Most young playoff teams have that one player who unexpectedly becomes the heart and soul of the locker room, even if their on-court role is pretty small. The 2017-18 Sixers had JJ Redick. The 2018-19 Nets had Jared Dudley. This year’s Grizzlies had key leaders like Solomon Hill and Kyle Anderson. If the Suns aim to be a breakthrough team next season, they may value such players a little more highly on the open market this offseason than other teams will.
In particular, two players come to mind who could fill that mold, though both will be hard to pry loose. Wesley Matthews and Garrett Temple each possess options for 2021, but if the Suns were willing to spend a bit to sign either guy, they could make a big impact in the Suns’ locker room and at least be playable rotation pieces on the court.
During the summer, Temple, who is one of the vice presidents of the NBA Players’ Association, gained a lot of attention for the leading role he took in orchestrating the league’s return to play and especially its place in the national conversation around race and social justice. We know the Suns are not afraid to let members of the organization speak their mind, from Monty Williams to Aron Baynes to Robert Sarver himself. Having someone who is respected around the league and who younger players could look up to could be big for the Suns. Players using the platform of the NBA for outspokenness about social justice and police brutality will not end in 2020, and having someone in the locker room who could be a guiding light in that regard may appeal to Williams and James Jones as they plan for next season.
Likewise, Matthews was part of the Bucks team that spurred a series of strikes across sport this summer. While perhaps not known as much for being an outspoken activist, Matthews is clearly comfortable in this league and has played with many great teams, coming up with the same Portland group that Williams got his start on and moving on to play with everyone from Dirk Nowitzki to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Off-court savvy is not the only reason Temple and Matthews make sense in Phoenix. Both are willing and capable three-point shooters, with Matthews hitting 36 percent this season and Temple falling below his career norms a bit to knock down just 33 percent (albeit on a solid 6.2 attempts per game). Neither is a perfect long, modern wing like Mikal Bridges or Kelly Oubre Jr., but both players are functionally strong and mobile enough to defend most wings, even those who are bigger than them, off the bench. Both Matthews and Temple maintained positive Defensive Box Plus-Minuses even in their 30s this season, an indication that they are at least functional pieces of good defenses and wouldn’t hurt the Suns so long as they don’t drop off.
Though Jevon Carter (who is also a restricted free agent) played out of his mind in the Bubble, he is not a prototypical backup for Devin Booker at the 2. More realistically, you’d like to let Carter defend ball-handlers and spot up for three and limit what you ask of him. That’s where Matthews or Temple could come in. They are more physically equal to guard NBA wings without sacrificing shooting. Put Cameron Payne and Dario Saric (and maybe Oubre) out there as your primary initiators in the second unit and trust that Matthews or Temple will knock down open shots and keep the offense in rhythm.
A reminder that Temple has a team option for $5 million this year while Matthews has a player option for $2.7 million. Both players could easily become available, though.
The Nets figure to be one of the primary players in free agency this summer, and declining Temple’s option or using him functionally as a fake salary in a trade (in which the receiving team then declines the option) could mean he hits the market. Brooklyn would be smart to keep him around ahead of a season that figures to be pretty chaotic, but they have their sights set much higher than Temple, it seems.
Matthews would be pretty easy to coax out of Milwaukee. Considering the Bucks would be smart to upgrade his spot anyway as they chase a championship in 2021 and the Suns have multiple paths to giving him more than $2.7 million, it would be no surprise to see Matthews leave Milwaukee. It may not be the best use of resources, but if the Suns strike out elsewhere or truly see Matthews as a strong addition, they could even pay him up to the $4.7 million mini mid-level exception without sweating it.
Everything is a bit up in the air when it comes to filling out the bench with veterans like these two. A lot will depend on how the Suns’ use their cap space and whether they operate under or over the cap in free agency. That dictates which exceptions they have to use and how much wiggle room they have to re-sign their own free agents like Saric or Aron Baynes.
Still, we saw how dedicated the organization was to making Jamal Crawford a key part of the roster even during a terrible 2018-19 campaign, so it’s something we can assume Jones prioritizes. Maybe those boxes are checked by Baynes and Ricky Rubio, but if the Suns want to simultaneously add shooting/wing depth (which they need) and veteran leadership, Temple and Matthews are two strong, cost-effective options who bring both qualities.