Over the past three weeks, we’ve seen Jamal Crawford score 51 points in the Suns’ final game of the season as well as an emotional, impactful performance in the first round of the playoffs by Jared Dudley for the Nets.
Both moments bring up a larger question on why Phoenix was unable to get the most out of Jared Dudley on and off the court after signing him to a three-year, $30 million deal in 2017.
Dudley, always a plus-minus warrior, finished the Nets’ five-game first round series plus-9. He was also a plus-2 in 686 minutes for the 21-win Suns in 2017-18, but his overall impact ended there. You can count the number of games Dudley impacted last season in an important way on one hand.
This is not by much fault of Dudley’s own.
On June 27, 2017, the Suns announced Dudley would miss three to four months, sitting out all basketball activity during the lead-up to the season. Yet by Oct. 23, he was on the court for the Suns, less than three months after the surgery to repair a ligament and bone in his left toe.
Despite his positive plus-minus, Dudley’s physical conditioning last season was hit-or-miss as a result of having to come back early from the surgery. He was a smart playmaker and defender as always when he was on the court, but took only 80 threes in 48 games and couldn’t move well. Dudley’s minus-1.9 Box Plus-Minus (which attempts to estimate one’s impact on the box score per 100 possessions relative to league average) in 2017-18 was the lowest of his career.
Hoping to spend its money elsewhere, Phoenix shipped Dudley out last summer to save about $2.6 million and clear him from the roster. They gave up what could be a top-10 second-round pick in the deal.
Dudley, then fully recovered from the toe injury, turned around and nearly doubled his 3-point volume and helped lead the Nets to the playoffs for the first time since Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were around.
His fearlessness on the court and with his words turned him into a key piece for Brooklyn in the first round. The Suns, despite inking him to the three-year, $30 million deal, never got that type of value from him.
The reasons will be familiar for any Suns fan, but they shows that unseemly roster construction hurts the whole team, not just youngsters.
Sure, Deandre Ayton would have benefited from a point guard last season, but it’s nearly impossible for a player like Dudley who specializes as a floor-spacer and help defender to make a consistent impact when entire positions haven’t been addressed within a roster.
Furthermore, as Dudley has discussed on Twitter often, playing him when he wasn’t ready to return from injury is a symptom of poor planning on the part of the Suns. Dudley says veterans have to be able to back up their message on the court to make their mark.
Late this season, Dudley’s thesis rang true in a big way for Crawford, as the younger Suns were starstruck by their legendary teammate as he piled up points.
Putting Dudley back on the court less than three months after announcing he could be out for up to four months was a mistake. The Suns somewhat forced themselves into that position after Eric Bledsoe’s exodus put them a man down in the rotation. It put the franchise behind the eight-ball as well, preventing Dudley from truly healing up until the end of the season.
That meant that whatever message Dudley was dishing behind the scenes was difficult to back up in games when he was on the bench or ineffective.
Just what message Dudley fed the Suns last year, we also will never know. There were murmurs throughout his final season in Phoenix that Dudley was no longer such a positive impact in the locker room, though nothing ever came to the surface. It may have played a part in the franchise’s decision to trade him.
However, even if we accept his influence was questionable last year, blaming Dudley for losing focus seems harsh considering the situation around him. On a floundering, lost team — one of the worst in NBA history last season — Dudley had to return early from injury, ride the bench for games at a time, and waste a season of his career.
The team likely had a plan when they signed Dudley, 33, through the remainder of his late prime. It never came to fruition.
That has too often been the case for the Suns during this rebuild, and despite the abrupt ending to Dudley’s relationship with the organization, his situation last year has to provide a template on how to maximize the impact of veteran players going forward.