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Day Two Suns Blog: Barkley comp, Ayton complications as the Suns embark on free agency

The time for speculation is over. The time for execution is now.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Here we are. On the precipice of the biggest acquisition for the Phoenix Suns franchise since Charles Barkley.

Indeed, not since Barkley was acquired by the Suns in 1992 and went on to win the league MVP that year while leading the Suns to the NBA Finals, the Suns have not acquired a player quite like Barkley until right now, assuming the Kevin Durant trade from the Brooklyn Nets comes through.

All due respect to Steve Nash in 2004, who went on to become Two-Time MVP winner in 2005 and 2006. I still remember training camp in 2004, where the new-look Suns were playoff contender, not a title contender.

And the same respect to Chris Paul in 2020, who went on to lead the Suns to the Finals in 2021. Like 2004, they were supposed to be a strong playoff team but not actually a title contender.

Barkley and KD are just different.

Barkley joined a really, really good Suns team that had made a pair of Conference Finals in the prior few years, but had flamed out in the 1992 playoffs knowing they needed more bulk. They had All-Stars in Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers, plus potential ones in Dan Majerle and Jeff Hornacek. But they just didn’t feel they could get over the hump...until they acquired one of the top five players in the league in Charles Barkley.

Yes, Barkley was a Top-5 player who had surprised everyone by demanding a trade after another disappointing season in Philly. The Suns jumped, sending a fan favorite in Jeff Hornacek and a couple of other good young players to turn themselves into a title contender overnight.

Now, another really really good Suns team with a pair of All-Stars have another chance to add a Top-5 player who not only wants to get traded but wants it to be to the SUNS. Once again, the Suns will be able to keep their All-Stars, and only have to (hopefully) sacrifice one of their potential future All-Stars in Deandre Ayton or Mikal Bridges, plus some other good young players.

Just like they had to do it in 1992 — and we ALL loved Jeff Hornacek to our cores — they have to do it now. Make the trade, Suns. Make the trade.

Regardless of how the Kevin Durant trade talks go, that’s not the only issue to address in Suns-land this summer.

Many have discussed the needs of the organization, and the assets that could garner the results desired. It’s time to take one last look at the roster put forth by the Suns and answer those burning questions.

What will happen with the Deandre Ayton Saga?

The latest information is that the Brooklyn Nets don’t want to bring Deandre Ayton into any deal. That doesn’t mean the Nets don’t want one of the best young centers in the league, or that they don’t want to pay him max money.

It just means that his acquisition at this point in time* brings complications that the Nets don’t want.

  • the salary matching issues due to Base Year Compensation rule on Ayton would require the Nets to take on $8-10 million more dollars than are going out, and they are already WAY over the tax apron
  • acquiring Ayton in a sign-and-trade triggers the ‘hard cap’ which would require the Nets to immediately shed more than $20 million in salaries to get back under the tax apron and stay there

*And don’t complain “they should have extended him last year at full max, like he wanted!” because if the Suns had done that, he would now be on a 5-year designated max contract and the Nets STILL could not acquire him because of a third rule in the CBA that you cannot acquire two designated rookie deals via trade, and they already traded for Ben Simmons. Now the Nets can’t also trade for Booker, Ayton, Adebayo or a dozen other good young maxed-out rookie extension players. Imagine telling the Nets “hey we want Durant but you can’t even sniff at Booker OR Ayton because rulez”. At least now, it’s an option for the Nets. Not a great one, but better than a hard no. Remember, James Jones is playing chess not checkers.

So, forget about Ayton going directly to the Nets. He could go somewhere in a three-way trade as part of the deal, but he won’t be going to the Nets.

That makes it really tough on Ayton. The phrase “market dictates his value” finally will come to fruition. The time has come to truly see what DA is worth.

The Suns have tendered a $16.4M qualifying offer to their restricted free agent center and former number one overall pick – the only number one overall pick in the history of the Phoenix Suns franchise – which allows the bidding to begin.

He now will receive offers from teams who are interested throughout the NBA. Based on the dollar amount and length of those contracts, Phoenix has the option to either match them, or simply let him walk.

It will be interesting to see if any posturing occurs. While some teams may not offer a max, they could attempt to drive up his price, especially if back channels know that Jones wants to keep him here.

