We’ve been here before.
For the third trade deadline in a row, Phoenix Suns General Manager James Jones is tasked with making improvements to a roster that’s 1-2 pieces short of winning a championship. If this were a documentary, they’d cast Bill Murray to narrate.
Every year, he’s got the same top seven guys. Which means every year, he’s got the same basic needs. He didn’t get it done the first two times, and they came up short of a championship because of it.
- PG Chris Paul, Cameron Payne
- SG Devin Booker
- SF Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson
- PF Jae Crowder*
- C Deandre Ayton
That was the Suns top seven in 2020-21. And again in 2021-22. And now again* in 2022-23.
*Jae may be always missing due to his holdout this season, but he’s never forgotten because he still occupies an expensive spot on the roster ($10.1M) and still represents their, at worst, 7th-best player.
And we’re not just talking the top seven. Would you believe the Suns still have nine players on their roster today who were on the 2021 Finals roster? The top seven, plus Torrey Craig and Dario Saric.
There’s not a single major rotation player on today’s team that wasn’t a major player in the 2021 playoffs, almost two years ago. The closest we can come to is Damion Lee, who was signed to a minimum-salary deal last offseason and ranks as probably the 9th most important player this year. 9th.
Sometimes your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. For James Jones, that’s ‘holding serve’ because he believes in these guys.
Look, I get it. If you’re only 1-2 pieces short of a championship you’re in really elite company. They made the 2021 Finals and have won the second-most playoff games (21) of any NBA team the past two years. That’s on top of leading the league in regular season wins over two years.
But if you’re always 1-2 pieces short of a championship team, guess what? You’re short of a championship team. And without Jae Crowder in the fold, they’re only going backwards.
Now James Jones has two weeks to break the cycle and make a move. Problem is, making in-season moves is not something he likes to do.
- acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. — immediate starter
- acquired Tyler Johnson — immediate starter
In his first season as GM, Jones made a couple of trades to clear out veterans who were badly underperforming for the league’s worst team, sending Trevor Ariza to Washington for Oubre and then Ryan Anderson to Miami for Johnson. These moves helped stabilize the team until injuries scuttled the rest of the season.
Those were the last in-season trades James Jones made for ‘impact’ players, and neither Johnson nor Oubre became building blocks of the future.
2019-20 trade deadline
- no trades
The team was reeling at the trade deadline (20-31), dealing with tons of injuries up and down the lineup and generally underperforming. Sound familiar? But Jones liked what he saw in the core of the team and declined to make any trades at all to improve the present or the future. When he sat down with Bright Siders for an exclusive interview on Bright Side Night in January that year, he talked about continuity and patience being really important for this team.
They still underperformed for a while (6-9 after trade deadline) until the pandemic hit. When the league resumed play in The Bubble, they added Cameron Payne and went 8-0 with 5 of today’s top 7 players already in tow (Booker, Ayton, Bridges and the Cams).
2020-21 trade deadline
- acquired Torrey Craig — 7.2 points in 15 mpg backup forward
With the Top 7 in place, the Suns were rolling high with a 29-14 record and good health when the trade deadline came. We knew they were a bit short on big man depth, but otherwise this appeared to be a team nobody could stop. But Jones declined to add any more bigs at the deadline, instead just adding a 4th wing to the Jae/Mikal/Cam trio in Torrey Craig.
Craig was a good addition at forward and the Suns went all the way to their first NBA Finals in 28 years, but ultimately guess what happened? Yep, they suffered an injury to backup center Dario Saric and really needed that extra big man against the huge Bucks lineup with Giannis, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis soaking up rebounds. Oops.
2021-22 trade deadline
- acquired Torrey Craig — 7 points in 21 mpg backup forward
- acquired Aaron Holiday — 7 points in 16 mpg 3rd string point guard
Again, the team was rolling high at the trade deadline last year, with a 44-10 record and 7-game lead on the rest of the league. Nobody could stop the Suns, who were supposedly on their way to another Finals appearance.
Yet we thought they needed another playmaker because Cam Payne and Landry Shamet were inconsistent and underperforming, leaving the Suns with only Book and CP to run the show. But James Jones didn’t make any moves to address their need for another high level playmaker in the backcourt. And guess what? That’s what they needed come playoff time, especially when CP suddenly forgot how to play basketball, Payne and Shamet got even worse and the Mavericks just shut the Suns down by double teaming Book all day long. Oops.
2022-23 trade deadline
The Suns this season look more like the 2019-20 squad than either of the last two years, in that they are limping into the trade deadline with a bad record (25-25) and tons of injuries. They are only 5.5 games ahead of that 2019-20 pace that had the Suns in 12th place in the West when the pandemic hit.
Yet I can totally see James Jones sitting back like he did in 2020 and tell himself “these guys just need to get healthy, and they can get on a roll”. I can see him not wanting to upset the team’s hierarchy.
But he’s at least got to trade Jae right? Right? Imagine him settling for another guy like Torrey Craig. Nothing against Torrey Craig, but we’ve already got a Torrey Craig. The Suns need someone better than Torrey to knock Torrey back down to 4th wing.
Teams CAN improve midseason in a meaningful way without gutting themselves to do it. The Celtics picked up Derrick White for a future first round pick last year, and White helped them big time in the playoffs. The Pelicans picked up C.J. McCollum without giving up any core players, and now he’s one of three 20-point scorers in their lineup.
Ideally, he would not only trade Jae for a guy who can slide into the Top-7, but he would also do something to make sure that guy is a playoff-level shot creator who can make something happen when Book and CP are bottled up.
The trade deadline is February 9, less than two weeks from now. The Suns will have their new owner, Mat Ishbia, in place.
Let’s hope Ishbia doesn’t let this become another Groundhog Day.