Earlier this week, the Phoenix Suns released Tyler Johnson so he could be free to get healthy and sign with another team for the stretch run before he becomes a free agent this summer.
Johnson’s fall from rotation-caliber is fascinating in a macabre kind of way. A career 11-PPG-36%-3P bench scorer and ball handler suddenly seemed to forget how to play basketball this year after being virtually handed the 3rd-guard designation out of the chute behind starters Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio.
In preseason, Johnson was excited about the season, talking openly about his trust in Monty Williams’ system, leadership and culture. But once the season started, Johnson fell apart and either spent the season nursing nagging injuries or nursing sore feelings from missing all of his shots. Johnson was the team’s worst plus/minus player all season.
The underlying problem is a lingering knee issue that’s plagued him most of the season. Coach Monty Williams told beat writer extraordinaire Gina Mizell of theathletic.com that he saw Tyler struggling through it in a recent game. Before you get worried about the Suns cutting loose an injured player without taking care of him, Johnson will still make another $7 million the rest of the season after already making $12 million in the past few months. He can afford health care.
Now Johnson is a free agent. If he can get healthy, he could try to latch on with a playoff team and enjoy his next few months before trying to get another NBA contract this summer.
Now the Suns have an open roster spot. Will they do anything with it?
James Jones joined the 98.7 radio show Doug and Wolf on Tuesday and mentioned the move.
“As we approach the opportunity to get healthy out of the All-Star break,” Jones said. “Is there an opportunity to improve our team? If we have a roster spot where we can opportunistic, and pick and choose how we fill in the back end of our roster, we just thought it was best for the team to allow him the opportunity to move on.”
Sounds like lots of opportunity here.
With trades out of the picture, the Suns can only sign a player who is not currently under contract with another team. Of course, there are hundreds of thousands around the world who would love a minimum contract with an NBA team.
First of all, there are not many players on the open market in February that look a whole lot better than Tyler Johnson. Or even Elie Okobo.
Here’s a somewhat speculative list of potential and actual buyout candidates, a list on which Tyler Johnson will now appear going forward. Most of those guys in the article have NOT been released yet, but it’s possible they will be soon. Only some are already on the market as of today.
Marvin Williams is already going to the Bucks, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is already going to the Mavericks. Poor Charlotte. They couldn’t get anything for their guys before releasing them, and they were totally healthy.
Williams would have been good for the Suns if they really are “done” with Dario Saric at PF, but he of course would rather play for a team going to the playoffs. MKG, a former #2 overall pick, is still a very good defender but his offense is so putrid he couldn’t even get into lowly Charlotte’s rotation.
By signing those two, the Bucks and Mavericks had to release a player of their own. So in their wake, two interesting new names emerge.
Your old friend Dragan Bender, still just 22 years old, was released by the Bucks to make room for Williams. And shooting guard Ryan Broekhoff was released by the Mavericks to make room for MKG.
Should the Suns sign either of those two?
Bender would be a feel-good thing. He played well in G-League this year for the Bucks affiliate. In 13 games with the Herd, Bender averaged 20.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.7 blocks. His shooting splits were good too: .505/.384/.794. For context, that’s better numbers than any of the NAZ Suns this year. He only appeared in 7 games for the Bucks though, playing only 13 minutes on average.
For the Suns, he would only be a good signing the injured bigs get healthy. I’d rather see Frank, Dario and Aron play ahead of Dragan, if only for Devin Booker’s sanity. And even Cheick, too. But hey, if those guys are still out a bit, Dragan is still 7’1” and has a nice smile.
What about Ryan Broekhoff? He’s a 6’6” shooting guard from Down Under with an appropriate nickname “The Accountant” per basketball-reference. His basic profile is that he’s an under-athletic shooter (39% on threes) who gets nagging injuries, which seems to fit James Jones’ style right?
There is also might-mite Isaiah Thomas, who has never fully recovered from debilitating hip injuries. The one-time Sun, then one-time All-Star looking for a brinks truck, has fallen on hard times in recent years. All health-related.
He’s put up okay numbers in Washington this year — the new Paul Westhead-ish team with all offense no defense no wins — making 40% of his threes on 12 points per game off the bench. But he can’t really move any more. Still, would he be better than Elie Okobo? Probably.
There’s other guys who’ve been free for a while now — meaning no one else wants them either — like Jeff Green (6’9” small forward who can parade as small-ball 4/5), Iman Shumpert (6’5” guard who shoots), Kenneth Faried (6’6” small-ball big who lost all his mojo to Montrezl Harrell), J.R Smith and Jamal Crawford. All who can play but not play very well and will cost you evaluation time of your youngsters.
There’s also Dion Wai—- never mind.
Dozens of others are out there as well, and a number of other players will likely be released of bought out in the coming days too.
The Suns have already failed to build a cadre of ready-to-go talent in the NAZ Suns, who have bumbled and stumbled their way to losing most games in Prescott Valley. The best players on the NAZ Suns are not ready for NBA playing time: Jalen Lecque, Tariq Owens (two-way) and Jared Harper (two-way). They’re more ready for Summer League 2020 than NBA 2020.
Sure another player or two could be called up from the NAZ roster, but the likelihood is extremely small that any of them could make a positive impact on the Suns.
What Would James Jones Do?
Of course, that’s the only question that matters.
Jones is balancing daily sanity against giving young (but unproductive) players more time on the court as the season winds down.
In that same radio interview, Jones cited the release of Tyler Johnson giving the upper rotation wings more time to shine (Cam, Kelly, Devin, Mikal). That’s all well and good. But what I take from that is that Jones saw Johnson as a wing, not a combo guard or point guard.
The Suns clearly still have needs at backup point guard, especially with Ricky Rubio playing like he’s a shell of himself lately, and at power forward, with Dario Saric reportedly out of the Suns long term plans and Frank Kaminsky still recovering from a broken kneecap for a few more weeks.
Jones won’t make a move just to make a move. That’s why he didn’t make a big trade at the deadline. He doesn’t want to mess up what he calls a good thing in that locker room.
He’s already got all the young guys he wants — the Suns have 12 players at their disposal aged 24 or younger — including someone(s) at every position except power forward.
But he sure could use another playable body at one of those spots.
Keep an eye out on how/if the Suns fill that last roster spot.