Heading into the start of next season, only four players remain from last year’s opening night roster: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Elie Okobo. Suns GM James Jones definitely placed an authoritative stamp on the organization after his interim tag was removed.
However, will it finally lead to success? Following four straight seasons with sub-25 wins, Phoenix, especially their star Devin Booker, are ready to breakout onto the scene.
Bright Side’s lead staff assembled together to chat about an offseason featuring countless movement. Let’s dive into it below:
What was your favorite offseason move for the Suns?
Evan Sidery: Even though it was to retain one of their own, re-signing Kelly Oubre Jr. to a two-year $30 million deal is a huge win-win for both sides. If Oubre can maintain his post-All-Star break efficiency — averaging around 20 points, 2 steals and 1 block per game — he’s going to easily outperform his contract. And even if there’s no real progression, $15 million annually for a starting wing nowadays is paying the least amount possible. With the cap continuously rising, contracts at critical positions of value will always float up. Oubre joining a rotation featuring Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges is a big upgrade from this time last year. From a general perspective, though, Suns GM James Jones going all-in around additional spacing this offseason for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton deserves loud applause.
Dave King: The Cam Johnson pick! Cam is my favorite offseason move — slyly moving down to 11 and taking him right out of Detroit’s clutches at 15. Johnson could easily be a multi-time All-Star and likely will have a better career than Jarrett Culver and Brandon Clarke put together. *takes another sip. watches some Simpsons. Sleeps. Wakes up. Sees what I wrote. Shrugs.* There’s no one clear-cut move that says YES I LOVE THAT but overall the roster is better shaped around Booker and Ayton. If those two are stars, the Suns will be back in the playoff hunt in the near future. The closest to a great individual move was the Ricky Rubio signing. We finally get what we’ve been asking for years to have - a playmaker who can run the show as a pass-first point guard.
Brendon Kleen: The offseason move I liked best was the Aron Baynes/Ty Jerome trade. It was actually the move I panned most strongly on draft night when it appeared Baynes was headed for a buyout, but hearing James Jones and Monty Williams discuss the impact Baynes could have on Deandre Ayton — something I agree with — changed the move entirely for me. I also think Jerome could be a fantastic third guard in the NBA, and they did all of that at the expense of just the Milwaukee Bucks pick, which will likely be in the 25-30 range again next season.
2. What move made the least amount of sense for the Suns?
ES: Hopefully his role isn’t increased from his Charlotte tenure, because signing Frank Kaminsky to a two-year $10 million contract on July 1 raised eyebrows. Last season, Kaminsky fell out of favor with the Hornets’ new coaching staff barely playing before asking out in February. Instead of being traded, which didn’t happen due to no market existing, Charlotte happily let Kaminsky walk as an unrestricted free agent. Kaminsky’s first four seasons have been filled with inconsistencies. If the Suns are asking him to be their backup power forward averaging 15-20 minutes per game, that’s a recipe to derail improvement. As we’ve seen with Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender, one destructive player on the court can disrupt any positive momentum flowing. Phoenix signing Kaminsky solely as a depth piece — third-string power forward (Dario Saric, Oubre/Bridges) and center (Ayton, Aron Baynes) — would increase the grade on this puzzling move. Kaminsky making around $4 million more than Noah Vonleh next season, who signed for the minimum in Minnesota, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
DK: Almost none of them made sense in a vacuum. As single offseason moves, not one of them could be seen as ‘that’s the one that will make the Suns a playoff team again!’. I hope you get a variety of answers on this one, rather than the simple ‘Cam’ answer. Yet, the collective outcome is a positive. The roster is better top to bottom, left to right, on roughly the same money and at the expense of only a couple of low draft picks.
BK: The move that made the least sense has to be the other draft-night trade, which allowed Minnesota to move up five spots for an absolute bargain compared with what other teams had to do to move up in this draft, including the 76ers and the Hawks. It seems the Suns’ evaluations of Dario Saric and Cam Johnson were strong enough to encourage them to forego draft capital value in the trade. Those evaluations, particularly for Johnson, won’t be proven right or wrong for a long time, but simply as a means of managing all of the opportunities available to a franchise over the course of the draft, it felt like the trade back from 6 to 11 and consequent selection of Johnson favored the Timberwolves greatly.
3. After all the transactions Phoenix made over the past few weeks, does their surprising draft night make more sense now?
ES: Absolutely. It’s apparent the Suns’ new front office prioritized winning traits in all of their offseason dominoes. Beginning with draft night, Johnson and Ty Jerome are two savvy, high IQ players who can also stretch the floor at an elite level. Both of their first-round picks were considered two of the best shooters in the entire 2019 class. Also, Johnson and Jerome are upperclassmen who have experienced success already on the highest levels. Maximizing Booker and Ayton was the primary goal, so reeling in two sharpshooters who won’t be net-negatives is an upgrade.
DK: Yes. Jones wants maturity and basketball IQ around his young stars Booker and Ayton. He wants the entire supporting cast to revolve around them, to be built to make them look better, and see what happens from there. Each of Booker and Ayton have been maligned for their inability to carry a team to a winning record. If the Suns approach a winning record now, it will be thanks to Booker and Ayton but also thanks to Jones for building a proper supporting cast.
BK: The draft definitely makes sense purely from the standpoint of who they selected. Even by the end of that evening, it was clear the Suns targeted high-character players who operated with strong basketball intellect on the court and who should the lights out. Certainly, most great teams in the NBA right now have several of those types of players. Targeting them isn’t without purpose. And as the rest of the summer played out, every single guy the Suns added to their roster fit the same bill, so operating within the confines of a specific plan is obviously an understandably way to go to work.
