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With core 3 clear, Suns can’t delay major roster decisions any longer

(AP photos)

Everything is going to be all well and good for the Phoenix Suns in due time because of Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges.

Ayton has progressed defensively as one would hope a rookie center would. He’s gone from looking like he was still in Corvallis against Oregon State to fully understanding how defensive rotations work and using his athletic gifts to help.

Offensively, those lower on him like this writer were concerned about the lack of individual creation skills from the post and, more particularly, when he’s forced to dribble once, twice or thrice. What he’s shown in the past eight weeks and the rate he is improving implies he’s a lot closer to a complete offensive game that an optimistic outlook would have foreseen.

Add in everything else being as advertised with his remarkable athleticism making him a next-level perimeter defender, offensive rebounder and rim runner, and he’s looking the part of a No. 1 overall pick.

Booker’s gonna have to stay healthy, but in the slivers we’ve seen when he’s 100 percent, he looks like the prince that was promised. He’s a dynamic offensive player capable of taking over any game at any time even in this roster’s current iteration, an impressive feat. No need to go any longer on him, yes?

Bridges’ 3-and-D skills brought in day-one value as expected, most notably on defense, where there’s an argument to be made there are some All-Defense teams in his future. But other parts of that projection, such as some upside off the bounce as a scorer and passer, project a breakout by the end of his third year at the latest. He’s a near-perfect wing accent for Ayton and Booker.

Those are the three guys. The Suns have them and they are 20, 22 and 22, respectively.

Now they just have to wait until the core three is ready to carry them to playoff basketball.

But while we wait, there are long-term decisions the Suns have to make now.

Since the start of last season when Booker made the leap to young star, he has been in a starting lineup with 21 different players.

Circumstantial things have happened out of the Suns’ control.

Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss were busts. Eric Bledsoe didn’t wanna be here anymore. Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler went from veteran leaders to washed empty voices overnight.

There are also things that have happened that were in the Suns’ control.

They picked Josh Jackson over De’Aaron Fox knowing Bledsoe was stewing. Despite Ayton’s promise, he very well might not be the first or second-best player in his draft class. They have had Mike James, Tyler Ulis, Elfrid Payton, Shaquille Harrison, Isaiah Canaan, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton and Tyler Johnson serve as stopgap point guard options since Bledsoe’s departure.

But all that matters is where the Suns are now, and where they need to reside going forward is projecting as much stability as possible.

After losses, Booker continuously mentions how other teams have spent three, four, five years together to know each other inside and out. The Suns aren’t afforded that luxury.

While goats continue to poop in offices and scouts watch on iPads instead of in-person, the best they can do for now is tying the roster together and giving Booker that luxury.

A lot of this hedges on how the NBA Draft Lottery, NBA Draft and free agency play out.

If the Suns win the lottery, it’s a very simple, two-step process not even they can screw up. Draft Zion Williamson, trade whatever you need to trade outside of those three names (and Williamson) for an All-Star-caliber point guard to gas this thing up and get going.

If they don’t win the lottery, using that draft pick as a trade chip makes a whole lot more sense. Whether that’s drafting the best available player and dealing them later in the offseason or making a pre-selection trade, this team doesn’t need another developmental 18-to-21-year-old.

In free agency, fill in the blanks via signings and/or trades. If you don’t have the point guard yet, make a run at a few. Ditto for power forward.

But in order to execute those three potential stages, they have to assess the leftovers of the roster by figuring out who should stay, who should get paid and who should be the primary pieces in potential deals.

It sure feels like the Suns should keep Kelly Oubre Jr. The players love him, the fans love him even more and he’s only 23. With Oubre’s restricted free agent status, the Suns are in control of the situation.

It gets a whole lot dicier signing Oubre if he costs closer to $20 million a year than $12 million. His energy is top-notch, he’s a good defensive player and has taken a step forward as a scorer with how he attacks the basket. But he has flaws. He’s not a consistent shooter still, has extreme bouts of tunnel vision and his individual scoring is still constrained to slashing at the rim.

That, plus Bridges existing, projects Oubre as a sixth man on this team. That’s fine. But is it fine for $17 million a year or more? Hard to say. What isn’t hard to say is #ValleyBoyz. It’s a clean brand. Drop that merch, Kelly.

Oubre is step one, because if the Suns pass on the price tag, that makes fitting Josh Jackson or T.J. Warren in the picture a whole lot easier.

Let’s start on Jackson.

