One tweet from a disgruntled Eric Bledsoe three games into his fifth season in Phoenix changed the fortunes of the Suns’ backcourt not only for the 2017-18 season, but also long-term.
Since this moment that led to a war of words through the media between former GM Ryan McDonough and Bledsoe’s agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, many things around the organization have been changed. Less than a year later, McDonough was fired and replaced by James Jones. But the bigger picture here is the carnage that Bledsoe left behind with his sudden departure.
All of the following players have logged minutes at point guard for Phoenix over the last 163 games: Mike James, Tyler Ulis, Shaquille Harrison, Josh Gray, Elfrid Payton, Isaiah Canaan, Jamal Crawford, Elie Okobo, Jawun Evans, De’Anthony Melton, and Tyler Johnson.
Let’s pause for just a second to acknowledge how incredible that is in that short amount of time. It’s very impressive how this list barely features any starting-caliber talent with three second-round picks, four G Leaguers, two mid-season trades, and two free agents signings at the veteran’s minimum. Cycling through 11 point guards over that span is a very worrisome note, but, if this restructured front office featuring Jones at the head with Jeff Bower and Trevor Bukstein alongside him is legit about quick improvement, point guard should be their top priority this offseason.
Whether it’s through the draft, free agency or trade, it’s time to finally solve the main roster spot plaguing the Suns once and for all. The question is who are the most realistic options? Unfortunately, I don’t see any way Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker choose Phoenix if they decide to leave their respective locations. (Irving staying in Boston or leaving for the Knicks seem like the only two options. Walker seems more open if he were to bolt Charlotte, but his market would be vast likely featuring the Knicks, Lakers, Clippers, Pacers and Mavericks if the Suns wanted to somehow get involved.)
With that out of the way, which ones actually check a lot of the boxes that is needed to thrive alongside a high-usage combo guard like Booker? In no particular order, Booker’s backcourt partner needs to posses solid defense, facilitating ability, and being a consistent threat on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Through the three avenues of talent acquisition Phoenix can head down in a few months, six names stood out to me as names Suns fans should keep an eye on heading into another critical offseason.
Draft: Ja Morant
May 14 will be the first day where dominoes fall into place for the 2019 NBA Draft. The Suns own the top odds at the No. 1 pick at 14% along with the Knicks and Cavaliers, same for picks two through four as well, but their tiebreaker was lost last week so there’s a 33.1% chance they fall out of the top five entirely.
The new lottery reform led to more hope at the top, but being leapfrogged has even more costly consequences than ever before. Falling all the way down to No. 7 (7.1% odds) with 19 wins would be a doomsday type of scenario for this franchise, in my opinion. However, even if they stay where they are now at No. 3, they still have a solid chance of landing their probable No. 2 prospect on their draft board: Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
Morant has the athleticism that makes viewers jaw drop, but also the savviness to manipulate defenders at will out of pick-and-roll with his playmaking ability. At 6’3”, 175 pounds with a 6’7” wingspan, Morant has the physical traits needed to run the show nowadays in the pace-and-space era. The numbers also back up the 19-year-old’s impressive play averaging 24.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 10 assists and 1.8 steals on a well above-average 61.2 true shooting percentage.
When I asked an NBA executive and scout about Morant last month, they were blown away most by his vision. It’s not too often you see a point guard prospect have the attributes Morant does, especially the way he’s able to slice and dice defenses when he draws attention his way. His triple-double outing against Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was a showcase of how he can destabilize defenses within a few minutes time.
On the cusp of this outing, I asked said executive an interesting hypothetical scenario to ponder over:
You land No. 2 in the lottery and have the chance to select Morant. The thing is, new Pelicans GM David Griffin loves Morant and wants to reset in the Bayou by swapping out Jrue Holiday for his rights. Would you give up the opportunity on Morant for a more win-now solution in Holiday? According to this executive, he wouldn’t do it.
Therein lies the interesting dilemma Jones, Bower, Bukstein and owner Robert Sarver could face if they are staring Morant in the face when they’re on the clock. With how young this roster is — and the window of other teams currently in the Western Conference playoffs — Morant seems the most plausible route they will go unless they are blown away for an All-Star option.
