The Phoenix Suns are facing a February 6 deadline to improve the current team or leave them alone to grow by themselves with the roster at hand.
On one hand, the Suns are a solid non-playoff team with a 19-26 record and a focus on developing their young talent for better results in future seasons. They are on the right track, already with as many wins this season as a year ago and on track to nearly double last year’s win total. So it’s all gravy from here on out with a young core that averages just under 23 years old.
On the other hand, a down year in the West has this same Suns team just two games out of playoff position with 36 to go. Even a small talent upgrade could potentially propel the Suns into the playoffs to end a nine-year drought.
The Suns starting lineup plus Mikal Bridges is very solid and able to keep up with nearly any team in the West.
Most observers of the Suns this past month would agree that the stable is a bit short on reinforcements in the face of injury. Especially lately, the Suns are down three of their nine expected major rotation players while Aron Baynes (hip soreness), Cameron Johnson (quad strain) and Frank Kaminsky (kneecap fracture) heal.
On Friday night, for example, Monty Williams looked down his bench to see only a raw rookie, a trio of second-year players and a dramatically underperforming veteran. Of that group, only Mikal Bridges provides consistently positive impact on games. The others — Elie Okobo, Jevon Carter, Ty Jerome and Tyler Johnson — are shooting only about 35% this month and are a big net negative on the scoreboard.
Fortunately, Baynes and Cam Johnson are expected to return to the active roster in the coming days, which would put the Suns a solid 8-deep.
But none of Baynes, Cam or Frank the Tank will ever solve the Suns biggest problem — playmaking in the second unit when starters Ricky Rubio and/or Devin Booker rest. Whatever the reasons, long-term or short-term, none of Okobo, Carter or Jerome is ready to help bolster the playmaking — passing AND scoring — enough to push the Suns into the playoffs this season.
When Suns General Manager James Jones considers upgrading his roster, he almost certainly would agree with my assessment that additional playmaking is not likely to be found internally.
Finding a playmaker
What playmakers — those who can both shoot off the catch and run an offense — are available around the league? I have no idea who will actually be available (rather than just rumored by unnamed sources), but these are the kind of players the Suns should look to acquire.
A quick check on basketball-reference.com finds 25 players who fit the mold of:
- coming off the bench (< 10 starts with > 25 games played)
- having a little bit of playmaking in their game (at least 10% assist percentage)
- solid three-point shooting percentage (+35%).
That’s it. Just 25 players meet that minimum criteria, and sadly guess who makes the list? Yes, Elie Okobo and Jevon Carter are two of those 25 players. Ugh.
Those are the playmakers the Suns could target, if they are made available in trade. Who knows which of those players would be available, though. With no less than 25 teams still sniffing the playoff race, teams are going to have to be bold to trade out now.
Maybe player for player to find the right mix. Would the Sixers would trade Raul Neto for Elie Okobo in a straight swap, for example? Or would the Knicks trade Emmanuel Mudiay for Okobo? Or Ty Jerome?
Denzel Valentine could be yet another under-athletic but smart player to the rotation, yet he can’t make a name for himself on lowly Chicago so could it work somewhere else?
The cream of the crop might be Dennis Schroder of the OKC Thunder. But with them squarely in the 7th spot in the playoffs, why would they make any trades?
Or the belle of the ball in terms of talent could be Bogdan Bogdanovic, if the Kings don’t want to deal with losing him in free agency. They couldn’t get him to sign an extension before unrestricted free agency next summer and now he’s in line for $15-20 million per year. And he will want to start next year.
I don’t know, folks. Maybe you’ve got better ideas than me. Click that link to look at the names and try to find trades that work.
Evaluating Suns trade assets
What I also believe is that James Jones is on a slower roll than many in Suns nation, meaning that he is not contemplating swapping some of the best young core pieces for short-term rentals who could help a playoff run today but won’t be the same or better in future seasons.
Don’t trade the ‘core’
My version of the Suns core of players not to be traded, at least for the rest of this season, is a quint of Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. I don’t believe that a mid-season trade should involve any of these players unless a clear upgrade is acquired that would improve the Suns trajectory now AND later.
Everyone on that list is a top-6 player on this team and all but Rubio in 24 or younger. The reason Rubio should be part of the core is that he’s the major reason the Suns have jumped from 30th on offense last year to the 10-15th range this year.
Ranking who/what is left
I polled some nationally-oriented media folks to get a gauge of that they would find interesting among the assets I gave them to list, and here’s what came back (in order).
- Suns protected first round pick - top-7 protected
- Aron Baynes and his $5 mil expiring to UFA status
- Cameron Johnson
- Dario Saric and his $3 mil expiring to RFA status
- Elie Okobo / Ty Jerome / Jevon Carter
- Tyler Johnson and his $19 million expiring to UFA status
They all thought a lightly-protected first round pick in the 2020 draft would be the biggest asset the Suns have.
Then votes vacillated between Baynes and Cameron Johnson as the next best asset outside the core-four.
Saric was clearly the next best available, given his low salary, ability to start and be the 4th or 5th best player on a playoff-caliber team.
Then rankings broke down at the bottom. None of those polled thought much of Okobo, Jerome, Carter or even Tyler Johnson and his big expiring contract. Since there’s no big free agent class this summer, and since all the deals are shorter these days, teams are not dying to get rid of $19 million in salary this summer.
What say you, Suns fans? What do you think the Suns should do here?
I am clearly thinking small at the trade deadline, and letting the DA, Booker, Bridges and Oubre core grow. But what do you think?