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Breaking down the Suns’ Kelly Oubre Jr. conundrum

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Oubre represents the most logical piece to be moved on the Suns’ roster, but the decision isn’t so simple.

New Orleans Pelicans v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

I’ve never seen Phoenix Suns General Manager James Jones more frustrated than when he stepped onto the court following a shootaround the day after February’s trade deadline to give an impromptu press conference about the previous day’s proceedings. More specifically, Jones was there to set the record straight on Kelly Oubre Jr.

On deadline day, Marc Stein of the New York Times had reported that Oubre was being discussed in trades with multiple teams. The reports came as a bit of a shock considering Oubre’s improvements and big salary, but were not unexpected. After all, Oubre has the team’s most expendable salary and his style has long been at odds with how the Suns want to play.

But Jones stood before the local media for maybe the only official media availability he’d give all season to speak bluntly:

“We love Kelly, and at this point in time, names are thrown around all the time. But I do know — and our guys know — that we don’t talk about our players. So anything that’s put out, that’s external. We can’t control what happens externally, but I do know that what we’ve done when this team is together, that means that we believe in this team.”

About as forceful a negation as there could be, right? Jones put it on the record that the Suns had not made Oubre available, despite the sound logistics of the need for Oubre to be involved in just about any big Suns trade.

The injury

Just a few weeks later, Oubre would go down with a torn meniscus. Reporting on that injury was enough to drive me crazy, as head coach Monty Williams was unwilling publicly discuss the nature of the injury until the team made an official statement. In retrospect, it was clear Oubre and his team were being patient with their decision, seeking out a second opinion before deciding on surgery. Once the decision was made public, Williams acknowledged the difficulty of the injury to the locker room and the roster.

That injury would come up again when it was determined the Suns would compete in the Bubble and Oubre’s availability came into question. In early June, I interviewed Oubre one-on-one about the launch of his new clothing brand, Dope $oul, and at the end of our conversation, Oubre told me he was still quite uncertain about his status should the Suns play again. Bubble plans hadn’t been solidified yet, but Oubre was frustrated that rules had prevented him from getting into the Suns’ facility during the hiatus despite his need to rehab his torn meniscus following surgery. Oubre told Cameron Cox of Channel 12 the same thing in a television interview around the same time.

Despite Oubre’s hesitancy and drawn-out recovery, managing partner Robert Sarver confidently stated a few weeks later in an interview with Arizona Sports that Oubre would be active in Orlando. But by the time the Suns got ready to travel to the Walt Disney World campus, it was clear Oubre was not ready to play, and he was either ruled out or doubtful for each of the Suns’ eight seeding games. Why Sarver insisted Oubre was ready when the player himself declined to say so is still unclear, but at the very least signals miscommunication during the hiatus between Oubre and the Suns.

While Jones was adamant back in February about their love for him, and I know Oubre’s Suns teammates revere him, the injury seemed to throw a bit of a wrench in the openness between organization and player. That’s not to say there’s a problem there, but the tenor of public comments from the Suns’ side changed from February to June, and we haven’t heard from Oubre since the early in the Orlando restart before seeding games began.

Oubre did join the team in Orlando, working on his rehab in earnest and cheering the team from the sideline in every game. Coach Williams and the players repeatedly commented on Oubre’s positive impact on team spirit, and Williams was consistently clear that the team would not push Oubre to play if he wasn’t mentally ready. Oubre himself told media that he fully supported his teammates and that he was more mentally unready than anything physical.

Facing a crossroads this offseason

That brings us to the offseason, which is the Suns’ next focus. If we operate under the assumption that the league will keep the salary cap level next season ($109.1 million), the Suns could create some major cap space if you only include the eight 2020-21 guaranteed salaries and four minimum roster-spot cap holds, while jettisoning everyone and everything else for space. Alternately, they could keep a few important people and operate as an over-the-cap team with access to the mid-level exception (MLE, about $9.7 million) and bi-annual exception (BAE, about $2 million).

There are way too many permutations, but consider this option which puts the Suns OVER the cap on day one of free agency.

  • Renounce/waive Elie Okobo, Frank Kaminsky, Aron Baynes and Cheick Diallo
  • Guarantee 2020-21 salaries for Jevon Carter (for the minimum) and Cameron Payne
  • Draft and keep a player at No. 10 overall
  • Extend a qualifying offer to Dario Saric for $10.4 million

With Oubre’s $14.38 million salary: Those moves put the Suns $100k over a $109.1 million salary cap, keeps 10 players under contract (including Oubre), plus the rookie, and keeps the rights to match offers for Dario, while allowing for the MLE and BAE to add more talent.

