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Now what? On the Phoenix Suns rotation, re-signing options, and good free agency fits

Taking a look around the league at who might take a minimum deal to play with the Suns this year

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With the Phoenix Suns having traded Chris Paul and Landry Shamet for Bradley Beal, Jordan Goodwin, and Isaiah Todd, the club has committed to blowing through the second apron, consequences be damned. This means that aside from the one Restricted Free Agent (Darius Bazley) and “Early Bird” players on the roster (Torrey Craig, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross, and Jock Landale), anyone else in the league will either have to sign a two way or a veteran minimum contract to join the Suns.

According to ESPN the Suns are, “likely to try to re-sign free agents Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee, Jock Landale, Bismack Biyombo and Terrence Ross, among others.” They are also likely to try to retain Cameron Payne, and have a $5 million dollar trade exception to sign players left over from the trade of Dario Saric.

Let’s do a bit of analysis of the players on the roster now, the players whom they could bring back, and a few free agents the Suns could bring in on minimum contracts who would fit well with the roster as it stands. At a bare minimum, you need eight guys to form a solid rotation: currently the Suns have four, maybe five if you count Cameron Payne.

Under Contract:

The Suns have Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Deandre Ayton, Cameron Payne, Isaiah Todd, and Jordan Goodwin under contract. They hold the rights to Darius Bazley and Saben Lee but can renounce them if they decline to tender a qualifying offer. This assumes Ayton isn’t traded (and John Gambadoro is saying it’s looking much less likely now.) They also hold a player option on Ish Wainright.

Obviously the “Big 4” are the starters. So that’s four rotations players right off the bat.

Cameron Payne has been very erratic, and could be improved upon as a back up PG. He’s iffy as a playoff rotation guy. Count him as a half.

Jordan Goodwin is a combo guard with great size who reminds me a bit of Okogie as a freaky good rebounder for his size, but he suffers the same weakness as Okogie: namely mediocre to bad 3-point shooting (32.2%). Unless this improves markedly, he’s going to be a mediocre fit on a team that needs 3-and-D players to complement its stars.

Isaiah Todd is a project, who reminds me of Darius Bazley for all the wrong reasons, namely that he looks lost on the court. I don’t see either as viable rotation players.

Ish Wainright is a great “feel good” story and occasional regular season contributor, but he can’t be a regular rotation guy on a championship team. His 37% from the field and 32.9% on three pointers just won’t cut it, especially when his defense is just “okay”. On the plus side, he’s still more playable than Bazley or Todd.

Restricted Rights:

The Suns can keep the full Bird Rights on these players as long as they issue a qualifying offer (in Bazley and Lee’s case) or a contract in Camara’s case.

Darius Bazley (restricted, free agent) mostly just looked bad in his limited minutes on the court. The Suns likely won’t tender him the qualifying offer. I don’t see him returning, especially with Isaiah Todd on a cheap contract already.

Saben Lee (restricted, two-way) does some very nice things as a guard who can drive the ball, get to the rack, and draw fouls. Unfortunately, despite most of his shots being at the rim, he shot only 39.3% from the field, and isn’t much of a three-point threat (he shot 11-29 all year). Again, he’s better suited as a third string point guard, and not a regular rotation player. I think it is unlikely he returns unless Cam Payne is moved first.

Toumani Camara (unsigned, 2023 second round draft pick) Toumani Camara is the 52nd pick in the draft, and a rookie with an iffy three-point shot. His closest NBA comp is Torrey Craig. You cannot count on him for rotation minutes in the regular season, much less the playoffs. So no help here.

Here’s what The Athletic’s John Hollinger wrote about the pick: “I really like this pick for Phoenix. Camara has stretch 4 potential with plus switchability, and is still evolving into the player he can be long-term after coming over from Belgium as an undersized 5 four years ago. He can also help the Suns’ tax situation if he stays in their 14th roster spot on a minimum deal, so he might be one of the few guys in the final 15 picks who doesn’t end up on a 2-way.”

