With September starting and less than a month to training camp, this seems to be a good time to start breaking down and grading how our executive of the year James Jones has been led the Suns front office this off-season. As with any off-season, we will focus on roster building and the opportunities that they had. We will also start with the Draft, moving on to the Free Agency.
James Jones has spoken a few times on his 3x5 approach to roster building. For those who don’t know, that means he wants 3 players deep in each of the 5 classic positions – PG, SG, SF, PF and C. However, in the modern, "positionless" NBA, I feel like this analogy is just the part of his reasoning he is telling us about. There is more that he is not letting on. Jones knows a balanced roster needs flexibility. Based on that, I would like to turn his 3x5 analogy on itself for this breakdown and look at our 5 options at each of 3 categories of players that the modern NBA usually uses to evaluate players: Guards, Wings and Centers.
It should be also worth noticing the Suns seem to be looking to upgrades in terms of size, strength and experience. Jones even mentioned he was looking for size. While most people took that as a reference to the need for a back-up big, I’m sure Jones knows Moore and Booker were the only guards above 6’2’’ last season, and we’re not keeping Moore. Nader is 6’5’’, Mikal and Jae are both 6’6’’.He knows the Suns are an undersized team, and he is looking for size in every position.
- Draft Grade: B-
- Traded Jevon Carter + 29th Pick for Landry Shamet.
The Good: Despite the most glaring need being a back-up big, no one expected to find a serviceable one at the 29th spot. With a crowded roster and the desire to win now, it would be highly unlikely we could find a player that could earn any type of meaningful minutes. By adding Shamet, the Suns finally have a good back-up for Booker, and have added a young guard that has still some semblance of upside.
The Bad: The move they made for Shamet was good. Trading out of the draft completely was not. Brooklyn had second rounders that they had very little interest in. Even if they refused to give one of them up, there were picks to be bought in the market. At the time of the draft, it was already clear we would need at least a 3rd string point guard and players like McBride, Butler and Cooper were all on the board in the early to mid-2nd round. It feels like a waste of an opportunity to develop young, cheap players, especially when you consider how unlikely it is that we will have a 1st round pick in next year’s draft. Not to mention that a rookie presence is always good for locker room morale.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not expect to find our point guard of the future in the second round of this draft, nor am I saying this would move the needle in any way. It just felt like a very cheap move by the organization, and that is almost never a good thing.
- Guards (PG/SG) - Grade: A-
Under contract before: Booker, Carter, Ty-Shon (2W).
As of now: Paul, Booker, Payne, Shamet and Payton.
The Moves (so far):
o Traded Carter for Shamet;
o Re-signed Chris Paul to a 4-year up to 120M deal;
o Re-signed Cameron Payne to a 3-year up to 19M deal;
o Signed Elfrid Payton for the vet. min; and
o Waived Ty-Shon Alexander.
The Good: Homework had to be their main focus in the entire off-season and they got it done beautifully. Contracts were well negotiated and we retained both Chris Paul and Cameron Payne on fair but team friendly deals, giving the players the value they deserve and retaining some flexibility for the organization in the future.
Chris could’ve gotten a bit more guaranteed money in New Orleans, but would have to move further away from family, which to him, is far more important at this point in his career. Payne also probably had better offers in terms of money, but I don’t believe those offers could add 2M/year on top of what he got, given how crowded the PG market was this year. If that was actually the case, he made the right choice in turning down a slightly bigger payday in what likely would have been a worst situation, opting for a reasonable offer from a place he has carved out a solid spot for himself.
As for Shamet, he is an upgrade on the back-up to Devin Booker position, no doubt. He is a better shooter and a better ball-handler, who used to play point in college and has untapped potential as a playmaker, as the Clippers and Nets mainly needed him to be a shooter on star-studded teams. Don’t get me wrong, Carter will be missed. Shamet is far from the individual defender Carter was, but he is a competent, willing team defender and he is both bigger and longer, giving the team more flexibility on match-ups. He is also more experienced, having been to the playoffs a few times in his short career, and with different teams, and has a good relationship with Monty and is known as a good locker room guy.
