The NBA free agent market opens up on Monday August 2nd, only 4 days after the NBA draft, and the Phoenix Suns have more questions than answers. While Chris Paul has the option of opting out, there are reports that he and the Suns have already hammered out the framework for a cap friendly deal to extend his tenure in the Valley.
The other big Suns free agent, Cameron Payne is the biggest question mark. This year’s free agent crop is weak on point guards, driving his expected value up. While Payne only averaged 8.4 PPG and 3.6 APG, he did it in an efficient 18 minutes per game. The Suns own his early bird rights and can offer him up to about $10 million per year. However, if bidding for his services goes higher, the team won’t be able to match.
The trade for 24-year-old shooting guard Landry Shamet seems to indicate the Suns believe they can re-sign Payne. Just before the draft the team sent out Jevon Carter and the 29th pick for him. This took care of the back up shooting guard position (which I had expected them to fill via the draft) and cleared out $2.1m in salary cap space going forward. It also means that the Suns have no back up PGs left under contract, potentially signaling their faith that they can bring Payne back.
The one area where there is zero uncertainty about what the Suns need is at back-up center. Dario Saric is out for the year, and the Suns lost 4 straight games in the finals as the Bucks obliterated whoever was subbing in for Ayton.
“As far as size, with Dario going down, we’ll have to address that position,” Suns General Manager James Jones said this week.
“I would say that the biggest priority right now is some size,” managing partner Robert Sarver said this week. “We need some size, we need some length. We probably need another big that can help roll to the basket, that can defend, that can block shots.”
Journeyman Frank Kaminsky looked absolutely wretched and lost at both ends of the court. Rookie Jalen “Stix” Smith was so unimpressive this year that he couldn’t move ahead of Kaminsky during the regular season. Torrey Craig did his best but was over-matched as a 6-7 combo forward trying to guard 7-footers Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Suns desperately need a back up center who can play defense in the modern NBA meta, where big men have to be comfortable defending the post, switching out to defend the perimeter on the pick and roll, and moving out of the paint far enough to deter spot up three pointers. Offense and range are a “nice to have”, but the Suns defense fell apart without Ayton on the floor in the finals. In practice, operating beside Booker or CP3 in the pick and roll offers plenty of opportunities for competent big men.
The rules for making my list are as follows:
- Must post a positive Real Defensive Plus Minus (no Robin Lopez)
- Big enough to play at least a little center (no Jarred Vanderbilt - probably)
- Must be in the Suns’ budget range (no Jarrett Allen)
- Cannot be a guy who expects starter’s minutes (no Mitchell Robinson or Richaun Holmes)
- No hulking plodders who can’t cover the P&R (no Demarcus Cousins types)
Thus, here a list of the top five big men the Suns should look at with the Mid-Level Exception (MLE) this summer.
5. Jeff Green: 6-8, 235 lbs, 34 years old
Jeff Green started in the league as a combo forward, and has evolved into a back-up 4, small ball 5. His defense has always been above average and has stuck around in the league primarily due to his savvy team play. He was been a part of a lot of good-to-great teams in OKC, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Houston, which would appeal to James Jones’ desire for people with a “winner” mentality, and overall fits the profile of a “Jones Guy”. Also, Green played alongside Chris Paul during their stint with their respective stints with the Clippers.
At 34, there are questions about how much he has left in the tank, though it is telling that he averaged 27.5 MPG against Milwaukee in the conference semi-finals with Kevin Durant out, and scored 27 in 35 minutes in a Nets playoff win against the eventual-champion Bucks.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein: 7-0, 245 lbs, 27 years old
Stein rates out as a slightly above average defender for a center, though he’s nothing to write home about. He’s big, athletic, and can move quickly enough to fit in Suns’ defensive schemes designed for Ayton. He sets brutal screens, and is comfortable going to the hoop off the pick and roll. His role with the Mavericks (17 minutes per game) is basically what the Suns would be offering as well. He doesn’t block shots or rebound as well as you’d like for someone of his size and athleticism though. Overall, you can think of him as a bit of a poor man’s Ayton.
At 27, he’s basically in the prime of his career as the Suns are in a win now mode, and would be a more than adequate answer to “who plays behind Ayton?”
3. Paul Millsap, 6-7, 257 lbs, 36 years old
Paul Millsap might seem like a strange choice, but the numbers don’t lie; over the past decade he’s been one of the best post defenders in the NBA based on his strength and rock-solid defensive fundamentals. This past year he ranked 10th among power forwards in Real Defensive Plus Minus. Two years ago, he was 3rd. Like Kurt Thomas, he can anchor your interior defense with his communication, smarts, positioning, and strength. He’s also a solid 3-point shooter who shot 43.5% from behind the arc two years ago. There’s a power forward log jam in Denver, and he’s likely the odd man out.
His age and decreasing foot speed are the big negatives on his game these days. He’s clearly on the back side of his career, and it’s harder for him to switch on pick and rolls or step out on shooter these days. Still, CP3 was incredibly productive as a 36 year-old in Phoenix this year, and relied far more on his knowledge of the game than blazing athleticism.
2. Nerlens Noel, 6-11, 220 lbs, 27 years old
Noel is your prototypical modern NBA defensive center. He’s long, lean, quick, and athletic enough to contest shots in the middle, switch on screens, and jump out on perimeter shooters. He consistently posts positive DRPMs and can defend multiple positions. He’s not looking to be a star at this point in his career and seems fine with playing a role as a back-up defensive stopper.
On the down-side, he seems to have enjoyed his time in New York, and averaged 24.2 MPG. It’s questionable whether he would come to Phoenix for a smaller role. He’s also an offensive net-negative, who really doesn’t create any offense for himself whatsoever outside of put-backs off of rebounds. He doesn’t have three point range to pull people out of the paint on offense either, and is basically someone you can effectively ignore on one side of the court.
1. Daniel Theis, 6-8, 245 lbs, 29 years old
Daniel Theis could be summarized as Jae Crowder, only bigger. He’s played PF/C for the past several years in the league, and the stats show him to be the elite defensive stopper the Suns desperately need. Two years ago on the Celtics, he ranked second among centers in DRPM, behind only Rudy Gobert. This year, even on a bad Bulls team, he still posted the best defensive numbers on the club. He has the size, footspeed, and smarts to play defense in the modern NBA, and he comes from winning systems.
On offense, he’s very comfortable on the pick and role at both setting screens and rolling to the hoop. He can also stretch the floor a bit. Two years ago, on a good Celtics team, he averaged 34.7% from three-point range on 2.3 shot attempts per game.
In the Suns favor, he was clearly not happy on the lottery-bound Bulls, after being dumped there by the Celtics as part of house cleaning. His numbers slumped last season as Boston fell apart, and Chicago wasn’t going anywhere, which likely is driving his value down to a level the Suns can afford.
Theis fits the James Jones mold of a guy who does lots of things well and has an elite skill (defense). He’s in the prime of his career and seems okay with being part of a system. His skill set seems like it will be just fine when he’s 32 or 33, and he would slot in very well as part of a front court rotation with Ayton and Crowder. He’s also got a ton of playoff experience with the Celtics, and fits with a “win now” strategy.
The real sales pitch for the Suns will be to convince him that he will continue to get roughly 24 minutes per game as a back-up. When you do the math, however, it works out. If he backs up Ayton, that’s 15 MPG. He’s going to collect some time behind Crowder as well, especially as Johnson splits time behind Bridges and Crowder. He’s also likely to log 30+ minutes per game any time Ayton, Johnson, or Craig are out, which could be due to injury or foul trouble.
Of all the reasonable options for the Suns in free agency, Theis fills the biggest need, the best.