Suns fans know what score-first combo guard means. A little too small for full-time shooting guard but not quite pass-first enough to be a Steve Nash or Ricky Rubio leader while running the point.
In the years between Steve Nash and Ricky Rubio, the Suns have been Combo Guard Central. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe shared the playmaking and scoring duties in the glorious 2013-14 run. They added Isaiah Thomas off the bench in 2015, then replaced Dragic and Thomas with Brandon Knight a few months later for reasons we... uhhh... don’t need to rehash again, do we?
They are all best described best as combo guards who can sometimes run the show and sometimes play off the ball, but not perfect enough at either to stick to one position. Yes, I know they all started at point guard for most of their careers. Two of them even made All-Star teams — Thomas in 2016 and Dragic in 2017. But they were more successful when the half-court offense only sometimes ran through them. To wit: Devin Booker is a better passer and playmaker than any of them.
This current Suns team needs one of those guys again. Not any of those four in particular since they’re all past their prime these days, but someone like them to lead the second unit and play alongside both Booker and Rubio with equal positive impact.
The profile I describe here: a player that is 6’1”-6’6”, who can average 16-18 points while dishing three to four assists per game off the bench behind Booker and Rubio.
The Suns current depth chart is heavy on three-and-D swing forwards to share the forward roles — Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Cameron Johnson — and has a few defense-first backup guard options in Jevon Carter and Cameron Payne as well as a few Big options in Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Aron Baynes.
They proved in 2019-20 that their most dangerous and effective lineups profiled with two swing forwards around a single Big in the middle, with Booker and Rubio in the back court orchestrating the offense. Today’s NBA better supports a single Big with switchable wings and guards around him, not the old school pair of Bigs who fight for rebounds and take up space in the paint side by side.
What this current Suns team really needs is a player who can play effectively next to Booker or Rubio. They can be a dynamic shot-creator when Rubio is out there or they can be a playmaker and table-setter when Rubio is resting.
That sure sounds like a prime Bled/Dragon/IT/Knight type to me.
Could that combo guard be last year’s No. 24 overall draft pick? On paper, he fits the mold perfectly. The 6’5” rookie was a 40 percent three-point shooter in college, theoretically making him able to spot time in Booker’s role. He is also a heady player, good pick-and-roll distributor and passer overall, theoretically putting him in a good stead as backup playmaker too.
But in practice, Jerome was a rookie disaster. He missed shots so frequently he began to run himself off the line and that didn’t get better in the Bubble, which worked like a sophomore season for Cam Johnson. He also couldn’t run the offense at point guard very well.
Maybe he will break out in 2020-21 to become the combo guard we need, but I would not count on it.
The Suns could use their No. 10 overall pick on the combo guard role. There are a number of potential fits who should/could be available at their pick.
Killian Hayes (3rd on Tankathon.com Big Board), Tyrese Haliburton (5th), Anthony Edwards (7th), Devin Vassell (9th) and R.J. Hampton (11th) all could — at their best — fill a role off the bench as a rookie score-first combo guard to varying degrees.
On the plus side, they could be immediate contributors like Mikal and Cam were as rookies. On the down side, they could be another Ty Jerome once they hit the NBA hardwood. Bottom line is that it’s tough for a playoff-hopeful team to count on a rookie for major rotation contributions.
The Suns should not put all their eggs in the draft basket, but of course it would be great if they stumbled onto a gem.
Here’s a list of all guards in some kind of free agent (or potential FA) contract status this off season. It’s a long list! No superstars, but tons of role players.
As always, it’s about money. The Suns could create the 6th most cap space in the league, but that would require dropping interest in all but eight players on the 2019-20 roster. Assuming a flat salary cap, that’s about $18-20 million in space for a big-ish name. That kind of money could potentially make Fred VanVleet (Raptors) consider an offer, as well as Bogdan Bogdanovic (Kings) and Jordan Clarkson (Jazz). Or maybe Goran Dragic (Heat) would take a short-term, big-money offer for a third tour with the team!
On the other hand, the Suns can operate as an over the cap team by keeping 10 players plus the draft pick and the rights to Dario, which leaves them with the mid-level exception that all cap teams get each off season. Rotational combo guards who would take the MLE could be a deeper pool than usual because of the tight money around the league, Heck, even a Jordan Clarkson (makes $12.5 million right now) might be forced to take a paycut this year. Other lower-salary combo guards who can both shoot fairly well and distribute a little: D.J. Augustin (Magic) and Alec Burks (76ers).
The Suns could also try to use the MLE to entice a restricted free agent with an offer their team won’t match. Is it possible that the Grizzlies would let De’Anthony Melton go, rather than pay him $9-10 million a year? Is it even smart for the Suns to do that? We all still love Melton, but $10 mill a year?
GM James Jones has made a lot of trades in his time as the Suns front office leader, bringing in 2019-20 contributors Kelly Oubre Jr., Tyler Johnson (he was supposed to be this combo guy wasn’t he?), Jevon Carter, Dario Saric and Aron Baynes via trade.
Predicting trades is a fool’s errand, but it’s fun so we do it anyway. There are about 300 players currently under contract for next season, dozens of whom fit this mold of score-first-pass-too combo guard. To bring back a quality 16-18 point, 3-4 assist guy to play in a three-guard rotation with Booker and Rubio, the Suns would have salary-match and potentially weaken another spot on the roster.
What are the Suns trade chips for this scenario? Probably only the No. 10 pick and/or Kelly Oubre Jr. ($15 million in final year). Which means you’ll need to find another Oubre to keep the swing-forward rotation intact, but we can deal with that another day. Let’s look at players who might become available this offseason if the Suns were offering Oubre and No. 10 in exchange.
The perfect trade fit would be Dennis Schroder (Thunder). Seriously, this guy is tailor-made for the role I describe. He plays for a Thunder team that looks ready to rebuild after a first-round exit and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. His contract matches, for trade purposes, with Oubre. The Suns could package Oubre and another asset (No. 10 and/or Ty Jerome). Oubre is four years younger than Schroder (24 vs. 28) so he better fits a timeline for rebuild.
Evan Fournier (Magic) is also a year away from free agency and might be shopped by the Magic this off-season. Fournier has always been a starter, but beggers can’t be choosers in a trade.
Could the Spurs be ready to rebuild a bit and ship off Patty Mills for younger talent? He’s older now, but would be great coming off the bench for a playoff team and would fit the mold of professionalism and leader that Monty Williams wants. I have no idea what the Spurs are going to do, but they do have depth in their back court ahead of Mills, who did not play much in the Bubble to give those younguns a chance to shine.
Other guards, regardless of contract situation, who simply make 35+% on threes and average 2+ assists per game are... more rare than you think. This list from NBA.com starts out as a who’s who of NBA elite (I limited it to only guys 6’7” or shorter because of this article’s premise) and only goes about 40 deep. The list of “gettable” players not otherwise mentioned in this article is slim pickings. Sure, some of them will indeed be traded this offseason, but we don’t know what their teams would want in return. I’ll let you guys have fun with that speculation.
The Suns could also look at guys entering their 4th year and pending Restricted Free Agency next off-season. James Jones used this tactic to get good players in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric for a song, simply because their team didn’t want to.
One name to keep in mind who fits the combo guard mold is Luke Kennard (Detroit). Remember him? He only makes a couple million a year right now, so the Suns could grab him for a body (Ty Jerome?) and/or the No. 10 pick.
I really do think the highest priority this offseason is to get a third guard who’s committed to playing alongside Booker and Rubio. Any of these guys would fit that mold for a playoff push in this next season.
Who’s your favorite? Discuss.