The Phoenix Suns just keep teasing us this year. Or more accurately, the Suns players’ bodies are teasing them. Either way, it’s a cruel joke.
The team shot out of a cannon to start the year 6-1 as Cam replaced Jae Crowder in the new improved starting lineup. They led the league by a wide margin in team net rating (+11.6) with the five-man lineup an incredible +33.1 per 100 possessions.
Then it started.
The Cameron Johnson injury
Cam capped off the 7-game run with a 29-point outing against the Blazers. Next game, Cam pulled up lame after five minutes with a knee injury (torn meniscus, to miss 2-3 months). The otherwise healthy Suns went 1-1 without Cam until...
The Chris Paul injury
Paul went down 2 games later and missed the next 14 games with a heel injury. The remaining Suns went 9-6 without Paul AND Johnson, if you include the game Paul was injured in the first half. There were on a roll in the second half of Paul’s absence, winning 6 straight before the Mavericks meltdown. Taking over the team, Devin Booker won Player of the Month for Oct/Nov, while Monty Williams won Coach of the Month and Deandre Ayton won Player of the Week. Suns led the West with a 15-6 record through Dec 4 and everyone was happy.
The Devin Booker injury, part 1 (hamstring)
One game after Paul returned, Devin Booker went down with a strained hamstring and missed two games. The Suns lost both games he missed.
The Devin Booker injury, part 2 (groin)
Booker’s triumphant return heralded a three-game winning streak, capped off by a 58-point outing to beat the annoying Pelicans. But then his groin started hurting, and he’s missed all but 4 minutes of the last four games, the first three of which were losses. There is no prognosis on his eventual return, but don’t hold your breath
Payne and Shamet injuries
The Suns could possibly survive a little bit without Booker if they could have either or both of Cameron Payne or Landry Shamet. Both have stepped up in bigger roles this season. Payne posted 15 points and 7 assists per game in 14 starts this season replacing Chris Paul, helping the Suns to a 9-5 record. Shamet had a harder job, replacing Devin Booker, but recently started making shots and posted 31 points in 2 of the last 3 games.
But Payne (foot) has missed the last six games and is still listed as OUT for Tuesday, and now Landry Shamet has joined him on the injured list with achilles soreness.
All tolled, the Suns are better when healthy. And not so good when a lot of players are out. Reminder: Erstwhile starting power forward Jae Crowder has not played all season.
- Suns record with 7 of top 7 players: 0-0
- Suns record with 6 of top 7 players (Jae out): 6-1
- Suns record with 5 of top 7 players (Jae + CamJ out): 1-3*
- Suns record with 4 of top 7 players (Jae + CamJ + CP out): 9-5
*includes 0-2 recently in CP’s first 2 games back from injury, versus East-leading Boston and West-leading Pelicans.
As long as the Suns have at least 4 of their top 7 available, including a healthy Devin Booker, they are 16-9 this season. And that’s while missing Chris Paul in 14 of those games.
Beyond that, the Suns winning formula crumbles.
They are 2-5 in games without Devin Booker so far this year, including the Christmas Day loss where he only played the first 4 minutes. That win over Memphis was a bright star in an otherwise dark night. The Booker absence has been exacerbated by the loss of Cameron Payne (foot) missing the last five, leaving Chris Paul as the only real ball handler with Landry Shamet backing him up.
And now Shamet is out too...
The Suns are 5-9 in their last 14 games and will now have only 3 of their top 7 players available against the Wizards (or 2 if Chris Paul’s leg injury lingers). Thank the stars Duane Washington was able to step up on Tuesday night with a huge 24 point, 8 assist game off the deep bench.
Word is Booker might miss a chunk of time to get the groin right (2-4 weeks?) after quickly re-injuring it after taking a week to rest.
TIME TO MAKE A TRADE
It’s time to cash in the Jae Crowder trade chip. Indeed, the Suns are trying to make trades but unfortunately no one’s putting their best offers on the table yet.
For one thing, teams are not excited to acquire a player who’s willing to sit out if he doesn’t get an extension, especially when that player is on a really good team that needs his help due to injuries. What does that say about his commitment to basketball?
For another, the Suns definitely want to trade “up”, to acquire the best player in the deal. The Suns ideally want to turn some combination of Jae Crowder, Dario Saric and Landry Shamet ($30 million total salaries) into a certified starter who can play big minutes in a playoff rotation.
What that means, though, is that the receiving team will be trading ‘down’ to lesser players in return for their starter. The problem is that 26 of the league’s 30 teams have no interest yet in trading ‘down’ because they’re either in playoff position or within 2.5 games of a play-in spot.
