The if and how questions of the Suns paying RFA Kelly Oubre Jr.
Restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr. has more than earned his money from the Phoenix Suns.
Don’t let a 19-win season fool you from the reinvigoration Oubre provided for the team once he was acquired from Washington in late December. Actually, reinvigoration would require an initial invigoration, so let’s just go with invigoration.
In the 40 games Oubre played, he had a team-high 108.6 offensive rating, a solid points output for a team per 100 possessions. Phoenix’s five lineups that featured Oubre in it for at least 30 minutes had net ratings of -4.2, -1.0, 1.8, 4.3 and 9.4. Compared to the Suns’ net rating on the season of -8.9 and those are pretty good numbers.
A lot of that came when playing with Devin Booker. Of the six lineups the Suns featured for 50 minutes or more from December on that involved Booker, the best four also included Oubre at -4.2, 0.5, 4.3 and 9.4 net ratings. The other two net ratings not involving Oubre were -9.8 and -16.2.
To simplify that, the team played better than they usually do when Oubre was on the floor and especially when he was alongside Booker.
Yes, Oubre had career bests in scoring and efficiency with Phoenix but watching him consistently impact games against good teams was the most telling sign he belonged.
That was immediate from the jump. His debut in Boston was one of the team’s best defensive performances of the season and his innate feel for making contact with the ball shined instantly.
Oubre was 4-for-12 shooting in that game but there was unanimous agreement during and after the game that he swung it. He had a steal and two blocks in that game, an area he statistically is great in. His block percentage of 1.6 and steal percentage of 2.1 in Phoenix are some of the best put up by a forward this year.
Those are the types of players you need to keep around.
Oubre can also be a difference-maker in the broader sense. One of his best games of the year was against Golden State, where his activity jumped up another level. He had six of his total 12 rebounds on the offensive glass to go along with 25 points, four assists and three steals.
As the season went along, Oubre’s tunnel vision as a passer decreased and he looked more comfortable with his teammates. An average of 1.6 assists per game is nothing to get crazy about but that doubled his number from Washington earlier in the year.
Oubre has a high gear of relentless he can reach as an on-ball defender. Watch him disrupt Kevin Durant three different times before finally forcing the turnover.
All of his 25 points in that game against Golden State came from scoring at the rim, off free throws and on drives like this, which have become his signatures. Because Oubre can take bumps as a ball-handler and finisher, he never allows Durant to deny his path to the rim, and once he gets there, it’s another bump before rising up and finishing. He drew a shooting foul on 13.1% of his attempts this season, a terrific number for a forward.
The point is that whether or not the numbers are there, he’s making plays and is going to play hard while doing so. It’s worth something to have a guy who will fight through two screens and not give up on the play even after his man is already covered.
This is not to ignore, of course, that Oubre has his share of flaws. His 3-point shooting has not improved like one would have hoped. He made 32.5% of his deep looks in Phoenix, and some of his off-ball habits defensively make him good instead of great on that end. He will have to continue to get better as a passer and keep tightening the handle because that’s his meal ticket to offensive value unless he unlocks the skill of shooting off the dribble.
The optimistic view is Oubre is only 23 and showed over a few months in Phoenix that he can improve. The pessimistic view is that any dropoff in what he’s good at could make him merely average.
Put all that into your equation to figure out Oubre’s value and he’s worth roughly $9-14 million depending on the situation. Because of how quickly he bonded with the core players in Phoenix, their clear synergy on the court together and the fanbase quickly adopting him, I’d go on the higher end of that estimate than the lower.
But the Suns are in the wrong market right now to deal with Oubre’s restricted free agency.
There are too many teams in the NBA right now with max cap space to fill out and at least half of those teams are going to strike out on signing a max-caliber player.
Around the second week of July, those teams will be desperate to add quality players using the space and that’s where Oubre comes to mind. Bright Side of the Sun’s Brendon Kleen ran through a couple of potential teams that could target Oubre, including Boston, Dallas and Sacramento.
This means Oubre should obviously take his time before agreeing to a deal with the Suns. And he’s more than earned the right to do so. Even if he had discussions with Phoenix and has agreed to a certain amount, say $13 million or so a year, he would be wise to wait and make sure no other team is willing to go north of $16 million out of sheer panic.
And here’s the thing — the Suns want to wait too.
Even if they agree to a deal with Oubre, they should wait as long as possible before signing him. With roughly $13 million in cap space, because the Suns hold Oubre’s Bird Rights, they can fill out that space with a starting point guard and a backup power forward before re-signing Oubre or matching an offer sheet he signs elsewhere. All they’d need is to have a smidgen of cap space and they can go over the cap to do it.
But are we absolutely sure the Suns and owner Robert Sarver are willing to do that?
The necessity of getting the point guard and signing Oubre on a reasonable deal is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. The Suns, however, haven’t won 25 games in a season since year three of President Barack Obama’s second term.
Remember, the Suns drafted 23-year-old North Carolina wing Cam Johnson No. 11 overall and by far his best positional fit is small forward. Small forward Mikal Bridges was wonderful as a rookie and deserves 30-plus minutes a night.
Positional versatility would allow Bridges and Oubre to get their playing time but there’s a reasonable thought process one could come to in seeing Oubre as expendable, giving Bridges an uptick in playing time and handing Johnson a legitimate role out of the gate. And as of Thursday morning, Josh Jackson is still a member of the Suns.
Evaluating the decision to bring back Oubre, though, shouldn’t be complicated for a very, very bad basketball team.
Oubre is a good player. He was good for the team and is going to be in the future. The Suns don’t need two hands to count how many of those guys they have on the roster. It’s simple.