The 2018-19 NBA season is officially over, but the fun is just now beginning. We’re only six days away from the NBA Draft, then a week later is free agency where plenty of star movement is expected. How do the Phoenix Suns stack up compared to the rest of the league, in terms of how their summer expectations stack up? It’s an interesting question, because it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on right now with an extremely tight-lipped front office.
One route that hasn’t been discussed much, albeit a scenario some might not want to here, is remaining patient from a team building perspective. Over the next month, expect the Suns to address their needs at point guard and power forward, but will it be long-term answers or simple stopgaps? If I had to lean one way or another, it sounds as if GM James Jones and Co. are willing to take the more conservative approach.
Another lottery pick will be coming aboard as the new regime’s first case study of revitalized player development, whether it’s at No. 6 or trading down. Even if Phoenix selects a prospect like Coby White, he won't be starting next season or maybe even longer. Names like Patrick Beverley, Cory Joseph and Darren Collison stand out as possible short-term fixes to a longstanding problem while banking on White to be the possible answer in time.
The only moves right now that feel like formalities with the Suns’ roster are Tyler Johnson picking up his $19.2 million player option before free agency, plus one of T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson being traded within the next few weeks to open up more immediate cap flexibility. Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro mentioned on Thursday that Phoenix might not be worrying about value in return, just the salary relief offloading one or both would result in.
“Most likely it will be a trade where another team will make a draft pick for the Suns involving considerations and it gets done a week later (new league year begins),” Gambadoro said on-air about dealing Warren or Jackson soon.
As I’ve reported previously, the old regime under Ryan McDonough was advised by owner Robert Sarver to get off Warren’s contract this past offseason. No deals materialized, but I would expect that same feeling to remain especially with the recent arrivals of Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. Realistically after another injury-riddled season but some scoring growth from the perimeter, this summer will be the last chance to really sell Warren at peak value. Trading Warren for a 2019 draft pick immediately saves the Suns $10 million ($20.8 million in cap space when including Oubre’s cap hold and No. 6 salary), which would then be used to sign a better fit at power forward alongside Deandre Ayton.
With the Suns’ best basketball being played late in the season with Oubre and Bridges emerging during Warren’s absence, a trade seems best for both sides. The question would then turn to how the Suns use those aforementioned extra funds. Keep an eye on teams such as Utah and Indiana for Warren, two destinations who have a need for an aggressive stretch-four.
So how would fans feel of an offseason plan like this, which seems more and more realistic as we inch closer to June 20:
- Coby White drafted at No. 6
- Trade Warren for cap space
- Re-sign Oubre
- Sign stopgap PG = Patrick Beverley?
- Sign stopgap PF = Al-Farouq Aminu?
That’s not the best-case scenario, but, again, it seems like the route Phoenix is most comfortable going down.
This leads me to the scenario where Jones and Co. are banking on their foundational inside-out duo taking another leap under Monty Williams’ guidance. If Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are able to take the necessary steps forward as a formidable pairing, it could then give the Suns more assurance to pushing their chips all-in to advance up another level.
Honestly, this seems like a plausible scenario as well. With how open the Western Conference is going to be with a shorthanded Warriors squad, many teams will be making aggressive plays to go for a title. Maybe more so than ever, too. Phoenix isn’t going to uproot their young core for rentals, so natural growth is the way to go. Williams even mentioned after he was hired how if this team can stay the course, they can be ‘very good’ within the next year or two.
Heading into the 2019-20 campaign, the Suns can be one of the most flexible teams in case a star becomes available midseason. Johnson’s $19.2 million expiring is a valuable chip from that aspect, but there’s another player who could be pivotal.
Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick from the 2017 draft, has not lived up to his draft status through two full seasons. He’s been thrown into the fire with no stability surrounding him until now, but it seems to be too little too late at this point to revive his maximum potential.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Jackson’s shooting percentage at the rim dipped from an already pedestrian 56 percent down to an even more worrisome figure of 51 percent. Jackson, whose athleticism was supposed to help him translate into a strong finisher, also saw his two-point percentage lower from 46.4 to 44.5 percent. When you notice Jackson’s concerning shooting inconsistencies along with his recent off-court problems (skipping a fan meet-and-greet, arrested at Rolling Loud Festival), there’s a good chance Phoenix treats him more as an asset than a long-term piece now.
Declining the fourth-year team option on their second consecutive top-five selection would be embarrassing, but it further cleanses all of the pieces McDonough assembled sans Booker. The former Kansas Jayhawk has not proven to be a prospect who you willingly accept paying $8.9 million for. Instead, Phoenix could find a win-now veteran in his place or use his contract along with Johnson later on.
Dominoes can fall hundreds of different ways this offseason, and potential trades will be an area to follow along with. Adding up Johnson and Jackson’s expiring deals would equal $26.3 million, which is more than enough to take on almost any “disgruntled star” around the Association.
If Booker and Ayton advance up the ranks, that helps further rebuild the Suns’ outside image. Jones has done his best to repair it over the last two months making national radio and TV appearances shortly after the interim tag was removed. Add in more successful development on top of it then there’s an opportunity for Phoenix to capitalize later on.
Sure, this is a risky idea if you don’t believe Booker and Ayton are good enough to win games on their own, but they’re reaching that level where they should. If they prove to be better than expected between October - January, making a push at the trade deadline with big expiring makes way too much sense to me. For example, a player like Bradley Beal could be obtained for the right price if he isn’t shipped off before the season begins and Washington isn’t good. Point guards such as Mike Conley (Ja Morant mentor for a few months?) or Jrue Holiday (Zion Williamson experience starts off rocky) could also become available, but, again, that’s playing a dangerous game of assumptions.
How aggressive the Suns can be between now and February 2020 all depends on the internal development of not only Booker and Ayton, but valuable secondary pieces like Bridges and Oubre as well. And if Phoenix invests into a long-term plan for whoever is selected at No. 6, add them to the list alongside them.
The key to successfully rolling the dice on a star, or at least a big upgrade, requires the right ingredients to make a deal in the first place. If some teams of interest start off slow — Washington (Beal), Memphis (Conley), New Orleans (Holiday), Orlando (Aaron Gordon) — the Suns at least have the necessary requirements to make trade proposals very intriguing with possibly $26.3 million or more in expiring salaries.