The Phoenix Suns are currently facing something they did not have to navigate much during their memorable 2020-21 run to the NBA Finals: injuries. Dario Saric hasn’t played all season. Deandre Ayton had a leg contusion earlier in the year. Frank Kaminsky has a stress reaction in his right knee, return date TBD. Abdel Nader is out on “injury management”. Devin Booker is out with a hamstring issue.
Last season was a mirage compared to the rest of the league as the team avoided setbacks that landed starters on the bench. When injuries arise, so too does a common narrative: do they need to add depth? If so, a familiar name comes to mind.
In 72 regular season games last year, the Suns started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton a total of 36 times, which is 50% of the season. The team went 26-10 with that lineup, good for .722 winning percentage. In total, the team had 9 different starting lineups throughout the regular season. In the playoffs Monty Williams rolled that lineup out in 20 of the 22 games played.
For a point of reference, here is how many regular season starting lineups the top teams in the league posted last season:
- Utah Jazz (52-20): 6
- Philadelphia 76ers (49-23): 27
- Brooklyn Nets (48-24): 38
- Denver Nuggets (47-25): 22
- Milwaukee Bucks (46-26): 12
Good, bad, or indifferent, if you have consistent health, you tend to win more basketball games. I know, I need that annoying Captain Obvious guy from the Hotels.com commercials to make an appearance here because I am not telling you anything you don’t know.
What might interest you is that, through the first 24 games, the Suns have put forth 3 different starting lineups. We’re 30% through the season and 33% of the way to mirroring last season’s starting lineup metric. Through the lens of trickle down economics, as Dave King pointed out, this puts more stress on the bench players of the Phoenix Suns.
Which means it is time to kick the tires on the Thaddeus Young conversation.
Think back to Friday night against the Golden State Warriors. Did your heart sink the moment that Mikal Bridges was seen walking to the locker room with a towel around his right hand? (Side note: was it just me or did that towel look to be soaked in blood? I believe it was the NBA logo, but that made me more worried than I needed to be.) Knowing that Devin Booker was out with a hamstring issue — for how long we still don’t know — and thinking that we might lose Mikal for any period of time was a lonely place.
Mikal Bridges has been out since the 1:47 mark of the first quarter. He apparently hurt his hand on this play. pic.twitter.com/fyM0lEXu1l— Evan Webeck (@EvanWebeck) December 4, 2021
Thankfully Bridges returned to the game, with news coming down that he just dislocated his pinky finger. I say, “just”, but if you’ve ever dislocated any falange, it is quite the painful experience.
Those fleeting moments, however, brought me back to preseason conversations about fortifying the Suns depth and how the decisions James Jones didn’t make might once again cost the franchise.
During the trade deadline and buyout season last spring, there were plenty of opportunities for the Suns to address their one glaring need: big man depth. Names like Gorgui Dieng and JaVale McGee were available on the market, but Jones did not pull the trigger to bring them to the Valley. In hindsight, having one of them available in the NBA Finals could have been the missing ingredient to an NBA championship.
This past offseason the name Thaddeus Young began popping up on our Twitter timelines with regularity.
I'm told the Suns have discussed trade options involving both Jalen Smith and Dario Saric together and separately. Any discussions regarding Thaddeus Young and the Spurs will be centered around Dario Saric and Jalen Smith. Nothing is imminent at the moment but talks are ongoing.— FLEX From Jersey (@FlexFromJersey) August 10, 2021
The 6’8” power forward was sent to the San Antonio Spurs from the Chicago Bulls in the DeMar DeRozen trade. It wasn’t clear as to whether or not the Spurs intended to use the 33 year-old’s services, seeing as the team’s young core did align with Young’s timeline. His $14M salary allowed the transaction to occur, but rumors were that the Spurs were shopping him.
Thad Young would be an ideal fit for the Phoenix Suns and adding him would provide another veteran to the bench who understands his role within the confines of the team dynamic. His 2020-21 season was highly productive: 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists in 68 games for the Bulls. He is currently averaging his highest FG% in his lowest MPG in his career.
