Going into the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday, followed quickly by free agency on Monday, the Phoenix Suns are almost certain to make at least one trade in the next week.
General Manager James Jones should not feel any pressure to shake up the top end of the roster, given the NBA Finals push that just ended and the apparent recommitment of Chris Paul to lead the young core, but he is more likely to make a trade than not.
Including Chris Paul, the Suns have 9 players under contract for next season who comprise their top 6 in minutes per game and 6 of the top 7 in games started for a team that was 2nd in wins in both the regular season and the playoffs.
Seems like a run-it-back scenario where you only work around the edges right?
Maybe, maybe not. After the feel-good Bubble run, GM James Jones could have run-it-back for a playoff push with Ricky Rubio at the helm, but swung for the fences with Chris Paul instead and hit a stand-up triple that was very nearly an inside-the-park home run.
He could run it back this time, especially considering 4 of those top 6 players are not yet in their basketball primes at age 25 or younger.
But even the young guns know that Finals appearances are not handed to incumbents.
“Talkin’ about it with Draymond (Green),” All-Star guard Devin Booker said in Tokyo at the Olympics this week. “And him stressing the fact that it’s not gonna be that easy to get back to the Finals. I remember us as a team saying that in the locker room after we lost — you know we’ve got to understand, it’s going to be even harder to make it to the point we were at. … But I’m excited for the experience. It was great. I am glad I got to do it, obviously ended up on the wrong side of the stick, but that’s life.”
Draymond Green, whose Warriors made five straight Finals 2015-2019, of course made sure Booker knew his 2021 Finals run should not be taken for granted and would be tough to repeat. Thanks, Dray. Still tryin to get his man outta Phoenix, I see.
But Green, setting his own personal history aside, is right. History is littered with one-hit wonders of Finals appearances. There’s no guarantee that, at age 36, Chris Paul will play at second-team All-NBA levels again. The team’s young players might regress rather than improve. Health for the Suns and their opponents is always a factor in how seasons play out. Everything went right for the Suns until those last few games of the Finals.
What the Suns have in their corner, though, is General Manager James Jones. Jones made it to seven straight Finals to end his playing career, though a bit more credit should go to LeBron James — this teammate for all seven appearances — than Jones himself. Still, Jones saw that you can have a small core group but everyone around them can and will change from year to year. You simply cannot assume the present predicts the future. The only mainstays of all seven Finals runs were LBJ and Jones.
Since taking over as GM, including his stint as interim during the 2018-19 season, Jones has made 8 trades. Let’s recap them.
Jones was panned for some of his trades at the time they happened (as shown in the immediate grade column), especially the draft-day deals of Warren and Cam J, as well as the Josh Jackson salary dump. But those trades were part of Jones’ bigger picture, namely to get a starting caliber point guard in Ricky Rubio who was later upgraded to Chris Paul.
Considering that Jones turned a 19-63 team into a Finals team in two years, hindsight would re-grade all those trades with an A.
Will Jones make another trade in the next week?
As mentioned earlier, all six of the Suns best players are under contract again for next year and beyond. Could be that Jones only works around the margins, but he’s never done that yet. After year one, only four players returned and after year two he traded two starters (Oubre, Rubio) for Chris Paul.
James Jones’ goals as Suns GM have ratcheted up each year thanks to his success since taking the full time GM job just two years ago.
- Year 1: Respectability — put together a team that improved from 19 wins to 34 wins and missed a playoff berth by one win.
- Year 2: Playoffs/Home court — put together a team that made the Finals
- Year 3: Championship — TBD
Every single decision this offseason should be about this two-year window with Chris Paul still playing at an All-NBA level. That means getting better, and every trade should be a ‘trade up’ scenario.
A Finals-level team that finished in the top seven on both offense and defense does not have many holes. However, that doesn’t mean the Suns are perfect.
The Suns have two weaknesses that were exploited by the Bucks in the Finals, so their offseason should focus on shoring those up with one or more of the new players inevitably being added this offseason.
- Someone who can generate free throws — the Suns went from mid-pack in 2020 to worst in the league in 2021 in free throws attempted. This can be a rim-attacking guard, wing or big man who can add 4-5 free throws per game to the Suns attack.
- Someone who can back up Ayton with size, length and defensive acumen — Dario is out almost all next year, and no I’m not talking about Damian Jones. And I really don’t see Jalen Smith with the lateral quickness to be an Ayton backup defensively. I like him on offense, but not on defense.
Let’s review all the top players under contract and assign an ‘availability’ level to each.
I see no scenario where Paul or Booker are traded. The Suns are going to ride or die with those two, at least this next season.
The only possible scenario for trading any of the 25-and-unders of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and/or Cameron Johnson would be to acquire a prime two-way All-Star of some sort who can pair with Booker to make the Suns a true contender for years once CP declines. The trick here is know whether DA and/or Bridges can be an All-Star one day anyway, and whether the incoming All-Star can truly make the difference over the combo of those three. That’s very very tricky. The current group already proved they can beat anyone. Can a ‘trade up’ make that much difference? Depends on the player, I guess.
Otherwise, the Suns have some marginal pieces to help them build out the rest of the roster around CP, Book, DA, Mikal and CamJ.
Ranking the trade assets
Let’s rank the nine players plus draft picks in terms of what they can bring back.
These return values are just my opinion based on watching trades go down for years. The Suns can of course aggregate several assets together for a larger prize, but you always have to consider the buyer too. Who wants flotsam and jetsam for a Finals-caliber starter or rotation player? Who wants to help the Suns while hurting themselves?
The Suns don’t have any expendable ‘big pieces’ for a trade. No high picks coming, no future picks even outright available for trade. And pick swaps are only interesting to buyers if your picks are likely to be higher than theirs.
Their biggest potential for trade is to find a team close to the luxury tax, or the ‘apron’, and offer to take their mid-salary rotation player for Carter, the corpse of Saric and/or Smith and this week’s pick so they can save a bit of money this year. The Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for over-the-cap teams to only match at 75% or 50% levels, depending on whether teams are in the luxury tax or not.
Expect something to happen. Just don’t expect it to be the thing you most expected.