As we approach the end of 2020, the Phoenix Suns franchise is approaching a major intersection: blow through the yellow light to put veterans around a young core in a playoff push, or tap the brakes to allow that core to develop naturally and at a bit slower pace?
To be sure, the Suns core is built around a 24-and-under group that includes four starters and a top backup. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cameron Johnson are not even in their primes, yet led the league’s youngest roster to the brink of the playoffs with an 8-0 end of season run.
Year two of a rebirth is much more difficult than year one, however. Remember how those thisclose 2013-14 Suns returned after a summer off? Players get in their own heads, expecting success to come easy. Front offices mis-evaluate their own players’ abilities. Chemistry is thrown off by the wrong free agents and trade pieces. A shaky foundation can easily crumble.
Will the resurgent Suns crumble under the pressure of year two expectations? Our old friend Amin Elhassan, current ESPN media personality and former Suns front office member, laid down his hot take on ESPN’s The Jump the other day. To get a rise out of his audience, he predicted the Suns would be awful again and Devin Booker would demand a trade by mid-season. The other panelists laughed, but then joked his take wasn’t all that hot.
Why would Amin predict such disaster? You can guess his reasons, but the bottom line is that the Suns are still managed by an owner, Robert Sarver, who has a 15-year reputation of impatience and meddling that lead to disaster. Remember 2007, when he forced the Kurt Thomas trade to save luxury tax money? Or the trading of first round picks for cash? Or personally replacing Amare Stoudemire with Hakim Warrick and some other flotsam, after letting Steve Kerr and David Griffin quit over tiny contract squabbles? Or letting Lance Blanks attempt to erase Colangelo-stamped Suns history? Or hiring unqualified general managers and head coaches for eight straight years, only to bully them into bad personnel decisions?
Okay, I’ll stop there. The wounds are fresh. Let’s just say that, yes, it’s conceivable the Suns foundation will crumble.
But let’s set aside that worry for a moment. We can tell ourselves that Sarver always meant well, and that now he has the General Manager (James Jones) he trusts. Jones already convinced Sarver to spend big on a veteran head coach (Monty Williams) for the first time in his 16-year tenure, and has convinced Sarver to stay in the background while he methodically builds the team around Booker and Ayton.
The next 45 days will tell us a lot about how much influence James Jones has over the owner. Jones has established a pattern as the GM: acquire young-ish (Age 23-26) role players with proven skills and mature attitudes who compliment the Booker/Ayton pairing. In other words, surround the core with variations of himself, a 14-year NBA vet who spent the last seven as a role player and locker room sage on LeBron’s seven straight Finals runs. If Jones is still in charge, you’ll see more of the same this next 45 days. But if Sarver flexes, you’ll see a notable deviation from that mantra. Let’s hope Jones is in charge.
Beyond Sarver, though, are there other warning signs that the Suns 8-0 Bubble and thisclose playoff run was fools gold?
Look no further than those darling Sacramento Kings from 2018-19. They surprised the league, posted a 39-43 record on the backs of the 22-and-under De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley Jr. core, and were expected to be playoff contenders this past year. But they fell on their faces instead, and now face yet another uncertain future amid a still-growing 14-year playoff drought.
What went wrong for the Kings? I asked Greg Wissinger of the KingsHerald.com, a former SB Nation blog with a following as dedicated as this one. Greg was in heaven in 2018-19, and had to endure the burst bubble of 2019-20 casting the team’s future in doubt yet again.
Greg responded with the top three reasons the Kings treasure was fools gold this year.
Reason #1 for the Kings demise: “Coaching change was huge. He’s an awful coach.”
Phew. The single biggest difference between this Suns team and that Kings team is that the Suns are not self-sabotaging with a coaching change for once.
It was Dave Joerger who led the Kings on that wonderful 2018-19 run, but for the second time in four years (previously, Memphis) he was fired by his front office despite fierce support from his players and a better-than-expected season. We don’t know how Joerger works, per se, but the pattern shows he might have more trouble dealing with higher-ups than lower-downs.
The Kings replaced Joerger with Luke Walton, who immediately got into trouble (investigation of sexual harassment at his prior employer), and then never really established a successful scheme with the Kings. Their lifeblood in the good 2018-19 season was speed, pace and transition offense, but Walton sucked all that out of the scheme to slow it down. They didn’t pick back up in speed till way too late, and then stumbled in the Bubble. Now the front office that hired Walton was fired, casting further shadows on the franchise’s next steps.
The Suns do not have that same problem. Monty Williams is entering year two of his tenure, and if the Bubble is any indication the players are getting more and more comfortable in the schemes. Their offense and defense never looked better than during the 8-0 Bubble run. Williams and his coaching staff made the most of the Bubble and a second training camp to instill more of the offense and defense, tweaked to the team’s strengths after dissecting film of the first 65 games during the pandemic.