The Suns would use Young correctly; he was playing backup center against Phoenix on Monday. He would fit nicely into the backup power forward position, moving Cam Johnson to the backup three. The 3x5 philosophy (3 deep at all 5 positions) would be completed, like the final infinity stone in Thanos’ glove.
The path to a trade existed, as the Suns would be able to offer Dario Saric, who is most likely out for the season with a torn ACL, and former #10 overall pick Jalen Smith for Young, as rumors suggested.
Smith would be the key to the deal as the 21 year-old possesses upside and just led the NBA Summer League in rebounding. He would be an age upgrade, if you will, for the Spurs as he plays the same position as Thad but is 12 years younger. Dario and his $18M over the next two years would be the contract that would make the deal work.
While the deal was enticing, especially for Phoenix, it takes two to tango. We tend to see things through how it benefits our side of the transaction, but fail to see it from the opposing point of view. Why, at the beginning of the season and not yet implementing someone who has a career of being a productive player, would the Spurs trade Young to a conference opponent for an unproven lottery player and a busted vet? Why not just stick with your healthy vet and see if it works out?
San Antonio held all of the leverage, knowing that if Young did not work out, there would be plenty of trade-deadline offers available for the forward. The rumors faded away and the season began.
The Spurs now find themselves 8-14 coming off of a 4-point loss to the Phoenix Suns on Monday night. They are 12th in the Western Conference and fans are already looking at the 2022 NBA Draft. Sure, they’ve won 4 of their last 5, but they do not have the pieces to win it all this season. The 2021-22 season is one that they will look to use as a catalyst forward rather than a chance to win now.
What is interesting about the NBA relative to trading players is the play-in game. More teams have a chance to make it to the playoffs which means less teams are likely to give up on their season and make transactions for the future. The Spurs might be one of the few teams that will. Therefore the team still holds the leverage when it comes to a Thad Young deal, and it’s time to start thinking about what they can get for him.
Here’s where I begin to fall victim to the mode of thinking I stated above, trying to will a trade to Phoenix by seeing the Spurs and their needs through a Suns’ fans eyes. Personally, if I’m the Suns, I still hold out and see what the trade deadline holds. But if I’m the Suns, I’m pushing as hard as I can to get Thad to stay in Phoenix after playing here on Monday night.
If the Spurs choose to dish Young at the trade deadline for draft picks, the teams looking to acquire him might not be able to provide the draft capital they desire. After all, these are teams that are playoff bound and most likely will not be able to throw in a lottery pick as a part of any deal. Couple that with Young’s $14M price tag, and most playoff bound teams might not have the assets available to make that deal.
Where the Spurs lose some of their leverage is the fact that Young will be an unrestricted free agent next season. How many assets do they expect to garner for half-a-season’s worth of assistance?
Enter Jalen Smith into the chat.
What has hurt the Suns when it comes to making a Thaddeus Young deal is their lack of faith in Jalen Smith. For the second consecutive season, his playing time is sparse. He has a total of 36 minutes played this season. The reasons why he does not have James and Monty’s trust are a moot point. The action of not playing him speaks louder than words.
Is playing Jalen Smith with more frequency in an effort to display his skillset to potential trade partners the answer? Apparently not. The minutes do exist. Abdel Nader had some. Ish Wainright is getting them now. The Suns know something we don’t, and that might be the mystery of Smith is more valuable than he actually is.
This is where James Jones needs to sell the idea of Smith as an asset moving forward to the Spurs. Sure, Dario’s leadership in the locker room is a selling point to the deal as well, but Smith is the prize.
He has displayed the proper growth you’d want from someone who had the weirdest rookie season in the history of the NBA, right? When given a chance in the Summer League, he shined. When given minutes in the preseason, he shimmered. Let’s be real...Smith just looks like a Spur, right?
So, Spurs GM Brian Wright, let’s make this happen!
Regardless of the outcome with Young, the Suns do need some bench assistance. You might not agree, especially considering the role the bench played throughout the team’s record setting 18-game winning streak. But I’ll ask you this: Who is Mikal’s backup? Abdel Nader? Ish Wainright?
Therein lies the opportunity for the Suns. The addition of Young could allow Cameron Johnson to get the backup three minutes. And the Young/McGee combo in the paint? That would be one of the best bench duos in the Association.
Sell it, James. Sell it.