The 5: Most impactful Suns free agent signings since Steve Nash
The context around the Phoenix Suns’ agreed-upon signing of free agent point guard Ricky Rubio dampened the significance of the move.
It was a slight overpay for a starting point guard, something Phoenix has lacked for nearly two full regular seasons. It was a disappointment with a shinier target in D’Angelo Russell an obvious and welcome possibility.
Inking Rubio, a 28-year-old, was nonetheless significant, especially for a team coming off a 19-win campaign. That’s because Phoenix just hasn’t attracted talent via free agency.
The Suns have rarely signed starting-caliber players — whether they be a primary offensive initiator or a role player — in the first weeks of free agency since that franchise-altering summer of 2004, when they notably added Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, moves that helped flip a 29-win squad into the best team in the NBA by year’s end.
Even fewer times in the past 15 years have the Suns signed a player who played up to expectations or beyond them.
Here are the five best Suns free agent additions since the beginning of the Steve Nash era. And unlike Rubio, none of them were signed as established NBA players in their primes.
P.J. Tucker (2012)
After quickly getting washed out of the NBA following his rookie season with the Toronto Raptors, the 2006 second-round pick played in Israel, Italy, Ukraine, Greece, Puerto Rico and Germany before signing with the Suns in 2012 — if only because then-Suns GM Lance Blanks had kept his eye on Tucker because both were Texas Longhorn products.
Tucker never averaged double-figure scoring in four-plus years with Phoenix — and still hasn’t — but he started 45 games his first season with the Suns and 81 during his second year with them (2013-14).
The multi-time Dan Majerle Hustle Award winner developed into one of the best frontcourt defensive players in the league and improved on his corner three-point shooting that helped catapult him into one of the NBA’s best role players with Toronto at the end of the 2016-17 season and in the past two years with the Houston Rockets.
Goran Dragic (2012)
Though he was in the same free agent class as Tucker, Dragic was infamously an addition courtesy Suns owner Robert Sarver, who negotiated a deal with Dragic in the team’s parking garage as Blanks was coveting fellow point guard Raymond Felton, according to The Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro.
To begin Dragic’s second stint with the Suns, he averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 assists per game in 2012-13, the latter of which stands as a career-high. The next season, Dragic won the NBA’s Most Improved Player honor by averaging 20.3 points and 5.9 assists per game on 51% shooting and 41% accuracy from three-point range. Those shooting splits and averaging more than 20 points per game have only happened 20 times in NBA history, and the other names on that list are impressive.
Phoenix won a surprising 48 games in 2013-14, becoming one of the best teams in NBA history to miss the playoffs, and while it went downhill from there as a point guard squeeze led to Dragic requesting a trade the following season, his second run with the Suns was a win for the team and his career.
Channing Frye (2009)
Signed away from the Portland Trail Blazers, Frye found rejuvenation in a Suns offense that asked him to take his shots; Alvin Gentry often begged the stretch center to take even more. The big man who had never taken more than 0.5 threes per game began launching nearly five per outing, and he hit 44% in his first season to average 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds while starting half the year.
Phoenix rolled to the conference finals and fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in Frye’s first year playing for his hometown team. He continued scoring in the double-digits in the next three seasons he played with the Suns, returning to start in all 82 games in 2013-14 after a lost 2012-13 season due to an enlarged heart.
Grant Hill (2007)
A seven-time All-Star whose career trajectory took a turn with injuries found a satisfying role to nearly round out his career. He appeared in 70 or more games in four of the five seasons played in Phoenix, and Hill averaged double-figures in all those years while starting at small forward and acting as a versatile wing defender through the end of the Nash era.
Phoenix lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 but exacted revenge on their long-time foes in 2010 before going on its Western Conference playoff run. Hill left as a free agent in 2012 and played one more year with the Los Angeles Clippers before retiring.
Raja Bell (2005)
He made his way into the NBA as a meet-you-in-the-alley defender with the Sixers as they marched to the NBA Finals to clash with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. A few years later, Bell latched on and posted two successful seasons in Utah before signing with the Suns, who coming off their first iteration of the Seven Seconds or Less era a year prior wanted to add a little more defensive grit to the roster.
The 3-and-D shooting guard joined the Suns and averaged 14.7 points his first two years in the Valley from 2005-07, shooting well above 40% from three as well.
He remained with the Suns until a midseason trade during the 2008-09 season helped the team acquire Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and a 2010 second-round pick from the Charlotte Bobcats. Boris Diaw was also shipped to Charlotte in the deal.
And-one: Matt Barnes (2008)
The 14-year NBA role player produced one of his four double-digit scoring seasons with Phoenix in 2008-09. Barnes averaged 10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the Suns and started 40 games in 2008-09.