Grading the Suns’ last offseason: Context matters in T.J. Warren trade

May 29, 2020, 5:15 AM

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) guards against Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren (1) durin...

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) guards against Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

With the NBA suspended due to the coronavirus, the future of this season is in doubt for the Phoenix Suns. Even if the season were to continue, the Suns are 65 games in and certain declarations can be made about the moves they made before the 2019-20 season.

Empire of the Suns will take a look at the most significant moves from last offseason, the first in which general manager James Jones and senior VP of basketball operations Jeff Bower were in charge on a permanent basis. Both Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson will be giving their own grades, and we’ll also post the results from a Twitter poll.

After breaking down the hire of head coach Monty Williams, we continue with the first trade the Suns made.

June 20, 2019: Suns trade T.J. Warren and No. 32 overall pick to Indiana for cash

Kevin Zimmerman’s grade: C

Kellan Olson’s grade: C-

Twitter’s grades: D/F – 50.1%, C – 37.3%, B – 10.6%, A – 1.9%

One of the great disagreements in sports discourse is how to properly analyze and critique trades. Really, the “how” is a choice made by the individual doing the analyzing and critiquing.

The Suns trading away T.J. Warren on draft day last summer is a great example of this predicament.

Warren wasn’t happy in Phoenix and didn’t fit on the Suns’ roster anymore, so that and Warren’s expensive long-term contract is why they wanted to get rid of him.

But wasn’t that self-induced? The Suns put him in a situation that made him unhappy and added multiple players at his position despite Warren being a good player. They also gave him that contract extension.

Alas, it’s up to you on how that should affect evaluating the deal, but the context of that is important.

The Suns were operating in a space where they had to create more cap space to bring in a prominent point guard. Given Mikal Bridges’ and Kelly Oubre Jr.’s place on the team — even with Oubre entering free agency — and Warren having a little under $12 million per year on the books for the next three, he was the most logical player to bounce.

Now, there were potential salary-dump alternatives outside of Warren, namely Tyler Johnson’s $19 million expiring contract. But that would have required a team before the second week of July to take on that huge amount of money for an asset, and what assets should the Suns have been willing to give up? It’s a tough ask.

And that’s why Phoenix getting no return on Warren should not go without mentioning the timing. Teams are far more willing to take on a contract like Warren’s after they’ve struck out in free agency rather than late June when they still have grand (and often delusional) free agent aspirations. The Suns had no leverage.

General manager James Jones at least getting a deal done at the expense of a second-round pick deserves some props, especially with him using some of that space created by Warren’s exit to get Ricky Rubio.

Still, though, it should only be some.

What must be the most challenging part of being a general manager is trying to see six months, a year, three years, etc. ahead and using that to your advantage. And more so, to make sure you don’t get stuck in a spot where you have to include a second-round pick to get rid of a good player on a fine contract.

Now, the unforeseen variable here was Oubre, who Jones and the Suns stumbled into via trade after an incredibly embarrassing game of telephone went awry, forcing the Suns and Washington Wizards to do damage control by getting rid of players who were essentially already traded publicly.

During the 2018-19 season, Jones got Oubre for Trevor Ariza, one of the few strings of good luck the Suns had last decade, but that also forced Warren out. So did drafting Josh Jackson and Bridges, which was not Jones’ doing, so whatever.

That leaves this writer’s opinion on the deal somewhat conflicted. The Suns were never going to be able to get a lot out of Warren due to both the pieces around him and Warren himself, which the Suns brought on themselves.

For those who were trying to protect the Suns being slammed as news broke by saying, “Warren isn’t a winning player,” that take doesn’t look great.

Warren is doing the same thing he’s always done: shoot close to 50% or over it while getting buckets. This year on a 39-26 team, he is shooting a career-high 52.9% from the field with 18.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

He slid in well as the secondary perimeter scorer to Victor Oladipo, who was injured for most of the season, and the Pacers were able to stay a strong team thanks to players like Warren. And even with Oladipo returning, as Suns fans know, Warren doesn’t need the ball much to get 20-plus.

His newfound three-point shot in his last Suns season has translated well to 37.5% on 3.0 attempts per game with Indiana.

Most importantly, to something that was never really doubted about Warren when the Suns were rarely competitive, he can make winning plays despite being a meh defender who averages a laughable 1.2 assists per game over his career.

When Warren returned to Phoenix for the first time in late January, Indiana head coach Nate McMillan was surprised at questions about Warren doing the little things beyond functioning well as a scorer.

“Done a good job for us on both ends of the floor,” McMillan said. “We knew that he could score and put the ball in the basket. He’s been a solid contributor for us on the defensive end of the floor as well.”

That type of turn was just never going to come in Phoenix, a fault of mostly the franchise, but the Suns weren’t shy in this specific instance of realizing it was best to not force something that wasn’t there.

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Grading the Suns’ last offseason: Context matters in T.J. Warren trade