As the dust settles on the NBA offseason, analysts and media are giving the Phoenix Suns even more props than they did in July when it happened.
How in the heck did the Suns turn the aging Chris Paul, a couple of backups, no tradable first round picks and no cap space into a Top-40 player and six other rotation players equal to or better than the ones they let go?
That’s exactly what the Suns did.
Out of nothing, they added three-time All-Star Bradley Beal, four players who’d played 1,400+ minutes* for their teams last year (Eric Gordon, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks and Bol Bol) and another in Yuta Watanabe from the Brooklyn Nets who made 44% of his threes and was at his best in lineups with Kevin Durant. The Nets went 17-7 in games both played last year, with Yuta making 53% of his threes in nearly 20 minutes per game off the bench. They also added backup combo guard Jordan Goodwin in the Beal trade.
*A team’s leader in total minutes played likely gets 2,600 minutes in a season, so 1,400 is a good line of demarcation for solid rotation piece.
Again, no cap space. No first round picks. No good trade assets.
That’s one of the reasons David Aldridge, one of the best NBA writers of the last two generations and now a lead writer for The Athletic, ranked the Suns with the 3rd best offseason in basketball.
He ranks the Suns behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers, who added the shooting they desperately needed in Max Strus and Georges Niang, and the San Antonio Spurs, who added the best prospect in a generation in Victor Wembanyama.
3. Phoenix Suns
The skinny: Phoenix looked like a franchise that needed a shake-up, and GM James Jones delivered. Beal was the headline pickup and will slide into the complementary role offensively alongside Kevin Durant and Devin Booker that’s probably his best spot; that trio should be insanely productive. But the Suns’ best work was parlaying minimum salaries and less-than-midlevel slots into what should be a very solid bench. I especially like getting Watanabe from the Nets and Bates-Diop from the Spurs. I’m not sure firing Williams was the right answer, but two straight awful playoff flameouts gave Mat Ishbia a reason to make a change. No doubt, though: The Suns are hella small now aside from Deandre Ayton and Bol. And Beal, while willing to pass as a lead guard, was often sped up into turnovers and bad decisions when he had those responsibilities in Washington the last couple of seasons.
Aldridge points out some of the weak spots on the Suns team, including firing one of the best coaches in basketball, having little size beyond Deandre Ayton and having no true point guard to set the table. So while the Suns did improve since they suffered their second straight elimination-game-30-point-halftime-deficit, they are not without real flaws.
In absolute terms, these Suns are small. No question. They project to have Keita Bates-Diop or Yuta Watanabe starting at ‘power’ forward next year in a lineup next to Deandre Ayton, with reed-thin Kevin Durant at small forward and Booker and Beal in the backcourt.
Last year’s top players in minutes played, with their height and weight:
- Mikal Bridges — 2,040 minutes — 6’6” — 209 lbs.
- Deandre Ayton — 2,035 minutes — 6’11” — 250 lbs.
- Torrey Craig — 1,948 minutes — 6’7” — 221 lbs.
- Chris Paul — 1,889 minutes — 6’0” — 175 lbs.
- Devin Booker — 1,885 minutes — 6’5” — 206 lbs.
- Damion Lee — 1,506 minutes — 6’5” — 210 lbs.
- Josh Okogie — 1,350 minutes — 6’4” — 213 lbs.
That’s an average of 6’7” and 212 lbs. for players who got more than 1,000 minutes last season in a Suns uniform. If you add Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder to the group, the average height is still 6’7” with the weight jumping to 221.
This year, the top 9 in minutes played should be something like
- Kevin Durant — 6’10” — 240 lbs.
- Devin Booker — 6’5” — 206 lbs.
- Bradley Beal — 6’4” — 207 lbs.
- Deandre Ayton — 6’11” — 250 lbs.
- Keita Bates-Diop — 6’8” — 229 lbs.
- Eric Gordon — 6’3” — 215 lbs.
- Yuta Watanabe — 6’9” — 215 lbs.
- Josh Okogie — 6’4” — 213 lbs.
- Jordan Goodwin — 6’3” — 200 lbs.
If that’s the top 9, the average size across the lineup drops to 6’6” and 219 lbs. The starting lineup is actually bigger than the past few years, but three of the top four projected backups are 6’4” or shorter.
Could the 7’2” 220 lbs. Bol Bol get more minutes than Goodwin? or 6’8” 220 Toumani Camara? Sure. Depends on the health of the top guys. Booker, Beal and Gordon might not leave enough minutes on the table for both Okogie and Goodwin to get a lot of run, opening the door for a front court player to get solid minutes in that 9th position.
The Suns are not big, but they’ve never been big. They have been playing an undersized power forward for years, and they’re bigger now at small forward (Durant vs. Bridges) and point guard (Beal vs. Paul). This year’s starting lineup will be bigger than we’re used to seeing, but the overall rotation is not going to intimidate teams with size.
Here’s the silver lining — the new Suns have higher free throw and rebound rates vs. the departed, and shoot the three just as well. None of this is earth-shattering, but we will likely see the Suns higher up the boards in free throw attempts (29th last year) and defensive rebounds (21st).
Adjusting for expected minutes played, the imported Suns are twice as likely to get to the free throw line, probably pushing them up into the top half of the league, and more likely to grab the rebound. Projections are conservative, based on career free throw and rebound rates of imported Suns vs. the departed’s numbers (career highs, for the most part) last season.
Does that mean the Suns will win more than last year’s 45 games? Probably. Heck, let’s be honest — last year’s Suns would have won more than 45 if they hadn’t suffered so many injuries to so many important players. Remember, Jae Crowder missed the whole season, Cameron Johnson missed four months, Booker missed two months and Chris Paul missed almost as much. Add in Landry Shamet and Cam Payne missing more than a month each, and last year was tragically comical.
This year’s team is better than the one that began last season, right? The one that was supposed to win 55 or more games?
We’ve got three clear upgrades, at least for the 2023-24 season:
- Bradley Beal > Chris Paul — second-best guard on the roster produces 30 a night (points + point off assists)
- Kevin Durant > Mikal Bridges — do-everything, high-minute small forward who always ‘wins’ his nightly matchup
- Eric Gordon > Landry Shamet — shooter off the bench who can spread the floor with threes off the angle, with a sprinkle of playmaking in their bag
There is definitely one downgrade...
- Yuta Watanabe < Cameron Johnson — three-point bomber off the bench, makes everything from the corner, long enough to hold up at forward, doesn’t get embarrassed defensively, but can be a bowling pin if defending a post-up player
But everyone else is kind of a wash, right?
- Drew Eubanks = Jock Landale = Dario Saric = Frank Kaminsky — second or third big man, hustler, good touch around basket, blocks the occasional shot, gets in foul trouble
- Jordan Goodwin = Cam Payne — combo guard, table setter in second unit, high energy placeholder until starters come back, can hold his own as a short term starter
- Jae Crowder = Torrey Craig = Keita Bates-Diop — small forward just big enough to spot time against bigger players, can make the open three but not reliable
- Chimezie Metu = Udoka Azubuike = Bismack Biyombo — high energy backup big, looks great in short minutes
The two wildcards are Bol Bol and Toumani Camara. While all the other players in the rotation are basically copies of each other, these two guys are just different. Camara has some bulk that others don’t have, while Bol has length rivaled only by Ayton. Neither is a real NBA player right now, but if they can develop into something they would bring a dimension the Suns haven’t had.
It’s gonna be an interesting season, Suns fans!