Without Oubre’s $14.38 million salary: But if the Suns want to make the above moves AND create cap space, they could do something like they did with Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren last offseason by trading Oubre to someone for pure cap space. The JJ/Warren trades last summer gave the Suns room to sign Ricky Rubio off the market.

There’s 100 other versions of maneuvering this off season too, with or without Oubre. Check out this BSOTS article for all the current cap details.

Does Oubre actually make the Suns that much better?

Now we’re back to Oubre. With a $14.38 million salary and a roster that just went 8-0 in the Bubble without him, Oubre is back where he was in February: potentially feeling somewhat disposable. While the Suns’ small-ball lineup with Oubre and Mikal Bridges in the frontcourt along the Suns’ three best players was a plus-20.2 per 100 possessions in nearly 300 minutes this season, the same lineup with Cameron Johnson in Oubre’s place was a plus-16.5, as well as a plus-15.2 against stronger competition in the Bubble.

That’s not just noise. We know Johnson is a better shooter, especially off the catch. Oubre made just 34.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples this season, still performing better when he can step into those shots off the bounce out of the rhythm of the offense. Johnson, on the other hand, followed up a stellar college shooting performance by knocking down nearly 40 percent of his threes off the catch as a rookie.

This isn’t so much about Oubre’s shooting specifically either. He’s improved in that area, and we always knew Johnson would outpace him there. The true question about Oubre is about what those numbers show us about his overall decision-making.

Oubre is most comfortable freelancing, and with Johnson, Kaminsky and Deandre Ayton out for large portions of the season, Oubre was needed as a shot-creator. Those possessions went better than expected for the Suns, but it’s still not Oubre’s optimal role. Comparing both forwards again, Oubre again failed to make an impact as a play-maker, with nearly as many turnovers as assists, whereas already as a rookie, Johnson doubled his turnover total by making smart plays for teammates.

Oubre’s athleticism makes him more of a consistent rebounder and rim protector, which is why the Suns need to decide how to prioritize. The floor-spacing and decision-making Johnson provided made the Suns more consistent and definable team in the Bubble, but Oubre gives them perhaps a higher ceiling, makes them more athletic, and more unpredictable.

And all season, Williams has brushed off questions about Oubre’s decision-making and tendency to play outside the system, seemingly because the team had no other choice. What Johnson proved is that they do have a choice. A choice who slid into their Booker/passing/defense system perfectly and played huge minutes during an undefeated streak. A choice who they just invested a lottery pick in and who is much cheaper.

All crossroads lead to Oubre

The other part of the Oubre equation is that he is perhaps the Suns’ only token toward improving the roster with veteran talent. Suns fans dreaming of Fred VanVleet after Shams Charania said Phoenix would be interested in the young guard, or young, athletic forwards like Aaron Gordon or Jerami Grant, have to be realistic about Oubre. There’s likely no version of the Suns’ roster next year in which they have Oubre and one of those young veteran studs.

The Suns can pawn Oubre off to a needy young team with cap space and take less salary back in return to get more money to spend in free agency. They can flip Oubre for a player who makes similar money like Gordon or Gary Harris.

But unless they get really crazy with a trade involving Ricky Rubio or a sign-and-trade of Saric or something like that, they do not have any other players making middle-tier money. It’s either contributors on their rookie contracts like Ayton, Bridges and Johnson, or Booker on a max salary. Because Rubio was key for their systems on offense and defense and they just signed him last offseason, it would take something huge for them to move him. Saric showed enough for me to believe he can be pretty great in a hybrid backup big man role next season. Those two are simply more valuable and less easy to replace for the Suns than Oubre.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is for the Suns to stand pat. They will get new talent in the draft and should be able to add one solid rotation player — probably a backup guard or wing — in free agency. Every young guy on the roster will be another year older and more experienced. The roster collectively should miss fewer games next season assuming no suspensions. They were on the cusp of the playoffs this year despite all the craziness, and should be among the teams in contention for the eighth seed in 2021.

Oubre, a free agent in 2021, is not a perfect fit on this roster, and is simultaneously the Suns’ best tool to improving it. He’s also beloved among fans and teammates and gets better every year. There is no obvious answer, but there will be no shortage of intrigue around Oubre’s status with the franchise in the coming months.