4. Who will be the most impactful new addition immediately?
ES: After signing a three-year, $51 million deal, the Suns better hope it’s Ricky Rubio. Overpaying for the pass-first ball handler had to happen for him to sign the dotted line, but there’s a chance he still plays at that value. Rubio has helped elevate young stars along the way like Kevin Love, Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert. Next up on the list is Booker and Ayton, who fit beautifully with Rubio’s passing wizardry. All of the high usage scorers are in place, so hiding Rubio offensively while allowing him to operate the show is how you maximize his long-term value in Phoenix through 2022. Before I close here, don’t rule out Dario Saric. There’s a real chance his renaissance season occurs reuniting with former 76ers assistant Monty Williams, which could lead to a confident bounce back campaign where his own passing skills shine through. Rubio and Saric is going to be a super fun inside-out playmaking duo.
DK: Jalen Lecque will get the most preseason headlines and comments, and maybe even into training camp. But it will be Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric who will make the most difference between a competent supporting cast and an incompetent one. If they fail, the Suns will fail because Booker and Ayton simply need competence around them to learn how to win basketball games. As James Jones said earlier this year, if you’re relying on draft picks for production (Johnson and Jerome) you’re not in a good space. They should have to earn their minutes, not be gifted their minutes.
BK: The most impactful addition in 2019-20 will be Rubio. His point-of-attack defense can set a tone for the rest of the Suns’ starting lineup, and the Suns believe Rubio can also be a coach on the floor whose value will be measured more by how the young players around him develop than even what his own statistics tell you he’s doing. All of that will be a breath of fresh air for this franchise.
5. Did the two-year, $30 million contract for Oubre surprise you? What do you think it means long-term?
ES: It definitely surprised me, because all along I assumed this would be a long-term deal. The real question was who would blink first between Phoenix and Oubre’s camp. Well, it turns out neither side blinked and instead made a compromise through the 2020-21 season. Oubre’s true market value is around $12-13 million, but the bloated free agent nature led to an asking figure closer to the $17-18 million range. Now locked in for the next two years presumably as their starting small forward, a critical evaluation period between Oubre and Phoenix begins now. If Oubre continues to shine as a third scorer next to Booker and Ayton, his price in 2021 will realistically jump to $20-plus million annually whether it ends up being with the Suns or not.
DK: I think the deal was shockingly competent and helpful for both sides. The Suns have freedom after two years in case he was a flash in the pan, or even in case he doesn’t get any better at shooting long range or any other secondary skills besides scoring. That was the problem with T.J. Warren -- the long term contract for a one-dimensional player. And Oubre has freedom to be the youngest UFA on the market in two years to get a long term payday still early in his prime.
BK: It did come as quite the surprise, mostly because the dialogue publicly on both sides seemed to be touching on a long-term agreement. However, this deal probably benefits the Suns and Oubre both more than a long-term deal would have. It seems Oubre was never going to sign a long-term contract at his true market value (around $12 million annually), so the Suns couldn’t commit to him for four or five seasons at the rate they ended up paying him this year. That push and pull on either side resulted in this two-year, $30 million deal that will allow Oubre to test his own market again in 2021 and continue to develop as part of the Suns’ young core.
6. What are your expectations for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton next season now?
ES: The Suns have finally built a roster set to maximize the offensive arsenal of Booker after four full seasons. Toiling around with well below replacement level players throughout his rookie contract, Booker continued to blossom through the chaos. He made jumps in Year 4 around pick-and-roll and isolation situations, foreshadowing again another jump towards legit superstardom. The Suns’ star guard should put up similar numbers again — around 27 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists seems very realistic — but at career-high efficiency marks. The 60 true shooting percentage campaign where Booker lights the NBA scene on fire is approaching, and it easily has the chance of being next season with all of the veterans and spacing now surrounding him. Phoenix also did well this offseason building to Ayton’s strengths offensively, too. Joel Embiid and Towns are the only two recent bigs in the modern era to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds within their first two seasons. Expect Ayton to join the club next season while growing more confident on the NBA level at age 21.
DK: I’d say Booker approaches 40 percent on three point shooting and threatens league lead in scoring per game, while assists drop to the 4-5 range again. I’d say Ayton’s numbers stay steady (11 rebounds, 1-2 blocks, high FG%) except in scoring, where he jumps to 20-22 points per game off easy assists from Rubio.
BK: Booker will have his first real chance at an All-Star game (I’d set the likelihood around 10 percent, but that’s the highest it’s ever been for him). Ayton will have a much better partner defending the pick-and-roll in Rubio, as well as another smart help defender in Saric. Any evaluation of Ayton this season should start with defense, as his growth on that end is a better predictor for the Suns’ ultimate destiny as a team than his offense. Let’s hope that he improves as a rim protector and approaches league average in terms of on/off impact defensively.
7. With everything set for 2019-20, what is your prevailing big picture take?
ES: With the roster turnover now setting in, my one big takeaway relates to the Suns’ highest paid player. It’s time to earn the big bucks, Mr. Booker. Everything has been built around him to elevate his game to the next level entering into his $158 million max contract. For the Suns to reach 30-35 wins, Booker needs to be an All-Star. The year-by-year growth seen out of Booker leads me to believe it’s happening again. According to Basketball-Reference, only four players have carried a plus-58 true shooting percentage on a plus-32 usage rate within their first four seasons: Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade, Joel Embiid, and Devin Booker.
DK: I think the Suns can double their win total from last season unless there’s major injuries to starters over several months. Yep, I’m predicting high 30s on wins.
BK: *Herm Edwards “PLAYOFFS?!? meme*