donors this month that he wanted to mostly avoid trades because in his words “it takes two to tango” and he is hesitant to draw from others’ reserves when building around Devin Booker. He acknowledged the team had “shifted focus” from the draft. He shot down the idea of trading for a declining veteran such as Mike Conley when asked about it on his weekly 98.7 FM Arizona Sports appearance in mid-January. Is this Jones’ version of The Process?
It may have been McDonough who put #TheTimeline into being when he used the phrase at Jones’ introductory press conference two summers ago but it’s Jones who is actually operating in full tank mode. Tanking in the NBA, when executed correctly, takes care to find as many possible bites at the apple in the draft and player development to give a team the absolute maximum opportunity to acquire multiple superstar players. That’s why what McDonough and others around the league have purported to be aggressive rebuilding was nothing more than a farce.
Take the Suns’ unwillingness to take on future money to gather future assets. In the past, Phoenix demonstrated a negligent refusal to take other teams’ bad contracts in exchange for draft assets, watching as teams like the Nets nearly every summer operated with this type of flexibility and came away with many more young players than the Suns, even if none was drafted in the top five. By signing Devin Booker to a maximum extension last summer, the Suns cut into their cap flexibility in 2019 for a positive public relations boost and Booker’s trust. It will be harder for them to upgrade the roster this summer as a result.
One way they could do it, should Jones put the team’s money where his mouth is, is to use Ryan Anderson’s remaining salary to execute precisely the kind of deal outlined above. The Suns are reportedly aiming to be sellers at the deadline and our Evan Sidery outlined how the contract could work as a trade chip this summer, but it has even more value at this year’s trade deadline to get teams out of the red heading toward what will be a bonkers free agency period. Take Memphis, eager to accelerate their rebuild by getting assets back for Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and looking to offload Chandler Parsons’ $49 million in conjunction with any such trade. The Suns could use Anderson’s cheaper contract to save the Grizzlies money and get a draft pick or young player in return — more bites at the apple.
The Suns could help other teams even more. Back when the Hornets were looking more aggressively at trading Kemba Walker, rumor had it they would do so only if another team would take on one of their albatross contracts. It would be ugly, but the Suns could use Anderson to relieve Charlotte of the three years and the approximately $77 million left on Nicolas Batum’s contract — and surely receive quite an asset in return, whether that be Malik Monk or a future first-round pick. That would give Charlotte more flexibility this summer as they look to lock up Walker and, yes, provide the Suns another bite at the apple.
The ultimate tanking move for Jones and the Suns — if they believe the young core still won’t be ready in 2019-20 to compete for the playoffs — would be to reset with T.J. Warren, turning him into a pick or a young player. Atlanta is adopting a similar idea in their reported willingness to deal promising young wing Taurean Prince, whose two-way potential is probably higher than that of Warren. Ditto for the Mavericks engaging on Dennis Smith Jr. before ultimately dealing him to New York on Thursday afternoon. Philadelphia did this numerous times under Process Master Sam Hinkie, most notably with Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, whom they (as Suns fans will remember) turned into a top-five protected Lakers first-round pick right after he won the award.
Warren is more valuable to a competitive team as a super scorer off the bench than starting for the Suns, so selling on him when his value is highest to add even more young talent is an ideal way to capitalize on his breakout season as a stretch four.
All of this means more losing, surely. Yet no roster concoction for the 2019-20 season could make you confident about the Suns getting better. This team will go as far as its young stars take it. They were not trying to tank at the beginning of this season but the roster didn’t develop as planned. Heading into next year, no reasonably available player will elevate their ceiling all that much on his own. Booker and Ayton are the nucleus, everything else must be about maximizing and shepherding the players around them into a full core.
It may be difficult to stomach, but using the remaining assets at their disposal to get even a few more opportunities to acquire a star player is more likely to be successful and a plan Jones seems to understand better than his predecessors in the front office ever did.