All season, the Suns refused to deem T.J. Warren officially shut down for the year.
With a $250,000 bonus at stake if he were to attempt 185 three-pointers and the Suns trying desperately to win games at the end of the year, Warren was expected to return at some point. He did return in mid-December after the original ankle injury, but eventually went back to the bench on Jan. 24 for good.
Is this just another lost season during the Suns’ rebuild that ultimately won’t matter? Another few months of rehab that will ultimately help Warren stay healthy the rest of his career?
Or is it something worse — a split between team and player that indicates disagreement over readiness to play.
“I just wanted to make sure I could be myself when I came back,” Warren said Wednesday to the few media members who could catch up to him. “Mentally and physically, I wasn’t feeling like that. I didn’t want to rush it and have any second thoughts. So I just wanted to make sure I was mentally, physically free. I wasn’t feeling like that so that’s why I didn’t return.”
All year, teammates and coaches indicated Warren was on his way back, nearly ready to rejoin the lineup, capture that bonus and begin his return to playing shape.
We learned Wednesday he was playing basketball, but apparently was not ready to play in full-speed games by the time the season finished.
“There were so many days, people don’t know, that we came and played 1-on-1 full court or we played 5-on-5 because that was like his sanctuary,” said Jamal Crawford. “He wanted to get out there. He was limited, but just do what he could. He wanted to be on the court. He loves to play basketball.”
The other slight reason for concern Wednesday came when Warren set the record straight on the nature of his injury. All year, the Suns’ injury report called it soreness, while Warren told azcentral sports it was bruise that occurred all the way back in November, when he first missed games.
More questions than answers
Was Warren’s hesitancy to go full bore at the core of his extended absence, or was it the team’s hesitancy to let him go out there that caused him to miss the final 33 games of the year? Neither leads to a great answer.
Warren’s discomfort mentally and physically sounds a lot like the Kawhi Leonard situation from last year, in which a fissure opened up between he and the team as a result of their belief he was ready to play when he didn’t think so. Leonard, of course, went on to demand a trade in part because of his tension.
That’s not to claim the same might happen with Phoenix and Warren, as he’s still been positive about his outlook individually and with the team. Warren told AZCentral Sports he believes the core is in place to win many more games next year. He’s never claimed unhappiness in Phoenix.
On the other hand, the Suns not wanting him out there might indicate concerning shockwaves below the surface. Do they have a plan in place to move him out to free up cap space and playing time for next season? Does his injury history (he’s never played more than 66 games in a season) worry them?
If any of those questions led them to sit him out when he could have played and Warren is putting out niceties to avoid public fallout with the team, that’s not a good look. We may never know enough to say so definitively.
Comparing Warren’s injury to that of Lonzo Ball, who missed 35 games with a sprain, shows Warren sat out a perfectly reasonable amount of time for a bigger dude with a bum ankle.
However, Warren was both drafted and extended by Ryan McDonough. New guys are in the building in just about every direction Warren might look. He’s a notoriously quiet guy, despite building a relationship with Crawford this season.
How it looks from the outside
When Josh Jackson was asked about the carousel of teammates he’s seen during his time in the NBA, he said he was shocked to notice he and Devin Booker were the two longest-tenured guys on the team. Ouch — Warren’s time in Phoenix outlasts either of the two pals, and Booker and Warren’s relationship is four years old.
Separating Warren’s passion and team play from the way he disdains the media is tough. It’s unfair to think he doesn’t get along with his teammates because he hates talking to reporters.
However, the other factors (new decision-makers, new teammates, a shoddy health record), mean the Suns could easily have already decided to move on and simply didn’t want to risk him hurting himself anymore by rushing him onto the court.
For a team trying to build a better reputation around the league with opposing teams, agents and prospective players, the mere perception that there might be something shady going on here complicates things.
Warren’s future in Phoenix may already be decided, but the impact of how the Suns handled him this season may leave a bigger imprint than the forward’s surprise season.