On this, everyone has an opinion. For the past season, it has been the most divisive issue in Phoenix. The fact that James Jones did not extend a first-round pick was historic. It’s not something that happens very often in the NBA.

Every possession in which we saw DA fumble the ball, we heard the noise. “Does a max player do that?” And every time Deandre dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo, we heard the noise. “That’s what a max player does!”

Will find out if he is worth a max or if the qualifying offer provided by the Phoenix Suns is more in the ballpark of what his value is in the modern NBA. After all, the Golden State Warriors just won a championship with Kevon Looney at the five. So we shall see. Finally.

What to do with the PF position?

For the moment, let’s assume the answer to this question isn’t Kevin Durant. If Durant is acquired, that’s your most likely answer. Durant pulled down 7.3 rebounds per game last year, which would easily rank highest among non-centers on last year’s Suns.

But for this exercise, let’s consider other alternatives.

Jae Crowder was a welcomed addition to the Phoenix Suns when he joined the team two seasons ago. It was the first sign in a long time that a quality free agent chose to come to Phoenix, and it displayed the shifting culture within the organization.

Crowder, who was coming off of a NBA Finals appearance with the Miami Heat in the Orlando Bubble, wanted to be part of something special. And he delivered. His physical style of play, his ability to get hot from beyond the arc for numerous games at a time, his swagger, and his toughness were all something that a finesse-based team desperately needed.

The question is has it been enough?

The production from the power four position has been one of the question marks over the past two seasons. What Crowder possesses in grit and tenacity, he lacks in verticality and consistent effectiveness in any aspect of the game (point production, rebounding). And while in one conversation we can state that the center position might not be as vital and as valued as it has been in the past in the NBA, length and size is still needed to be successful. Generally this occurs by having these attributes at the four.

James Jones has many decisions to make when it comes to the power forward position. Jae Crowder is in the last year of a three-year deal, and his $10.2M contract is highly tradable. There are numerous teams throughout the Association who would love to have him on their team. This might be the best chance for the Phoenix Suns to maximize his value.

Couple that conversation with the fact that Cameron Johnson is eligible for a rookie extension. While he may not garner as much compensation as Mikal Bridges did just a year prior, he is a valuable asset for the Phoenix organization. Could he take over the starting power forward position? Is he valuable enough to trade away over the next few weeks and days to strengthen the roster overall?

As Phoenix enters free agency, some of these questions can be answered based on what is available on the market, and how the market perceives the assets of the Phoenix Suns. Is James Jones willing to break up aspects of his young core? Or does maximizing the value of a wily veteran best benefit the team?

Or, of course, you stay the course. And you hold onto both assets. We will know the answer to these questions in the upcoming days based on what free agent decisions Jones’ executes.

How will Jones address the bench?

One thing we have to be prepared for, as Dave King put it, is that 40% of the roster will change over prior to the start of the next season. It’s simply the way this business operates. The bench not only is the typical target for turnover, it is what is desperately needed for the Suns to be successful. Let’s face it, the bench didn’t show up in the playoffs. Period. Explanation point.

The primary difference between the team that made an NBA Finals appearance in the team that choked in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs was the execution of the bench squad.

Once the dust settles from the Durant situation, the Suns will still need to address what’s left of the bench. Unfortunately most of the good bench players that became free agents will have already signed with other teams. But the veteran-minimum guys are most certainly waiting out what happens here before committing. They all want to join a contender.

Free agency provides an opportunity to bring players into a culture that is not only beneficial to them, but puts them in a situation in which they can win. Will Phoenix have the ability to land names who are willing to take either veteran minimum deals or less than market value simply in an effort to be a part of what this franchise has built over the past three seasons? Will James Jones move assets such as Landry Shamet in an effort to free up space to meet the needs of those incoming players?

It is the bench that will determine how successful Phoenix is next season. They were effective during the regular season and it is the depth that equated to 64 wins for the team. But Jones must see past the regular season with the new additions, and identify assets that can execute and succeed when the pressure is at its highest.

The scenarios are what make this time of year so exciting. We all have our own perspectives and ideas for how the team can improve. We are given the ability, at least in our minds, to create a roster that will win a ring based on these thoughts, ideas, and opinions. That is what makes this a fun time for the fans.

James Jones now has to do that, only for real. Go get ‘em, James.

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