When a team underperforms in the standings, the offseason feels like a monumental opportunity to dramatically improve.
So it has been for the Suns the past three summers now, as each new draft class, unexpected trade targets, and accomplished crop of free agents bloom while the thermometer shoots up past 100 degrees. It always feels like they’re needing to turn a page.
Mostly, though, they’ve chosen to stay out of the biggest deals and haven’t been all that aggressive. Outside of trading up from No. 16 to No. 10 on draft night in 2018 to nab Mikal Bridges, and from 13 to 8 to take Marquese Chriss in 2016, the Suns haven’t really gone all in in any meaningful way. They’ve been bystanders as DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis created an upswell of rumors and negotiations, while they themselves were hurt by bad luck on lottery night in two of the past three years.
Yet even after winning just 40 games the past two seasons total, the Suns are content, it appears, to move forward with the crown jewel of their rebuild, 2019 No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, and the jackpot mid-round pick, Devin Booker. They have already begun to surround these two with capable role players such as Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and T.J. Warren.
The plan is sound. At a certain point, you have to compete with the talent you have, rather than constantly looking toward the horizon for a miracle trade to catapult you into championship contention. The problem is that it feels like the Suns may have done so too early, not taking into account the recent failures that left their roster incomplete.
Consider Philadelphia, who after years of outright tanking committed to playing their guys and trying to win in 2017. They surprised everyone with 50 wins and a second-round appearance in the 2018 playoffs, but the roster was deep and fit well together after a heavy emphasis on the draft under Sam Hinkie gave them talented players at every spot.
This was the blueprint for the 2018-19 season for the Suns. They even went out and spent money on Trevor Ariza as their version of JJ Redick, who spaced the floor for the 76ers’ stars and brought playoff pedigree to a young group of players. Yet the short-sightedness (or infighting) that left the Suns without a starting-caliber point guard to begin the year doomed the entire operation and cost Ryan McDonough and Igor Kokoskov their jobs.
Co-interim general managers James Jones and Trevor Bukstein righted the ship a bit with trades that added veteran role players and made the Suns look like a real NBA team at times during the season. They can retain both Oubre and Tyler Johnson heading into next year, which explains part of their complacency thus far in the summer.
It’s hard to find a larger explanation for their reported patience this offseason. Local reporters such as John Gambadoro and Duane Rankin have shot down just about every rumor showing the Suns will move up in the draft or pursue big trades.
This could be its own form of posturing — the Suns could capitalize on this misdirection by actually being quite aggressive, but this seems unlikely based upon the messaging from Jones and new coach Monty Williams. The emphasis, yet again, will be on development. Again, this indicates a contentedness with what’s already on the roster.
While it is unfair to make sweeping judgments on the competitive ceiling of a roster full of guys who are not yet 25 years old, the bigger problem is not capitalizing on opportunities when they present themselves. The Suns could make trades to clear cap space, move up in the draft, or act as the aggressors to upgrade their talent by way of a trade. Maybe they will.
All the public vibes from this braintrust, however, indicate the opposite. And while each individual case must be taken separately to account for the value of a given player, his fit with this roster, and how much acquiring him might cost, it’s hard to believe no opportunity has materialized that appeals to the Suns.
Right now, all we know is the team is targeting veteran point guards to run the offense and raise the floor of the team. Getting a solid playmaker is vital to take a step forward, but by reportedly not getting in the mix for higher-ceiling guys like D’Angelo Russell or even Lonzo Ball, the Suns’ relaxed approach shows again.
It also highlights a broader stance not to get involved in moves that change the makeup of the core. This is a bet. A bet that while so many failures dot the recent history of the franchise, Jones and Bukstein have landed on a group that can buck the trend. Certainly, the roster showed signs of life in December and February last season. Were they legitimate enough to bet on going forward?
Time will tell. Using the 76ers as a useful template again, we see that maintaining future flexibility allows teams to continue to upgrade their roster once they find out more about their players. As it became clear to Philadelphia that they needed a larger dose of shooting and off-the-bounce shot creation, they made aggressive trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, two All-Star-caliber players approaching free agency.
No one expects the Suns to jump to that extreme quite yet. But staying silent also feels like a mistake, especially in a year with a weak draft class and so many moving parts in free agency. With Booker beginning his second contract and Bridges and Ayton expected to continue improving as sophomores, the time feels ripe to push a few more chips into the middle of the table and see what’s possible. There is a middle ground between patience and complacency.
It’s a fine line to walk, and what little we do know indicates Jones and his staff are veering further toward the complacency side.