EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns execute beginning of James Jones’ plan with Warren out, Saric in
When the Phoenix Suns reportedly traded power forward T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft for nothing in return to open up cap space, the quick-twitch reaction was to criticize the Suns.
Which, quite honestly, that’s not a wrong instinct to have with the organization after the past couple years of incompetence.
But once the Suns only just over an hour later reportedly moved down five spots in the draft, from No. 6 to 11th, for Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Dario Saric, it’s clear that James Jones and the Suns have a plan.
And they are executing it.
The most important tidbit on Saric is that he’s cheap and accents as a role player much better than Warren. Saric, 25, makes only $3.4 million next season, a bargain for a starting-caliber NBA player in 2019.
The Timberwolves didn’t want to pay Saric in restricted free agency next offseason, and the Suns might not want to either, but that shouldn’t matter all that much for the sake of five spots in a bad draft.
Saric is a skilled modern-four man on the outside, but on the inside, he’s a gritty and hard-working player that gets most of his offensive business done off his activity level.
He accepts getting that dirty work done, which is crucial because he’s not fast enough, nor does he have a good enough handle to create offense for himself or others. He’s shooting under 44% for his career, which is not a good number for a big man at all.
And while he’s a streaky shooter, you want him to shoot still and a 35.8% number in three seasons is acceptable as a stretch four.
That skill will flash through on certain plays, like this curling jumper off an improvised play of sorts.
It’s an important note to hit on Saric. He’s an active player and does a lot of, well, goofy stuff sometimes. He’s falling all over the place and trying weird things, but there’s a lovely touch of craft to what he does.
Saric is a good passer with that craft, as well, and has spent most of his career playing with either Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns. So, yes, he’s going to be comfortable setting up Deandre Ayton.
A pass like this might not pop for some, but I love Saric seeing Towns open for a split-second in semi-transition and immediately getting him the ball.
Saric had a rough time adjusting to Minnesota after being involved in the mid-season trade for Jimmy Butler, going through stretches of inconsistency. For the most part, he’s struggled with consistency as a whole.
And while Saric does try, he’s also a liability on defense with the way he moves. The good news is, as his time in Philadelphia showed, he can function in a versatile defense and the Suns project to have that with Ayton and Mikal Bridges sandwiching Saric.
The bottom line, though, is Saric was brought in because he’s cheap and can play. He has flaws, some of which don’t fit in with Phoenix, but there was always something missing in the formula for the Suns’ offseason aspirations.
They didn’t have enough money to get what they wanted. On top of trying to re-sign Oubre, how did they have the room on the books to get a veteran power forward and point guard?
Saric at this price unlocks the possibilities.
Which takes us to Warren, and why those possibilities still have to hit.
The Suns got caught in an awkward position with Warren at the start of last season.
By trading for the draft rights to Bridges and acquiring Oubre, they overstuffed their wing space, essentially forcing Warren into playing most of his minutes out of position as a power forward.
Yes, Warren is capable of playing some small-ball four, but for just about all of his minutes? Questionable.
The Suns never got truly forced into that dilemma once Oubre arrived thanks to Warren missing half the season with a bone bruise in his ankle.
But it was coming next season, along with the $35 million Warren was owed over the next three seasons.
That combined with Warren’s two biggest inefficiencies being passing and defense as a complementary piece between Ayton and Devin Booker made him the most logical player to be traded this offseason.
The Suns did just that on Thursday afternoon, dealing Warren to Indiana.
You can argue whether Warren is overpaid or not. But what you can’t argue is that he improved more in the 2018-19 season than he did in any other year of his career.
Warren has already proven himself in the league as one of its most efficient scorers, posting at least 18 points per game on 48% shooting or above from the field each of the last two seasons. He’s one of 15 NBA players to do that, per Basketball-Reference, and while you’ll see a discrepancy in how much he impacts winning, it’s a desirable skill.
He added more to his game, too.
Warren’s 3-point shot went from one he would turn down multiple times a game to him shooting right over strong contests by defenders.
The numbers (42.8% on 4.2 attempts a game) backed it up, but it really popped watching him shoot in those certain aforementioned situations that he had turned a corner.
From dribbling into the shot:
To the no-hesitation pulls once he got a little bit of space:
Warren has transformed himself into a certified sniper.
But the identity crisis with Warren was because he scores a lot, the assumption became he could create his own shot.
Up until last season, he really struggled to do so, but showed some improved feel as a creator and ball-handler.
Warren went from having 38% of his 2-point field goals unassisted two seasons ago to 45% for the 2018-19 run.
Synergy’s numbers back up his value as a scoring ball-handler too.
TJ Warren shot a well above average 47% in isolation and pick and roll situations and an eFG% of 68% on catch and shoot jumpers last season.
— Synergy Basketball (@SynergySST) June 20, 2019
This is an elongated way to say that Warren is not a one-dimensional player. That’s false advertisement.
Warren has a decent amount of value in the league, even if he didn’t fit in Phoenix. As we addressed earlier, though, he was the best nominee to get shipped out for cap space to fill out other needs on the roster.
It’s a poor job by the Suns of asset management to not only get nothing back for Warren, but also giving up the 32nd pick in the process, a pick they could have used to add a bench piece they’re certainly going to need.
And the good news about that pick is that player was going to come regardless. The Suns could have targeted a prospect like Zylan Cheatham, Chuma Okeke or Bruno Fernando to be a depth big man, but instead, they have to sign or trade for one now.
That’s shown to be more difficult to do in the league, but wouldn’t you know it, Jones knew what he was doing. That’s a huge credit to him and the front office.
Trading Warren, however, will still have to prove worth it based on who they bring in with the cap space they opened up. Saric is only a smidge of that.
And now by default, the Suns have hyped up their free agency period this offseason even more. Whether it’s a signing or trade acquisition, fans are going to be expecting a splash.
Based on past failures of the front office, this brought a feeling of dread and panic. But after what Jones pulled off Thursday night, fans can feel a little more confident they’ve got a front office that knows what it’s doing.