Early Bird Rights:

‘Early Bird Rights’ go to players who have finished the last two seasons either with the same team or on the same contract. With Early Bird Rights, a team can re-sign their own free agent to a deal up to as much as the league average salary (about $12 million per year) for a minimum of two years, not including option years. This might be a great way for the Suns to to keep guys they like with smallish tradable contracts.

Torrey Craig had (arguably) his best season as a pro last year. He’s the sort of low-drama, 3-and-D combo-forward you need on a team full of guys who demand the ball. His biggest weakness is when he tries to do too much on offense, but as long as he buys into the role of spot-up corner three shooter, his 39.5% three-point percentage will help provide the spacing the Suns need. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a plus defender and rebounder at the small forward position. I expect the Suns to bring him back at more than the veteran minimum, which brings us up to five or six rotation level players, and probably a fifth starter.

Bismack Biyombo was virtually unplayable last year due to his atrocious 35.7% free throw percentage. As many “kill the popcorn guy in the third row” blocks as he had, the advanced stats say his overall defense was only slightly above average. While ESPN says the Suns will try to bring him back, it’s tough to see why (besides being a good locker-room presence) when much better players will be available at the vet minimum, other than perhaps as a piece in later trades.

Jock Landale had a break-out season, which is to say the undrafted 27-year-old proved to be a replacement level back-up center. While he’s a rotation player, it would be possible to improve upon him at this position, especially given his wretched 25.0% conversion rate on threes, and his so-so defense. On the plus side, he’s high energy player, fan favorite, and a hilarious quote machine. So, we’re up to maybe six or seven rotation guys.

Unrestricted Free Agents

The Suns cannot offer these players more than the veteran minimum (about $3 million for one year) to return to the team.

Terrence Ross was a mid-season acquisition who could get hot from three, but his defense was as bad as advertised, resulting in a -4.27 Real Plus Minus (RPM). This made him the pigeon against any upper-level opponent, and seemingly a bad fit in a system built by defensive guru Frank Vogel. He could be a rotation piece somewhere, but not here, and he generally proved to be unplayable in the post-season. While the Suns might bring him back (and ESPN says they will try), they probably shouldn’t. Zero points for Gryffindor here.

T.J. Warren wasn’t given enough time by former coach Monty Williams to get a good feel for how he would perform with the team, so it’s tough to evaluate him. But in the playoffs, despite not posting great offensive numbers, good things seemed to happen with him on the court. Tony Buckets had a +4.75 net plus minus per 48 minutes in the playoffs, including four games in the losing series against Denver. While his defense wasn’t great during the regular season, in the past he has shown he can be at least average (posting a very good +1.76 Defensive RPM in 2019-2020). While Phoenix can only offer him the minimum, he’s worth it given the possibility he could be a regular rotation contributor, or even a starter. It’s unknown if he wants to come back, especially after he was treated so shabbily by Coach Williams, or what other teams will offer him.

Damion Lee started off the 2022-2023 season hot, and then just sort of vanished. While he shot a team record 44.5% from three-point range, his defense was almost as bad as Ross. He often tried to do too much on offense, which resulted in some really bad shot selection. Lee is a phenomenal teammate and locker-room presence. You want to bring him back at the minimum, but he’s not generally a rotation player, especially in the playoffs where he instantly becomes the pigeon the moment he sets foot on the court. He may come back for a minimum contract, but other clubs may offer him more. In the final analysis, he’s essentially a fifth guard and mostly unsuitable for playoff rotations.

Josh Okogie brings some great attributes to the table. He can guard three positions, plays relentless defense, and is a ferocious offensive rebounder for his size. The downside is that his offensive efficiency is low. He shot only 39.1% from the field during the regular season, and 33.5% from deep. In the playoffs, teams left him alone in the corner and he could only convert at a 14.3% rate. As a result, he was a massive net negative in the playoffs, with a horrific -12.9 net plus minus per 48. Coach Williams generally couldn’t afford to keep him on the floor and cannot be relied upon as a regular rotation player in the playoffs. Regardless, some team is likely to offer him more than the vet minimum. His return looks dubious because of that.