Reason #2: “Failed FA moves hurt. The Kings brought in Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes to bolster the playoff push. CoJo is ok but not a great fit, Holmes is good, the other two were gone after quickly disappointing.”
Trevor Ariza was signed last summer by Vlade Divac to a two-year $24 million contract to bolster the playoff push, despite his complete failure in 2018-19 for both the Suns and the Wizards. Hahahahahaha. Hahahaha. Haha. Ha. By the trade deadline, he was pawned off to Blazers. Dedmon provided none of the needed spacing and speed to maximize Fox’s contributions, and Cory Joseph was too much of a style-shock behind Fox to bring continuity. They are two different teams under Fox and CoJo. I know Suns fans love Richaun Holmes, as do I. That was the only move that fit, but even Holmes couldn’t stretch the floor the way they needed.
The Kings also invested too much in their 2018-19 success, giving a 4-year, $85 million deal to Harrison Barnes and a 4-year, $94 million extension to Buddy Hield that kicks in this coming season. Barnes is a great vet but no one’s cornerstone, and Buddy let the money get to his head. Now the Kings need to move Buddy or let Bogdan Bogdanovic go soon.
The Suns could poop the bed on free agents, but at least there’s no egregious extension decisions to make. None of the Suns young or veteran core needs an $85+ million extension after just one feel-good season (that comes NEXT summer). The Suns biggest free agent decision right now is whether to give Aron Baynes $10 million to come off the bench another year.
But Greg’s main point — signing bad-fit free agents to bolster a playoff push — is still a big, big worry for me. The biggest. Huge. We’ve seen how free agency and roster change can upset a feel-good team, even with the best of intentions.
The Suns roster will definitely change, at least a little bit. Next year’s rotation will have at least two new players in it, if not four or five. I don’t expect any change in the top six — the five younguns plus Ricky Rubio — but who replaces Aron Baynes, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, Jevon Carter, and even Cameron Payne can make or break next season. Even if they come back, their play could regress and have the same negative impact of a bad signing.
Also, what if the Suns go for broke and mess with the top six? Sure, they could hit a home run but it’s more likely, given our history, to strike out. Ideas like trading Oubre and Ayton in a series of machinations for Bradley Beal could be the boon the team needs for long term contention in a Blazers-like model. But it could also destroy the whole trajectory by throttling the future with max-contract guards at the expense of balance. Going for broke to keep Devin Booker happy will be a big itch that Sarver will want badly to scratch.
Cross your fingers, sans fan. Free agency is my biggest worry.
Reason #3: “Third was injuries. Bagley went down in the opener. Fox missed stretches, so did Bogi and Holmes.”
Can’t plan away this one. No one knows about injuries before they happen, so it’s not worth speculating. The Suns did absorb a lot of injuries and suspension last year too, losing Ayton for half the season, and Baynes, Frank, Oubre and Ricky for chunks. Remember when we were excited to see most of the roster back in Feb, only to lose Kelly the next game?
I won’t speak crippling injuries into existence and neither should you. Let’s leave it here, and just hope for a season of health.
“Bonus points: the season before was probably a bit of fools gold. The Kings finished as the 9 seed but were still 9 games out. They played poorly down the stretch and the players completely gave up in the final couple games.”
Is it fools gold to enjoy the Suns 8-0 finish and one missed jumper away from the play-in game? Is it fools gold to look at the season as a whole, and appreciate the 10th place finish that was only a half-game out of 8th? Maybe. The Suns began the Bubble a full six games out of the 8th seed and all the way down in 13th place when the pandemic shutdown began.
But on the other hand, the Suns managed that 8-0 run while STILL missing two key pieces in Aron Baynes (COVID) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (knee). It’s not like the Suns were fully loaded while other teams rested. Yes, the Suns got lucky on their final few games with teams sitting stars, but 8-0 is 8-0 and the Suns weren’t healthy either. Three of the top five rotation players in Orlando were first or second year players just scratching the surface of their skills and none of their best players in the Bubble are free agents or disgruntled in any way. They love each other.
And you can’t argue the Suns had the easiest schedule. The Nets were missing 5-6 of their best players, and Portland still barely beat them to make the play-in game. The other West contenders faced depleted rosters too, and none of them went anywhere close to 8-0.
Injuries can kill a season. But at least we know the Suns can withstand a bit of adversity along the way.
Just pray a certain shooting guard doesn’t spend TOO much time on Jenner Island.
Could the Suns fall on their faces next year? Sure. Anyone can.
But it’s good to know they have continuity at coach and among their top rotation players. That’s what most people call a good foundation.