Is squeezing in D’Angelo Russell’s potential max salary worth it for Suns?

Jun 25, 2019, 11:03 AM
D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after the Nets came back to beat the Sacramento Kin...
D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after the Nets came back to beat the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on March 19, 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The projection of the Phoenix Suns’ roster and current offseason is a whole lot different than it was a week ago.

It might not feel like it, but most of the hard work is done. After three trades on NBA Draft night, the frontcourt rotation is nearly set with Deandre Ayton, Aron Baynes and Dario Saric. The Suns added two more potential role players at other spots through draft selections and a necessary evil was completed by trading T.J. Warren.

With a starting point guard position and some minutes at power forward to fill, the Suns have just over $13 million in cap space to use, assuming they’ve renounced all their cap holds minus Kelly Oubre Jr.’s. Re-signing Oubre, by the way, is simpler due to his Bird rights because as long as the Suns have cap space left when they sign Oubre, they can go over the cap.

Sounds easy enough from a maneuverability perspective, and under the expectation the Suns trade Josh Jackson and at least one of De’Anthony Melton or Elie Okobo (drafting Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome put the writing on the wall), that’s even more leg room. For example, if Phoenix deals Jackson and Melton to a team that wants young talent and has the cap room for no player in return, it would jump to over $20 million in cap space.

The only long-term money they’d be on would be the long-term money they’d want to be on: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and potentially Oubre.

Like I said, easy enough to wiggle around.

It’s important to establish this ground we are on because we’re about to talk about D’Angelo Russell.

I can’t remember a time this decade where there’s been more of an uproar for the Suns to make a player transaction than signing Russell, who is a restricted free agent in Brooklyn. The Suns’ mentions on Twitter are flooded by fans reminding the social media team that D-Lo exists. Perhaps it’s because he’s a swaggered-up individual, he’s fun to watch or he’s buddies with Devin Booker.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe only added to that thought process Tuesday when he reported that “Booker has campaigned for Russell,” adding to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro’s belief that the Phoenix front office isn’t as excited about that addition.

Regardless, the people want Russell in Phoenix.

There are three questions to answer to arrive at whether not that’s a good idea, each one more difficult to answer than the next.

We don’t have to answer whether or not Russell is a good NBA point guard.

Russell, 23, seemingly kept trying and failing to break down a wall in proving he was one for three seasons, and even for some of his fourth year.

That was before he exploded once 2019 hit.

The year 2018 in the 2018-19 season: 37 GP, 17.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 6.1 APG, 2.9 TOV, 41.9 FG%, 35.5 3P%, 78.6 FT%, 29.0 USG%

The year 2019 in the 2018-19 season: 44 GP, 23.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 7.7 APG, 3.3 TOV, 44.5 FG%, 37.7 3P%, 77.8 FT%, 32.2 USG%

We’re not going to delve into which Russell is the real Russell. Somewhere in the middle is still a pretty darn good offensive NBA point guard, with the latter making an All-Star team in the Eastern Conference.

Russell is always going to get by on his top-level skill and craft. He’s not the fastest point guard, nor the quickest, and that’s at a position where those are a premium. He’s big at 6-foot-5 but doesn’t play like it with no extra strength there.

All that adds up to a point guard who doesn’t score at the rim, which is frightening. Russell shot a woeful 50.8% at the rim last year, and he doesn’t get there a lot, either, taking a staggeringly low 17% of his shots there.

But there are a few ways Russell makes up for this in order to be a lethal scorer and playmaker.

For one, since we started at the rim, he’s awesome with floaters and touch shots.

What always jumped out about Russell at Ohio State was his feel for not only passes on the court but adjusting and shooting from just about anywhere. He seemed like a natural.

His numbers last year back it up. He shot 9.1% better than league average (51.3%, higher than his number at the rim!) on 195 attempts from “floater range” in-between the rim and deep mid-range territories.

So many guys in the league desire the ease at which Russell pulls this off with the unguardable arc on the shot.

Even when the defender is closer by, it doesn’t faze Russell, and he’s so at his own speed that it throws bigs off when guarding his pick-and-roll.

Poor Willy Hernangomez flinches at Russell twice here because he can’t leave his man or the basket open.

In real time you can see how little room Russell has on the look but check out the point of release capped.