Potential Free Agents Signings

If you haven’t noticed a trend by now, I’ll call it out. The Suns have their stars, and what they need are role players who play defense, and can reliably space the floor by hitting wide open threes. Booker, Beal, and KD are going to generate an immense amount of gravity on offense, and that means whoever the other two or three guys on the court are needed to be able to nail their threes. At the same time, they can’t be pigeons on defense either. As noted, right now the Suns only have six, maybe seven playoff rotation guys either on the roster (the big four plus Payne), or who are highly likely to come back (Torrey Craig, Jock Landale). The Suns need help everywhere.

If you factor in injuries, that means the Suns need at least three or four more 3-and-D players whom Vogel can trust with important minutes in the playoffs. The following is a list of guys who might take a minimum contract to chase a ring that may be available for a minimum contract. It’s also worth noting that some players (like Reggie Bullock and Davis Bertans) were traded in a salary cap dump, and could be available later if they are waived. Bullock in particular would fulfill the Suns’ need for high character 3-and-D wings.

Jevon Carter is a quintessential 3-and-D combo guard, shooting 42.2% with the Bucks last season. His last trip through Phoenix didn’t turn out well because the Suns were built around the point guard initiating the offense, and he’s not really a distributor. In the playoffs, where there will always be some combination at least two-out-of-three of Beal, Booker, and KD, Carter’s limitations as a point guard are much less pronounced. We saw how Chris Paul was basically reduced to being a spot up-3-point shooter when Book and KD were initiating, and Carter can fill this role better than almost anyone. His bulldog defense and size allow him to switch effectively between point guards and shooting guards. He may be available for the vet minimum, especially if offered a bigger role than he had in Milwaukee (where he was benched in game 5 of the series with Miami).

Yuta Watanabe was teammates with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, and KD5 has dropped some big hints that he’d like to see Yuta in Phoenix, and John Hollinger thinks he would be a great fit on the Suns. In college, Watanabe was the Atlantic-10 defensive player of the year and plays with a high motor. He’s got good size (6’8”, 215 lbs) and is an extremely efficient shooter (49.1% from the field, 44.4% from three). While he’s not a prolific scorer, the Suns wouldn’t need him to be; all he has to do is hit most of the wide open looks he would get. Watanabe has the size to play a little stretch 4 as well. Given the glut of players at his position in Brooklyn, he’s likely to be available.

Thomas Bryant is one of those cases of a guy never seeming to land in just the right situation. He’s almost always played behind someone who’s an all-star (Porzingas, Anthony Davis, Jokic). But he’s a solid scorer, good rebounder, and a slight net plus at both ends of the court. (I was also at the game where he dropped 18 points, two three-pointers, and 19 rebounds on the Suns) He’s got legitimate size for a center at 6’10 and 248 lbs. Most importantly, he’s a fantastic three-point shooter for a center: converting at a 44.4% clip last year, and 36.6% for his career. The idea of him running hand-off screens and then drifting back to the three point line should make any coach smile. He’s only a half step down in quality from Ayton, and a definite improvement over Jock Landale. While his career three point percentage only sounds “ok”, keep in mind that Devin Booker is a career 35.6% three point shooter. Bryant was traded midseason to the Nuggets, who never put him on the court in the playoffs and is expected to be available for the minimum. Signing Bryant would also allow the Suns to trade Ayton for the best players available, since they would have a starting quality center already under contract.

If the Suns were to add these three players, plus bring back Torrey Craig, they would be able to field a solid 8- or 9-man rotation that never puts a “pigeon” on the floor, and never lets opponents ignore players on the perimeter. If opponents dare any of these role players to shoot (namely Craig, Carter, Watanabe, and Thomas) they’re likely to pay for it.

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