EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
New Suns GM James Jones faces first real test in NBA Draft, free agency
Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones already has a few hits on his record despite only officially holding the title since mid-April.
As interim GM replacing the fired Ryan McDonough, Jones acquired wing Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Washington Wizards, and as his first act in a permanent role, hired Monty Williams as a head coach.
Both of those moves, however, should have an asterisk next to them.
The Oubre trade was the by-product of a three-team game of telephone gone awry, leaving the Suns and Wizards no choice but to move on from the players they were widely known to have agreed upon dealing away. The hangover cure the next morning for both teams was that transaction.
As for Williams, the timeline in which former head coach Igor Kokoskov was fired 12 days after the season ended should lead you to believe Phoenix at least had an understanding they had a really good shot at hiring Williams, let alone the possibility they flat-out knew he was coming. Some of that can be credited to Williams’ past relationships with Jones and new vice president of basketball operations Jeff Bower.
But capitalizing off mindblowing incompetence or past relationships will not save Jones this NBA Draft and free agency period.
The Suns have several items on the to-do list heading into a month-long period, namely bouncing back from a 19-win season and getting Devin Booker a winning team sooner rather than later to keep him happy.
That includes filling two positions on the depth chart that were mostly empty in the 2018-19 season: point guard and power forward.
Point guard is the most pressing, obviously, given the significance of the position on the court and how versatility on the wing can pad some of the minutes at power forward.
The chief issue for Jones to tackle is there’s no simple solution presenting itself in either the draft or offseason. They won’t be able to trade up to get Murray State’s Ja Morant, and at No. 6, both Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland and North Carolina’s Coby White are not even close to stylistic fits for what the Suns require. And while Garland has star upside Phoenix should be intrigued by, there is a reported market brewing for the fourth overall pick with teams looking to snag him.
Free agency is the trickier hill to climb because of A) how many teams have legitimate cap space, B) how much cap space the Suns don’t have and would have to create and C) attracting the right point guard to come to Phoenix.
Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Malcolm Brogdon are too good, Terry Rozier and Elfrid Payton are too bad and the likes of Cory Joseph and TJ McConnell are too uninspiring.
Even the realistic names that “fit” have some hurdles to overcome. Would the Suns pay Patrick Beverley enough to get him to come to Phoenix strictly for his intangibles as a guy who attempted 6.1 shots a game last season? Ricky Rubio is coming off the worst season of his career and Darren Collison shares the traits Beverley does as an affordable veteran many teams will desire.
Trading the pick presents the cleanest route to a starting point guard. There are no hoops to jump through in terms of competing with other teams for signing the player, nor betting on the development of a 19-year-old who doesn’t know how to play the position yet. Unlike free agency, the salaries they would need to move to create cap space for those signings would simply be in the trade instead.
But, from what 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro has reported, the Suns are being picky. They didn’t want Mike Conley because he’s old, has injury history and makes over $30 million the next two seasons. They don’t want Lonzo Ball because he can’t shoot. They think they can do better with the sixth pick than Spencer Dinwiddie.
More on that flawed thinking in a second, but let’s move to power forward for a minute.
The hole for the Suns at power forward last year was akin to a four-story building burning down while a tornado ravaged the backdrop. The Suns needed a point guard so bad we failed to realize they didn’t really have a power forward, either.
Dragan Bender has been best utilized as a small-ball center, and he certainly fails to have any traditional four-man qualities to his game. T.J. Warren, who missed half of the season anyway, was always a small forward pretending to be a power forward. Trevor Ariza playing like he forgot he was in a contract year killed off the extra kick he needed to battle as a small-ball four.
And that was it. Neither guy could rebound nor offer a skill set that could help rookie center Deandre Ayton enough.
Free agency at power forward has more appeal than point guard, albeit with some qualifiers attached to every guy.
As we covered with the top guys at point guard, Tobias Harris and Nikola Mirotic will be sought after by some of the best teams in the league and require a hefty payday.
At least Julius Randle can rebound, but you don’t want his ball-dominant ways as a scorer clogging things up, and I’d take a strong guess at Marcus Morris not wanting to return to the Suns organization.
Our problem, like it is with Beverley and Collison, is that the two best candidates in Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu are both going to be sought after by teams and situations much better than Phoenix.
The trade market offers little to nothing, at the moment.
But that’s the key in all this. “At the moment.”
Jones has shown extreme patience in his tenure, not moving on a rental guard last season despite the overwhelming requirement for one. Every indication from how the front office values the No. 6 pick and their young core points towards a slow build for the Suns.
But they need an acquisition that will bring the juice, a shot of electricity to at least bring a 10-win improvement next season.
And the thing about the NBA is that everything can change in a heartbeat. As evidenced by injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in the NBA Finals, we are Kawhi Leonard leaving Toronto away from both conferences being wide open for the first time since … ? By the way, that’s really bad news for the Suns, as the aggression on the market is going to tick up for several teams because of this.
There are a couple of hypotheticals that already have some beef behind them on the rumor mill, and one in Conley’s move to Utah that has already come to fruition.
What if the Nets go get Kyrie Irving? Is D’Angelo Russell available? How about Dinwiddie? Are the Suns ready to do what they should, overpaying for either guy because they can play point guard adequately?
What about the Magic and their frontcourt of the future in Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, with their best player Nikola Vucevic heading for unrestricted free agency? Does that mean power forward Aaron Gordon can be had for the right price?
Does life after Anthony Davis in New Orleans include Jrue Holiday, even after acquiring Lonzo Ball?
Especially because of how those names are far more intriguing than the most logical free agent signings, the Suns front office needs to show some gusto in trade talks.
Give McDonough a bad rap all you want, a rap he deserves, but he got after it when the situation presented itself to. He made the Brandon Knight trade, he didn’t hesitate when Eric Bledsoe was available and traded up for Marquese Chriss and Mikal Bridges. Remember when he signed Tyson Chandler to a four-year deal partially to help with a run at LaMarcus Aldridge? What a madman!
We don’t know if Jones is that guy yet, if he’s going to stare at someone like Conley and say, “Well, he makes over $66 million the next two seasons and he’s always hurt. Pass!”
But Conley is a very good NBA point guard now, and will still be an average one by the time his contract runs out. Sure, Conley might get hurt, but can we seriously propose the Suns could really do better than that with the $30-plus million a year in cap space Conley eats up, or get that quality of a player out of the draft?
And that’s before we saw the price of what Conley went for, which was two expiring contracts, Grayson Allen, No. 23 in this draft and a protected first-round pick. That’s it! The Suns could have beaten that without even involving the sixth overall pick!
The same frustration goes for Gambadoro reporting the inexplicable, that the Suns aren’t even considering Russell as an option, even though Russell is a 23-YEAR-OLD ALL-STAR POINT GUARD who is best friends with the franchise’s most important player in the last two decades not named Steve.
If Jones continues to sit and watch plausible options to his problems fly away, he’s going to be left with nearly the same team as he had last year.
And to a certain extent, that’s fine. Booker and Ayton in 2-4 years lead to at least the playoffs, let alone the chance of real success in said playoffs. We can work with that.
But what we can’t work with is the dude who just averaged 26 points and six assists a game last season, becoming the first 22-year-old not named Michael or Oscar to do so, looking around at a certain point and saying, “Enough is enough. I’m too good for this.” And no one using sound logic would call him wrong.
The reality the Suns need to get into is that’s where their current trajectory takes them unless they do something about it to alter the timeline.
Will they? The next month will give us a decent feeler for the answer to the franchise’s current biggest question, and it’s largely on the first-year GM with two years of front office experience to get it done.
What, you’re not confident, either?