Though James Jones is still in the early stages of his tenure as Phoenix Suns general manager, he has already shown the ability to bring in high-level talent via trade and free agency that fits well together. The way he’s gone about it, however, increasingly puts pressure on the team to win a championship now and will make it more challenging to stay at a championship level into the future.
On the surface, you could make the case this Suns roster looks a lot like the middle of the 2000s, when Steve Nash was acquired and the young depth began to peter out gradually. There’s an aging point guard (Nash/Chris Paul), a young star (Devin Booker/Amar’e Stoudemire), and a stable of young role players (Shawn Marion/Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Cameron Johnson) about to get more expensive.
The fortunate part is this Suns team has far more young talent than the Seven Seconds or Less squads, which will make them better in the short-term and more flexible long-term. But that depth already forced the Suns’ hands a bit when it comes to the salary cap this offseason, because guys like Ayton, Bridges and Johnson are or soon will be in line for lucrative new contracts.
The other difference is that the lead scorer and young copilot is much better and less dependent upon others to set him up. Rather than Stoudemire, who was limited on defense and not much of a self-creator on offense, these Suns have Booker, who is self-sufficient and balanced enough to have you believe he could one day take the reins from Paul and become a bona fide championship leader in due time.
Booker is about to turn 25, and it’s not impossible to think he could be in line for All-NBA consideration and perhaps a few MVP votes. The strides he made as a two-way player and pull-up shooter over the course of this past season were massive. When Stoudemire was 25, he scored 25.2 points per game in what would be the last truly great season of his career (depending on how you feel about 2009-10).
Aside from all that, the Suns have at least a couple role players on the younger side in Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet and Jalen Smith who one would hope can improve in the coming seasons. In the mid-2000s, there was no heir apparent to Nash, and Leandro Barbosa was effectively the only high-level young role player on the roster.
The Suns are clearly set up better now than they were then. But the SSOL timeline paints a picture of what happens when you forget about the future in the name of saving money or improving the current roster.
Patience (and spending) is a virtue
The egregious thing about the Suns’ draft history that decade is not so much that they didn’t make picks, it’s how aggressively they tried to move off the picks (trigger warning):
2005: Suns trade their first-round pick (later used on David Lee) for the rights to Barbosa
2006: Suns trade one first-round pick (Rajon Rondo), originally acquired in the Boris Diaw deal, for cash and a 2007 first; Suns also trade their own first-round pick (No. 27) to Portland for cash
2007: Suns trade James Jones, the player, and the 24th pick (Rudy Fernandez) originally acquired in the Rondo deal to Portland for cash; Suns also select Alando Tucker with the 29th pick
It’s far better than the Suns’ current situation from a draft perspective. Still, jumping the gun and taking Jalen Smith as early as they did, using a 2021 first to save some future money and nab Shamet, plus giving up a 2022 first in the Paul deal could leave the Suns with three straight drafts in which they do not get a difference-making young player.
Roster-building in the NBA is not about nailing the 29th pick or having a great third center. It’s about having the most top-end talent you can possibly find and then adding players around them that fit. The Nets got use out of Tyler Johnson and Mike James last year for heaven’s sake, because they had so many great players that everyone’s life was easier. Nobody is all that concerned about whether Brooklyn’s first-round pick Cam Thomas blossoms or not because they have two MVPs and three All-NBA guys.
So having Paul, Booker, Ayton and Bridges is what matters. Assuming this summer’s moves were made with the intention of paying to keep that core in place as long as possible, it’s a victory. What happens when the time comes to pay Johnson or replace Jae Crowder is less important than securing elite talent. And having Payne as an option after Paul’s eventual retirement is not a shabby backup plan.
But at some point, the Suns will find themselves needing to fill out a darn expensive roster. When that time comes, this period of potentially three years without getting a difference-maker in the draft could haunt the Suns. That’s not to discount what Smith might become, the Suns’ chances of rejuvenating and keeping Shamet, or making magic in the 2022 draft, but only to highlight that in building a championship-caliber roster for this season, Jones did indeed sacrifice some future opportunities.
The Nash days show what happens if you veer too far in that direction, but they also serve as a reminder of how devastating it is to feel like you left a title (or two) on the table.