Suns offseason questions: Which positions do they choose to upgrade?
The NBA Draft is a little over a month away. On top of that day being top-three of the year when it comes to trade activity, first-round selections will answer some offseason questions as well.
Empire of the Suns previews what those questions are for the Phoenix Suns before that day.
In our first two deep dives on the Suns’ offseason, we went over their situation on the wing followed by the roster decisions they have to make that will influence how much money is available for free agency.
It was important to establish all that because it laid out the playing field for our last installment here, where we’ll run through how they can potentially upgrade the team.
Let’s project a bit in fantasy land and go through a couple of examples.
We’ll separate them into three different outcomes, with these in particular filing under “best-case scenarios” using the bits of reported interest we’ve seen on a few guys.
POWER FORWARD UPGRADE
The Suns just signed former Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant to a four-year deal worth $64 million, a player Phoenix has been linked to by The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Congratulations to all. A terrific addition.
Denver is still going to be well over the cap with Grant’s hold no matter what they do outside of trades, and that hold will trigger when Grant most certainly declines his $9.4 million player option. If the Nuggets bring back Grant on even a discount at $12 million per year, they’d be paying Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Grant a combined total of over $100 million, nearly hitting the cap with just those five players. Grant makes sense as a name Phoenix could be aggressive with and get.
In this iteration, Phoenix has let go of Aron Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky if they haven’t traded Kelly Oubre Jr. yet, as Oubre’s $15 million salary next year could give the Suns the flexibility of hanging onto Baynes or Saric while making the big signing as well. Let’s say he stays, at least in this example (*Gasps*).
That means all the Suns’ cap space is just about gone, a la the Ricky Rubio signing last year, and they can use the room midlevel exception ($5 million) on either a backup center or guard, whichever spot they don’t draft. I’ll pencil in Nerlens Noel as the big on the MLE and Alabama prospect Kira Lewis Jr. as the third guard via the No. 10 pick — the Suns have reportedly spoken with Lewis on two separate occasions this summer.
Grant is obviously starting. Is Oubre at the other forward spot?
Can the Suns even find enough minutes for those two, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson? Surely that means it’s Point Book time with some three-wing looks, yes? Is that still enough? Fun questions to have with too many good players!
THIRD GUARD UPGRADE
The Suns just traded Oubre to one of the teams with cap space that would take him on an expiring for a future first-round pick and have used the extra room to sign former Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet on a four-year, $80 million deal. The Suns can get to just over $20 million available, according to Cleaning the Glass’ numbers, if they move Oubre and get off Kaminsky’s and Baynes’ money.
VanVleet has been linked to the Suns by Charania, and while everyone is quick to gloss over the Suns outscoring teams by 7.2 points per 100 possessions when Ricky Rubio shared the floor with Devin Booker last season, VanVleet’s fit with head coach Monty Williams’ system and Booker is undeniably fantastic.
Finding a trade partner for Rubio with two years and nearly $35 million left on his deal is difficult. And as reviewed in part two of our questions, there aren’t many teams projected to have cap space.
That’s not only relevant for Rubio, but VanVleet as well. His best fit/team option while getting paid could wind up being Phoenix in this scenario if it doesn’t work out with Toronto. The Raptors will be going deeply over the cap if they bring back VanVleet, and that can still be the case before they figure out the rest of their frontcourt with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka as unrestricted free agents.
Phoenix holds onto Saric as an RFA in this scenario still and brings him back to sturdy up the bench at the big man spot. The Suns draft TCU’s Desmond Bane to fill in some of the wing minutes without Oubre, a prospect general manager James Jones has had a conversation with already this pre-draft process. If ownership is feeling particularly up for it, they could even sign another wing like Glenn Robinson III on the room midlevel exception to dot every i and cross every t.
HAVING IT ALL UPGRADE
The Suns just traded for Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard, reopening trade talks from February and agreeing to a deal by sending out this year’s first-round pick, Elie Okobo and a future second-round pick.
Kennard conveniently makes just $5.2 million, only a million more than the cap hold of the 10th overall selection the Suns traded out. He comes in as a great fit for the third guard spot for the same reasons we outlined back in February.
At this point, not much changes from our power forward upgrade. Baynes, Kaminsky and Saric are gone, so just about the same amount of money as before. Let’s stick with someone more on the forward spectrum than big man as the signing and throw $45 million over three years at former Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans. He’s one of the NBA’s best shooters, which would be quite the weapon to space the floor for Booker’s and Deandre Ayton’s games.
The Wizards want to keep Bertans and didn’t trade him specifically because they plan to make him much richer, but Bertans is unrestricted, and if he were a smart man he’d take the money from a better situation. Yes, that’s Phoenix, especially because Washington is over the cap. They wouldn’t be able to add much more around Bertans and the starting backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal that they’re paying a combined $233.6 million the next three seasons. Whoops!
From there, the Suns do the same deal as before, using the room midlevel exception to complete the roster at backup center, or the Suns could explore the veteran’s minimum on someone like John Henson. Probably someone good at defense, because this team would need it (but also make up for it with glorious barrages of three-pointers).
Who knows how much the current economic climate has changed things, but it feels like the Suns should have some urgency to make a move on the heavier side of the scale.
Free agency and the draft are conveniently in their favor to do so, both when it comes to their positions in it and the players potentially available in their respective draft/price range.
It’s easy to talk yourself into running it back with this group after what they did in Orlando. That bubble performance, however, could be used more as a sign that the Suns are ready to make a jump. They could use somewhat of an added boost to get there. A sense of urgency to do more, if you will.
With all the buzz they acclimated from the bubble comes expectations. The Suns are already leaning into it and labeling last season as “momentous,” and just wait until it’s built even more around a new practice facility and the arena renovations.
Making the playoffs is most certainly going to be where the bar is set. That’s dangerous given the pre-offseason outlook the Western Conference presents.
Based on past precedent, the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets are no-doubters to get in if those teams are relatively healthy.
That still leaves the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans fighting with the Suns over two spots. And it’s still worth mentioning the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. It’s gonna be a tight squeeze to say the least, regardless of how many Woj bombs erupt to shift any power balance to the east.
The good news is the Suns look ready to make a serious push forward and an additional one from the front office could prove to be the difference.