The Suns almost certainly missed the boat on cashing in with whatever his trade value was. That’s something we discussed on the Empire of the Suns podcast at the beginning of the year when it was clear that he wasn’t improving much, but it was admittedly an agonizing call to make in the moment.

That cost the Suns. Now, they have to figure out what Jackson is.

That’s not actually too hard.

Jackson plays his tail off and, to steal a label from Bill Simmons’ vault on former Boston Celtic Tony Allen, is a trick-or-treat player everywhere else. For every time Jackson’s overly-aggressive closeout takes him four steps out of position he makes three amazing defensive rotations in a row. For every time he misses an open dunk he slices through three defenders and executes an acrobatic finish.

Dude is a gamer. You need players like him. But he’s been their worst performer this season and is 22. If he’s something in Phoenix, that’s gonna take some more time. Should the Suns wait?

That’s an expensive question. Jackson has an $8.9 million team option for the 2020-21 season. The team’s trajectory and flight plan do not line up with paying their fourth-most important wing that much money.

Warren has been the round peg in a square hole for over a year now. With versatility on both ends becoming the identity of this team, Warren is a limited player. He’s a very good scorer and has turned himself into a great shooter. But beyond that, he doesn’t rebound or defend well enough to play any meaningful minutes as a small-ball four.

For where Warren is a negative and positive on the floor, paying a small forward an average of over $11 million the next three years doesn’t seem like the best way of maximizing value, to say the least.

The long-term roster questions go beyond that never ending wing conundrum.

With a core three in place, players like Bender become exponentially more valuable. Oh yeah, he’s in here too.

With the success of the team recently and a consistent 15-20 minutes in the starting lineup, Bender’s strengths as a player — that he definitely has and people discount too easily — have shown as his confidence has slightly risen.

Like Bridges is ideal for Ayton and Booker, the same can be said for Bender as a frontcourt member with Ayton.

His defense is making Ayton and the team better on that end, his passing gets Ayton and everybody else more looks and if he can get out of whatever shooting funk he’s in this year and get back to last year’s 36.6 percent from deep, he can space the floor for Ayton and the team too.

Now, this is not to say he should start next year, but should the Suns keep the 21-year-old around to make sure he shouldn’t with another season or two of seasoning? He’s an unrestricted free agent since the Suns declined his option and there are a lot of unanswerable questions from this seat on if he wants to stay in Phoenix, or even the NBA for that matter.

What about locking up center long-term? Richaun Holmes is not only a great backup center, he’s a good NBA player, period. He’s a seamless energetic rim-running substitute for Ayton who always manages to do his job defensively on top of that. Paying the unrestricted free agent a little extra to keep him around and locking in 48 good minutes at one position has more value than you think.

The Suns almost certainly need to add a point guard with real pedigree this offseason, but where does that leave Melton and Okobo? Certainly, they don’t need both rookie guards if they can finally get rid of that dreaded stop-gap stamp on the Suns’ floor general.

Melton is the best bet. He’s bordering on being a good NBA defender as a rookie, keeps making strides as a ball-handler and is a “winning player” in the same sense as Bridges by doing a collection of little things most won’t notice.

But let’s not write off Okobo. With the ball in his hands, he can already get to any spot on the floor he wants and has the talent to score from nearly all of those spots. We’re just not so sure — actually, we are pretty sure he doesn’t realize this yet.

The catch here is Melton becomes a restricted free agent after next season while Okobo will be in year two of his four-year deal.

And Johnson should at least be mentioned here, even if he is the latest stop-gap option.

How are those three players projected? Could Melton and Okobo even start for the team in a few years?

Following an offseason that included getting two-thirds of Phoenix’s big three, another one of vital importance approaches.

If the Suns play their cards right they could have a dramatic turnaround — OK that’s asking for too much, you’re right.

If the Suns can find the right balance of avoiding massive turnover, including at head coach, while improving the roster at the same time, that’s a win and should have them targeting at least 30 wins.

It’s now on them to use the last chunk of this season as time to assess who should go where and formulate that into a long-term plan.

But identifying who “them” is creates an unsolvable element of the franchise’s current standing with two co-interim general managers and a front office with more holes than its roster.

That makes part of this equation of hiring a permanent general manager quickly a worrying additional variable. It took a scathing ESPN report for information to come out regarding a search for that piece of the puzzle, a sequence that does not encourage any confidence for a situation that, like we said, should be all well and good regardless.

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