Only 4 teams are languishing well out of the playoff picture, counting their ping pong ball chances. But they aren’t good trade partners for the Suns, because none of those four teams — Charlotte, Detroit, San Antonio, Houston — wants the veterans the Suns want to trade. Crowder and Saric fit best on a playoff team that values their winning contributions, not a sure-fire lottery team.
The Suns will have to make a trade of Crowder/Saric/Shamet to a team currently fighting for the playoffs. The Suns want to win the trade by getting the best player back, but none of these teams want to lose any trade.
Hence the delay.
The Suns need to find a (hopefully east coast) team that thinks Crowder could make a huge difference in their playoff run — like, for example, the Bucks or Cavaliers, or even the Atlanta Hawks who need a new big-boy presence. Then they need to find a third party for the players that those teams want to give away, because none of those teams has ‘available’ players that would make the Suns better.
The Suns don’t want/need the Bucks’ Grayson Allen because they already have plenty of 6’4” shooting guards.
They also don’t want the Hawks’ John Collins, who’s making too much money ($80 million over next three years) in future years to justify adding to the roster. That would leave the Suns committed to four big salaries for the coming years — Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Collins — before even considering Chris Paul’s $30 million team option, or Cameron Johnson’s restricted free agency. Likely the Suns would have to let one of them go, including their salary slot due to luxury tax and hard cap implications, leaving the Suns short at the point guard or big-shooting wing spots next season.
So the key is getting a guy who’s, at the least, not under long-term guaranteed contract for multiple future years, so that they have maximum decision making flexibility.
Hence, the Suns interest in Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma.
The 27-year old Kuzma, a 6’9” forward averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds per game this season, would be a clear upgrade over Jae Crowder and might even start over Cameron Johnson when Cam gets healthy. Kuz definitely would make the Suns better. In addition, his contract expires soon, so the Suns have time to decide on their long term commitments after the playoff run.
The problem is making all the money work.
A clean 1-for-1 trade doesn’t work. Kuzma ($13.0) makes just a little too much, under CBA salary-matching rules, to be acquired straight up for Jae Crowder ($10.).
So make the trade bigger, you say? Sure, as long as the Wizards don’t take back extra because they are too close to the ‘hard cap’ line.
A 2-for-1 trade, like Crowder+Okogie for Kuzma, works just fine as long as the Wizards are okay taking two players back. But do they really just want to acquire expirings and nothing else for Kuzma? Likely not, or they wouldn’t trade him at all. Just let him leave this summer in free agency. So it they’re going to trade Kuz, they will want either a better player or future pick(s). And not the second-round kind either. Firsts or nothing. It’s up to the Suns to decide if Kuzma is the guy they REALLY want, and are willing to give up future capital for him.
If the Suns want to get Kuzma without giving up any draft picks, they will need to get something even better for the Wizards. Hence the talks with the Atlanta Hawks, to get John Collins to the Wizards in exchange for Kuzma. This way, the Wizards won’t miss Kuz at all. Except now the Wizards have to not only give up Kuz but also another $6-10 million in salary to absorb Collins’ $23.5 million without hitting the hard cap. That means Rui Hachimura’s $6.2 million needs to go too (or Deni Avdija’s),
But then those two teams could just simply work together on a trade without including the Suns, sending Kuz and Rui to the Hawks for John Collins. Why include the Suns? That would free the Hawks of Collins’ $80 in future salary, giving them a chance to clean the slate if they let Kuz go and non-tender Rui this summer. Either way, the Hawks get salary control back, while the Wizards have a good player under long-term contract.
Nay, the only reason the Hawks and Wizards would include the Suns is if they truly love the idea of swapping Collins’ huge, long term salary for Crowder’s relatively small expiring. Maybe the Hawks like Crowder and cap space better than Kuz? Maybe the Hawks REALLY want to clean the slate and don’t want the pressure of re-signing Kuz to a contract worth basically what Collins was already making ($20+ million). Crowder is cheaper all around.
So the only way the Suns can make a three-teamer work is if the Hawks simultaneously love the idea of Crowder on their team this season and love the flexibility he gives you this summer when the playoff run is over. And only if the Wizards are ready to eat Collins’ long term contract (and maybe they do because they have trouble attracting free agents).
See how difficult this stuff is? Teams are definitely still waffling over their futures.
The Suns just have to find the right moment with people in their right frame of mind to make a deal.
You can watch Kuzma tonight against the Suns for the second time in a week. Both teams are playing on a back-to-back.