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Empire of the Suns mailbag, Part III: T.J. Warren, Elfrid Payton’s futures

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With Devin Booker’s ascension and another year being added to the playoff drought, there’s a new sense of urgency surrounding the Phoenix Suns’ offseason for the first time in a few years.

After discussing Deandre Ayton and other offseason storylines to watch, Empire of the Suns answers your questions on the roster’s outlook heading into the summer.

Olson: Tyler Ulis is making so little money — $1.5 million next season, $1.6 million the year after — that having him as the team’s third point guard can work. And, like, don’t piss off Devin Booker right now when you are this bad of a team.

You are not going to like what I am about to say, but I believe Brandon Knight has a better chance of starting opening night than Elfrid Payton does, and Knight’s contract makes it hard to see how they can afford Payton unless he’s brought back on a cheap deal.

That, however, could be easier if they were to let go of Alan Williams’ unguaranteed $5.5 million contract.

Ryan McDonough said the post-All-Star break games were “huge” for Marquese Chriss, and all he’s done in them four games in is have more fouls (14) than points (12). I have long said the Suns made their choice on draft night on him and had to see the rawness of his game all the way out, even it got this rough, but can they if his play continues to be somewhere around this level the rest of the season?

I’m going to say Ulis, Chriss and Alan Williams are back.

Zimmerman: Sorry this is boring but I’ll go with the same three players as well. Ulis’ shooting and NBA defenses figuring him out made me think twice, but it’s true that the lack of point guard depth makes his contract A-OK. Plus, one of the biggest reasons he’s struggled this year is that Williams was a key part of his effectiveness (if we’re talking about biology and basketball ecosystems, Ulis and Williams are basically lichen).

Chriss’ value has cratered, so I see the Suns continuing to help him develop.

Peters is the most interesting case. If he can become a smart defender — I haven’t seen enough of him to know whether he’s a plus or minus on that end — he could fit the Jared Dudley role as a stretch power forward. That said, the Suns’ many draft picks might lead me to believe there are other players drafted that could take a two-way contract away from the rookie forward.

As for Payton, I’m somewhat torn despite how well he’s played. He might play himself out of an affordable contract, and his lack of shooting has been harmful to the Suns’ spacing, even though he still can play-make and score off the bounce. On a team that can put four shooters on the court? He’s stellar. On a young team that needs shooters and defenders more than anything? His flaws stand out.

In other words, it seems like I remain a Knight apologist.

Zimmerman: I guess I answered this in the question above. I agree that the combo of non-shooters hurts everyone involved. I will say this: If the Suns draft or can sign a great shooter or a rim protector who will play alongside Payton, some of the worries go away. If Phoenix finds a way to drastically improve their wing shooting, the same can be said.

Should the Suns draft a big man, I think a stingy free agent market could land Payton back in Phoenix regardless of Knight’s status, but I don’t think he’s signing a long-term deal. So, no.

Olson: In my eyes, there’s been a misconception that Payton being a capable NBA point guard who can hit open threes makes him a good fit and a potential long-term solution.

He has to either get much better at defense or scoring more outside of shots at the rim to be better than fine. He’s the type of player whose flaws get much more exposed when you are winning closer to 40 games than 20.

With that being said, that’s holding the spot to a high standard, and like we’ve seen in the games he’s played, the Suns could do worse than him.

Zimmerman: When another team offers the Suns a decent first-round pick for him. Is that soon? It’s hard to say. Teams value those like no other asset, but Warren is on a pretty darn good deal for being a 20-point scorer.

Josh Jackson’s defensive, rebounding and passing trajectories as a prospect are already better than Warren’s own. Add in the rookie’s emergence as a slashing small forward — granted it’s much less effective — and he projects to become a more versatile player.

Warren might be at his best as a complementary scorer in a controlled offensive system as defenses have learned how to key in on him. Warren could be a monster sixth man for a playoff team that has the right system for him.

At this point, the Suns have too many needs. Like Payton, Warren’s contributions don’t help fill them.

Olson: He became expendable when Phoenix drafted Jackson.

Hot take: Warren is overpaid until he can prove he’s not terrible at defense, passing or shooting.

In an even hotter take and even though I think it’s the wrong type of rebuilding move to make right now, if the Suns see a 3-and-D type of wing they like at any of their own picks, they shouldn’t hesitate to take them because of Warren. Keep an eye on Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges, Kevin Knox, Troy Brown, Keita Bates-Diop and De’Andre Hunter.