EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

How will Suns’ bubble success change offseason direction?

Aug 14, 2020, 4:05 PM
Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones speaks to the media regarding the firing of Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov, Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

The Phoenix Suns have fewer problems and more decisions after the bubble.

The absence of forward Kelly Oubre Jr. and center Aron Baynes didn’t seem to faze them at all. The post-quarantine improvement of Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Dario Saric was the reason for that.

The bench went from the team’s biggest weakness all season to one of its strengths.

As it turns out, most of these surprises involve players who could be factored into the Suns’ offseason.

Baynes is an unrestricted free agent while Saric and reserve guard Jevon Carter are restricted free agents. Backup big Frank Kaminsky and backup point guard Cameron Payne also have team options.

For Oubre, he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and the Suns cannot re-sign him to a contract extension this offseason because he signed a two-year extension last summer.

The bubble is going to be the primary source of fuel for the team’s loftier ambitions next season. The team-building they accomplished in Orlando is undeniable.

But what about the actual on-the-court developments?

General manager James Jones answered that question on Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta Thursday before the Suns’ final game.

“We had a plan going into the bubble,” he said. “We’ll reevaluate it once the bubble is complete. But what it will force us to do is to reevaluate the success that we’ve had and try to determine how much of it was us and how much of it was circumstance.

“We don’t want to get to the point where we’re unrealistic in how far we can go in a short period of time but you also have to [balance] that with not trying to degrade or lessen the impact and the growth we’ve had.”

What Jones and the front office decide to do with Oubre was always going to be the largest decision they had to make over the next year, and that story took a twist in Orlando.

The starting five of Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Deandre Ayton outscored teams by 15.2 points per 100 possessions in those eight wins.

Aided by Bridges being more trigger happy from three-point range, Booker had more natural space with better secondary options as a playmaker because of Bridges and Johnson’s shooting.

Bridges shot 40.0% from three-point range on 4.4 attempts per game while Johnson was at 34.9% on 5.4 a night. Rubio had the best shooting form of his career as well, at 42.9% and 3.5 a game.

If that trio can take 13-16 threes a game and shoot it at an above-average clip while defending well enough like they did in Orlando, that’s a better dynamic to lean in favor of for Ayton and Booker over what Oubre brings.

Now, Oubre’s energy is a natural fit for the bench, but tell that to the guy who is coming off a career-best season in a contract year when all he’s done is get better each year and makes $15 million.

And as the question always has been with Oubre since last year when he was a restricted free agent, it’s what the Suns can get for Oubre or the space of his contract that makes it actually worth letting him go.

What we haven’t even gotten to, either, is the Suns’ likely desires to add a starting-caliber power forward this offseason.

Free agency includes Davis Bertans, Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Christian Wood, while they could also go long-term with the 2020 draft class boasting Obi Toppin and Deni Avdija as mid-lottery-level talents.

Did that desire change because of these games? There are now a handful of possibilities as to what the Suns’ starting lineup is next season.

It could be Bridges and Johnson again. It could be Bridges and Oubre with the obvious trio, a starting five that destroyed teams before the pandemic. It could be Oubre and Johnson, or it could be any of those three with a big-name addition at power forward.

It won’t include Saric. His play as a small-ball five, however, could be enough for him to not only be highly considered as a returnee but also to relieve the pressure of bringing back Baynes and loosen up more money off Kaminsky’s $5 million option.

Jones’ question of what they think was legit from the bubble applies a whole lot to the first guard off the bench.

While watching Payne and Carter continue to make plays on both ends and hit shots was a whole lot of fun, that cannot be enough for them to rely solely on that duo over 82 games to patch the Suns’ biggest need.

Those two can surely come back and should as two depth guards that head coach Monty Williams trusts. Phoenix, though, should not change gears on their aggression towards getting another capable, well-rounded ball-handler.

Detroit’s Luke Kennard continues to make sense as a name to revisit after talks heated up at the trade deadline.

All statistics via nba.com/stats

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