With Cam Payne and Chris Paul back, the other additions needed to add some size. Shamet may be skinny, but he is no push over and is bigger than Carter, Galloway or Moore . The young man can do most of what all those other players did for the Suns in the last season, plus he has the size and ball handling upside they didn’t. His expiring contract is a question mark, but if we can get him to buy-in like Payne did, he might take the hometown discount and sign a reasonable extension next year.
The Bad: My main quarrel with the how the suns handled their guard spots is the Elfrid Payton signing – which, in itself, is a positive sign, as he will only be the 3rd string PG. He is a proven ball handler playmaker who started for a playoff team last year. However, he was also one of Knicks main problems and weaknesses, so you might say they got there inspite of him.
Looking at things carefully, with the other moves the team made, it’s clear that there would be no minutes left for any guards on our rotation, barring an injury. I understand how hard it can be to convince a talented player to come and sit on the bench for the vet minimum. I don’t think the Suns had a handful of options. And yes, I hope CP3 rests a few times during the regular season, but Payne is a reliable back-up and with Booker and Shamet, we should be fine with those 3 in the guard rotation when that happens.
However, if you are going to have a player to mostly sit on the bench and practice, Payton is neither the guy who will truly compete for minutes and make Payne work harder (Payton can’t shoot), nor is he a "respected veteran" who can contribute in different ways off the court.
Filling this spot with an undrafted or second-round PG who could sparingly play in case of emergency - and possibly develop under Chris Paul - was by far the better option. Worst case scenario, in case of an injury and an unplayable rookie, we would have to count on Booker or Shamet to fill in the role as a missing ball handler for 10-15 minutes. Yes, far from ideal, but also, possibly better than Payton.
- Wings (SF/PF) - Grade: C+
Under contract before: Bridges, Johnson, Crowder.
As of now: Bridges, Johnson, Crowder, Nader.
The Moves (so far):
o Lost Torrey Craig to Indiana; and
o Re-signed Nader to a 2-year deal.
This is the one area where I do expect the Suns to still make a move. Additionally, an extension to Bridges rookie deal has to be the main focus in the wings, and I expect it to happen. However, with how stingy Sarver has been and how much a player like him will command, I expect heavy negotiations and I’m not surprised with it not closing right away.
The Good: Not much good can be said here so far. Nader’s contract was smart. I believe he would go for the minimum, but the option for the second year gives the Suns some safety in case he continues to develop. Bridges extension is to be expected and not having it would make it a terrible off-season in terms of wings.
The silver lining, though, is that most minutes can and should be filled with the three players already on the roster. Cam has proved he can play extended minutes, as have Mikal and Jae. Splitting 96 minutes between the three of them with the occasional minutes for Nader or a bigger line-up with a Big as a PF is not a bad option, as much as the team lacks in depth. Barring a trade, I don’t expect any of the available wings in the FA market being able to play more than 10 minutes a game in the regular season, and even less in the playoffs.
The Bad: Losing Craig is not a disaster, but it is not good thing either. He was a solid player who filled significant minutes while Cam recovered after a few injuries and Nader hurt his knee. It’s worth saying he was definitely an improvement on Nader, regardless of injury. He played both SF and PF and even provided a small ball five option (even if not a great one). As much as wings were a strength of the roster last season, it was only because Torrey Craig was brought in late at the trade deadline. Monty seems to like Nader, but he should be our fifth wing at best.
Losing Craig means the Suns need one more player at this position, and the talks around the market don’t point to good options. Milsap is more of a big and lacks the versatility to truly have an impact as a wing. He does not fill the Craig role, as limited as it was. Thaddeus Young would be the best option out there. Young would actually be an improvement over Craig and may command more minutes. Another option would be Kyle Anderson, as the Grizzlies have said they are willing to part ways for the right price. However, a trade would also mean giving up other assets, which can get risky (i.e. involving Crowder wouldn’t solve anything, and trading 1st rounders only furthers our future development problem).
- Bigs - Grade: B-
Under contract before: Ayton, Saric, Smith.
As of now: Ayton, McGee, Kaminsky, Smith, Saric.
o Acquired McGee with a 1 year 5M deal, with part of the MLE;
o Re-signed Frank Kaminsky to the vet. min.