The biggest critiques of Morant relate to his lack of competition in the Ohio Valley Conference and his porous defense. The comparison cloud for Morant is one filled with All-NBA outcomes, but he needs patience with his development process along with the exact fit to maximize his strengths. Ironically enough, the more I thought about it as I waffled back-and-forth on the Morant or trade fence, Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov’s player development background leads me to believe he could help bring out the best in him as we saw this season with countless members of their young core.
Drive-and-Dish Capabilities = John Wall
Shooting Improvement Upside = Kemba Walker
Athleticism = Russell Westbrook
Scoring Package = De’Aaron Fox
Whatever the Suns end up deciding to do at the point guard position will help lay the foundation of their plans to ascend. If they go the Morant route, they are staying patient while also betting on so much high-upside lottery prospects gelling into a newer version of the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Oklahoma City Thunder era led by Booker, Deandre Ayton and the explosive athlete from Murray State.
Trade: Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry
If the Suns were to fall in this year’s lottery, which is a worrisomely high level of 59.8%, there ends the Zion Williamson and Morant sweepstakes. Instead, Phoenix would immediately pivot towards trying to acquire an All-Star talent possibly using their pick in the process.
For these three options, Holiday is the only one I could see where the Suns have to send off their own pick. For Conley and Lowry, the price will be cheaper and probably only takes an expiring contract (Johnson), wing (T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson) plus future assets.
All of them check the box of a win-now move, though. Acquiring Holiday, Conley or Lowry would go a long way towards finally pushing their rebuild forward exponentially. The cherry on top would be getting lucky with Williamson then moving pieces for one of Conley or Lowry. A playoff contender in one fell swoop, but it’s not that easy sadly.
Phoenix hasn’t had a truly elite point guard since Steve Nash. None of these options are on the Nash level, but they could find the fountain of youth to extend their careers with peak production playing with the likes of Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr.
If we excluded the draft entirely, trade should be the route the Suns explore rather than free agency.
Free Agency: Ricky Rubio, Terry Rozier
With Walker and Irving likely to scoff at the idea of joining Phoenix, there isn’t many attractive starting-level point guards out there. Before I get asked about two popular choices, Malcolm Brogdon and Patrick Beverley, I left them off because 1.) I’m predicting Brogdon re-signs in Milwaukee and 2.) Beverley would be probably be playing behind Johnson.
Anyways, if we were to analyze the two most likely candidates for the Suns to pursue as free agents, Rubio and Rozier definitely are the ones who stand out most. Comparing the two is an interesting exercise if you go on a simple Player A and Player B basis.
Player A (per 100 possessions + advanced metrics): 19 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.8 steals; 12.9 PER, 50.1 TS%, 18.6 USG%, 3.2 WS, 0.6 VORP
Player B (per 100 possessions + advanced metrics): 21.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 2.3 steals, 14.0 PER, 52 TS%, 22.7 USG%, 3.7 WS, 0.9 VORP
Player A is Rozier and Player B is Rubio. The Spaniard is four years older than the former Louisville Cardinal, but he trumps him in every important statistical category for primary ball handlers.
Both make sense as targets when you connect the agent dots, too. When Tyson Chandler was bought out less than two weeks into the regular season so he could go join the Lakers, that wasn’t by mistake. Chandler and Rubio share the same agent, so could that favor be returned with Rubio’s arrival in three months?
The Rozier angle is even more interesting when you realize the Suns’ Director of Player Development, Cody Toppert, trained him throughout his pre-NBA career and they signed Ray Spalding late in the year. Spalding has the same agent as Rozier, with ‘Scary Terry’ as the No. 1 client overall. Is that doing a favor in advance to secure an offer sheet from a 24-year-old point guard?
There’s so many directions this offseason could go for the Suns. Next month will help decide how to proceed with their draft strategy, but the craziness intensifies even further as we inch closer towards July 1. After two years of ignoring the crater-sized hole on their roster, expect the point guard riddle to finally be solved very soon.
What’s the best-case scenario at point guard for the Suns?
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