Say the big steps up and denies “floater range” for Russell, forcing him into the least efficient shot in basketball — the deep mid-range two — and Russell can still hit that because of the aforementioned touch.

Russell shoots 46% from the mid-range, an excellent number for a guard and a good reason for him to warrant a high rate of 42% of his shots coming from that area.

What pushes him over the top as a scorer is being a high-volume 3-point shooter.

Only 41% of Russell’s shots come from three-point range, an average guard number, but that’s because he takes so many shots in other places.

Russell was one of 38 players in the league to take at least six threes a game, and if we factor in his 30-plus USG%, he was only one of five players to shoot 36% or better from deep on those two qualifiers.

As a playmaker, it’s more of what we’ve come to learn about his scoring. There isn’t a whole ton of flash involved, and it’s more about making the right pass while reading the defense.

He makes the correct decision consistently enough to be one of the 15 players in the league who averaged 7.0 assists per game or more.

His size is far more crucial in his passing, where strong defensive pick-and-roll coverage will be swiftly countered by him seeing over it and finding the right guy.

Note the extra hesitation dribble here because he’s waiting for the great Jared Dudley to get in his spot.

He’s got all the basic passes down to a big, from a pocket pass to an alley-oop feed.

If defenses are trying to cheat, he’ll notice. (Hi, LeBron!)

He’s not good on defense, something we can quickly bypass in order to say everything still comes together into a 23-year-old point guard you’d want to pay a lot of money to play for your basketball team.

The first question Phoenix has to pose, though, is why they’d want to.

Well, that correlates to its biggest question at the moment — Booker’s happiness.

Booker and Russell are close friends, and not only would Russell’s arrival delight Booker to no end, but a point guard of Russell’s caliber would also make the team better in the process.

Both are poor defenders and they’d have to overcome that. The two together, however, would be the league’s only high-usage backcourt that excels as shooters and passers. Only three other backcourts in the league would match the playmaking (Houston) or 3-point shooting (Golden State and Portland) numbers.

On top of the shooting the Suns added on draft night in Saric, Johnson and Jerome, that sounds like a pretty good duo for Deandre Ayton to work off of. Maybe they’re not a long-term fit to make the Western Conference Finals but let’s worry about that issue when we get there.

So, at least to this person with the keyboard, the why question is fairly easy to answer.

The tougher second one is if it’s worth it.

If the Suns relinquish all their cap holds, including letting Oubre walk, they could dump Jackson’s $7.1 million contract (without taking anything in return) and have a nudge under $30 million in space. That, though, would require letting a certified good player in Oubre go for nothing and all of a sudden, there would be no depth on the wing. Doesn’t seem wise.

Or, the Suns could attempt to keep Oubre and be just about there for Russell’s deal by stretching point guard Tyler Johnson’s one year left — since a team taking on his expiring $19.2 million deal for a draft pick seems unlikely. That means the Suns would have a $6.4 million hit against their cap space for each of the next three seasons instead of all $19.2 million next year for the sake of creating enough for Russell’s max, $27.25 million next season.

After that, Phoenix would be under the cap to still be able to re-sign Oubre, but they’d be done done.

Guestimating Oubre’s extension at $13 million per year, the trio of Booker, Oubre and Russell would make $67.5 million next season. That’s 62% of the league’s salary cap going to a 22-year-old who has yet to win 25 games in a season, a 23-year-old the Suns have had on the team for less than a year and another who just made the playoffs for the first time. Oh, wait, we forgot about Johnson’s stretch like many will once the Suns do it, so now we’re at 68%.

Remember the aforementioned wiggle room? It’s gonezo.

Is that smart to do for a group where an optimistic mind would have them “fighting” for a playoff spot in the second season of the run?

That all depends on how confident the Suns are in the job they can do themselves to build the right roster around Ayton and Booker with that wiggle room, prioritizing a “cleaner fit” than a ball-dominant point guard like Russell.

By all means, the reporting seems to indicate they are, pointing specifically toward their lack of interest in Russell as an option, as reported by Gambadoro. Handcuffing themselves this early would seem foolish from that mindset.

But if Russell wants to team up with his boy, Brooklyn gets Kyrie Irving and renounces Russell to make him an unrestricted free agent, could this actually be the Suns’ best chance in the near future of adding a premier talent around their three core young players?

That’s the third and most difficult question.

All statistics per Cleaning The Glass, Basketball-Reference and nba.com

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