The Good: McGee in a valuable player who went from starter in the Cavaliers at one point of the season to garbage time player for the Nuggets in the Playoffs. However, he has proven his value and if he accepts the role of 10-15 minutes behind Ayton. His defensive presence and borderline capable offense will be real additions to this team. Additionally, I’m positive having him as a practice partner will do great things for the development of Ayton, who will finally have someone capable to present a decent challenge for him in terms of size and length.
Bringing back Frank is also a smart move, given he fits well, has proven to be versatile enough to even start at the PF slot during the regular season and will have little to no meaningful playing time, unless an injury or other emergencies happen. It is a decent enough depth piece with a very limited role, if he even gets one.
We also have to factor in that there are not too many minutes available at the PF position, with wings like Crowder and Johnson able to capably fill that role, and Frank is both (i) a decent enough player to present a challenge to Jalen Smith for those limited minutes; and (ii) not too big of a veteran hurdle that Smith could not possibly overcome him during the season, which would hurt his development.
The Bad: The extension for Ayton is critical and I do expect that to be done this off-season. Not having it done by now generates some anxiety. One of the most raved about parts of Ayton's season was how well he accepted his role and didn't try to do more. Well, now is the time to pay-up for that. Not doing so will push him to go beyond his role next season and may even risk his commitment to the team. CP3 has said they need to give him a bag and there is no one here arguing against that. He deserves the max. Not the super-max, but definitely the max.
The big question mark for the season is Jalen Smith’s development (if he is not traded). That will determine if Frank even has a real role, or if he will be simply the fifth option. Stix will be fighting for limited minutes, hopefully being capable to play both PF and a little back-up Center when Monty needs to mix things up. If he can’t outplay Frank, who was almost out of the league last season, then the Suns will have a real depth problem at this position, not to mention a salary black-hole and the fact that they have completely wasted what all fans hope to have been their last lottery pick in a while. He is the most significant miss from James Jones tenure to date.
Additionally, McGee’s contract seems a little bit on the high end of the market. Noel and Theis got big deals, but Zeller signed for the minimum with Portland when he explicitly said he would be happy playing a smaller back-up role for a contending team. Yes, he wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement in size, which Jones said he was looking for, but he is just as much a viable option as McGee. I’d rather have McGee over him, but not for twice the price. If the Suns were able to get McGee for, let’s say, the BAE (3.7M), they could’ve retained their full MLE, and given themselves more possibility in the market for wings. However, they seem very keen in not being hard capped, which suggests other moves are yet to come.
Finally, Saric’s injury was just devastating. Not only he was missed in the finals, the impact in this off-season is tremendous. His very tradable contract is now much harder to move and he fills a roster spot & a meaningful chunk of cap. However, his father has publicly stated he may be able to play by as early as the end of the year, and the Suns not applying for the disabled player exception may back that up. Therefore, it means his value could be somewhat restored much earlier than expected.
- Overall grade (so far): B
The Suns did most of their homework and got good players on reasonable deals. They now need to commit to their rookie extensions. Running it back always seemed like the most obvious option for them. Unless a very good opportunity came knocking, it made no sense to give up on the core after the first year in which the team actually won. Moving around the corners and fixing some problems, like a true back-up big and a bit more size should make a sizeable difference next season.
However, they still have some holes to fill, most glaringly at the 4th wing spot. And if they do it by trading, they will likely have other holes to fill after that. They have the resources to do so, but not many great resources. And except for the unpredictable buy-out market, there are no more significant top 10 rotation pieces in the FA market anymore.
They should also keep in mind our young core is not that young anymore. We can only call them young core for so long. Cam Johnson and Mikal will both be 25 when the season starts. Book will turn 25 soon after. DA and Jalen Smith are the only real "under 25" players in our roster for next year’s playoffs, and Jalen might be on the move. They are not old at all, but we can only call them young for so long, right?
Yes, the Suns can fix it. The can fix it all before training camp, or even do it during the season. They could go into opening night with the roster "as it is" and keep an open spot open. Just keep in mind that with Dario out and no 2-way players signed, that actually means only 13 playable options. It seems like another move is coming, likely more than one. We’ll just have to wait and see what it is.