The departure of T.J. Warren in an unceremonious salary dump feels like a symbolic gut-punch to the Ryan McDonough era in Phoenix.
The deal set off a 2019 draft that saw the new Suns front office remake the roster quickly. The Suns’ sense of urgency -- signaled by their willingness to attach the 32nd pick to Warren to move him -- provided a template for how they would operate throughout the rest of the draft. Warren simply doesn’t seem to fit with the Suns’ new core of young players or the culture the new Suns front office is trying to build in its first offseason. Their two draft picks and acquisition of Aron Baynes solidified the makeup they want for this roster -- tough, experienced and hard-working.
Yet even the cap space cleared by trading Warren was filled up again by adding Baynes. And a roster full of guys in their mid to late 20s who play hard should have room for Warren.
There’s not much that can be said definitively about the quiet hooper except that he is a gym rat. Everyone who has come through the Suns organization and spoken about Warren agrees on that.
“He’s always been a guy that wants to win – goes out and plays hard – he’s always competing,” Warren’s mentor, David West, told The Athletic last season. “That’s always been a part of his DNA.”
“You all know TJ, he stays in the gym,” said Nevada guard Cody Martin after his pre-draft workout in Phoenix this year. “That’s what he does, he improves his game ... he’s somebody that is all basketball 24/7. There are not many people like that, so he’s one of a kind.”
Warren just never developed consistency in the areas this team needed most. While Warren was in the 91st percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, that efficiency was purely a byproduct of his ability to make big men who in drop coverage pay with his killer in-between scoring game. Passing is a deep hole in his game and has been since he entered the league — he routinely had to give the ball up just to enter it into the post.
Opponents easily slid under the pick-and-roll when Warren operated in isolation and it revealed a glaring lack of dynamic shooting despite his improvement as a spot-up threat. If Warren had a hand in his face or couldn’t get his feet set behind the arc, he likely wasn’t even going to take the three. Midway through the season, teams still didn’t respect his deep shooting ability; his gravity as a floor-spacer was limited.
Also underrated due to Warren’s development and buy-in as a shooter this year are his struggles as a team defender and rebounder, even after the team’s lack of depth forced him to play the 4. To play that position in the NBA, especially alongside a rookie center like Ayton, players need to be able to provide some help defense around the rim and chip in on the glass. Warren did neither. His -0.71 defensive real plus-minus indicates as much. Phoenix’s 29th-ranked defense was a full point worse per 100 possessions when Warren was on the court.
Throughout Warren’s career, any improvement felt profound, as is typically the case for a No. 14 pick. Considering the long odds of an “old-school” tweener succeeding in the NBA, Warren’s quick translation as an NBA scorer indicated he would be a key piece of the Suns’ core for a long time. The problem is not that Warren did not improve. The problem is that he seemingly dedicated himself to building up the skill set that he entered the league with and never really changed.
Injuries didn’t help. As Jamal Crawford said during a press conference at the end of a season in which Warren missed the final 33 games, “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 hurricane of change around Warren also made it difficult to see his development. His disdain for doing interviews with the media the past two seasons is well-known, and many believe part of the problem for the 25-year-old is that he never saw the same reporters’ faces in his locker room month to month. The same could be said for his teammates.
Before Thursday, Warren was the longest-tenured player on the Suns’ roster. He saw more turnover over the course of his first five seasons in the NBA than some players see in their career. Considering Warren’s two primary weaknesses -- defense and ball movement -- are entirely predicated upon team chemistry, moving to a more stable organization in Indiana is probably the best thing for his career.
The blame for Warren’s lack of a team game falls on him, yes, but also in large part on the people who were supposed to be building and developing a team around him.
Identifying who’s to blame for those shortcomings brings us back to McDonough. The former Celtics executive underestimated the insulation he had as a personnel guy in Boston when it came to coaching and organizational culture. Those pillars are requirements to have any hope of developing about 90 percent of the talent that enters the league.
Guys like Devin Booker -- self-motivators who rise above BS to become great -- are rare. Warren is the type who had to be groomed and never was.