The Phoenix Suns bet big on the 2018 draft class. Not only did they finally secure their first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history with Deandre Ayton, they also made an aggressive trade to move up for 3-and-D wing Mikal Bridges. Phoenix believes this class will set the tone during their rise back to competitiveness. Ayton is the certified second pillar next to Devin Booker, but Bridges’ upside flashed multiple times throughout last season.
Whether it was his lockdown on-ball defense, smart team defense, three-point shooting or blossoming passing ability, Bridges showed an array of moves not showcased much within Villanova’s structured system. Even though Bridges was one of the older prospects — he’s actually two months older than Booker — it’s unfair to place him into a simplified box. The skillset Bridges provides fits smoothly between Booker and Ayton, a defensive presence who will be able to cover up for mistakes elsewhere.
The Suns were sold on Bridges to the point they paid a steep price, at least viewed that way on draft night last year. The rights to No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith plus a 2021 unprotected Heat pick via the Goran Dragic trade were shipped to Philadelphia for the safest and most well-rounded two-way wing available in the 2018 class.
Understandably, Phoenix was criticized for dealing an unprotected first three years out to secure a player who had yet to log a single minute in the league. Instead of using this valuable asset on an established player, many wondered why they instead chose another rookie to use it on.
Well, one year later, the Suns are looking very smart making that long-term investment into Bridges. Also, it was foolish to expect an organization like Miami to roll over and not try to improve between now and 2021.
Though Bridges averaged just 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 assists in 29.5 minutes, dive a little deeper and you’ll realize the former Villanova Wildcat could be on the cusp of a full-fledged breakout campaign. Bridges became the first rookie in NBA history to amass at least 125 steals and 70 or fewer turnovers. And if we keep it limited to all players from last season, P.J. Tucker and Bridges were the only two to accomplish this unique statistic.
Bridges’s two-way blend of supreme defense and outside shooting shows the archetype he’s heading towards, too. Kerry Kittles and Bridges were the only rookie wings to tally at least 125 steals and 100 three-pointers made, per Basketball-Reference. Throughout history, the other wings who have finished a single season with 150 steals and 125 three-pointers, which would be a slight improvement from where Bridges sits, are as follows: Paul George, Trevor Ariza, Shawn Marion, Paul Pierce and Scottie Pippen.
Bridges is ready to assume a bigger role under new head coach Monty Williams, who compared Bridges to Lakers legend Michael Cooper during his introductory press conference in May. After carrying an extremely low usage rate of 12.5 percent in year one, I’d assume this number vaults up towards the high teens or maybe even low 20s. As I’ve said countless times over the last year, betting against someone who carries a work ethic like Bridges’ is foolish.
Whether it’s in the starting lineup or as the Suns’ sixth man, Bridges is poised to fully breakout — and it sure looks like he’s taken his first offseason as a professional seriously. Bridges told the local media at Williams’s press conference that he was going to stay in Phoenix all summer working on perfecting his craft. If his parents want to visit, they’ll have to fly from Philadelphia. Good luck getting this gym rat to stop anytime soon.
While Bridges looks well on his way to ascending from role player to an ultra-versatile wing who can spray threes and swipe steals at high rates during his sophomore season, it’s time to circle back around and see the trail Phoenix left by trading Dragic.
The Suns used the pick to obtain Bridges, but Philadelphia then pivoted around less than eight months later using it to push all-in for a Finals berth. Tobias Harris was acquired from the Clippers thanks to some help from the Miami pick — and he’s now signed a full five-year max contract to stay. Los Angeles is now armed with the trade chip, but its value is losing steam fast.
Jimmy Butler had an interesting 2018-19 season, to say the least. Starting off in Minnesota, Butler went rogue, aggressively forcing his way off the Timberwolves’ roster by requesting a trade right before the regular season began. Eventually, Minnesota shipped Butler to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and new Suns starting power forward Dario Saric mid-season. Little did anyone know Butler’s stint in Philadelphia would be so short lived, because he’s now with the Heat sending back Josh Richardson via sign-and-trade.
Miami was aggressively pursuing Butler when he first asked out of Minnesota, but the Timberwolves’ front office instead chose the 76ers’ offer after waiting around too long. Now, with the star forward aboard, what’s next for the Heat? Hassan Whiteside was already dealt and Ryan Anderson’s contract will most likely be stretched or waived altogether.
Out of nowhere, even though many didn’t expect it to happen so fast, Miami has created an avenue around Butler to create max cap space in 2020 and/or 2021. If they are able to offload two of James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters — one trade, stretch provision and declining a player option gets it done, but there are other options — Riley and Butler will be able to have enough money to convince upcoming free agents such as Draymond Green, DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry. Another option is rolling over the money and waiting for the 2021 superclass featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal, Paul George, Blake Griffin and Victor Oladipo.
Next season, the Heat will now make the playoffs. From there, anything seems possible with Pat Riley manning the controls and Butler now secured as his franchise’s superstar. When 2021 rolls around, Miami won’t be where many thought they would be. Instead, they are near pole position in the Eastern Conference to be one of the fastest risers if future free agency periods go flawlessly.
Over one year later, it sure looks as if everyone benefited from the Suns-76ers draft night swap. Bridges solidified himself rapidly as a long-term piece of the Suns’ young core. Philadelphia used the pick acquired from Phoenix to nab their long-term small forward in Harris. Los Angeles could land Kawhi Leonard within the next few days, but, if not, they are set up wonderfully to capitalize on the next disgruntled star who wants out.
Thanks to the Heat’s aggressiveness, Phoenix has now paid a discount when many thought it was an overpay for Bridges. Sending Smith, an unproven commodity who only logged 116 total minutes in the regular season and playoffs due to an allergic reaction, and now a first-round pick expected to fall in the late first round two years from now is an excellent value play. In a rare win-win-win for all sides impacted, the Suns walked away as huge winners once Bridges switched from donning Philadelphia blue to Phoenix purple on June 21, 2018.