EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

End of Kelly Oubre Jr.’s memorable Suns stint leaves irreplaceable void

Nov 17, 2020, 11:32 AM | Updated: 9:13 pm
Kelly Oubre Jr. #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game against the Utah Jazz ...
Kelly Oubre Jr. #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game against the Utah Jazz at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 28, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Just because it felt inevitable doesn’t mean that should lessen the impact.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday as a part of the package for Chris Paul.

The departure of Oubre is one that has logic woven in the front office’s rationale but has predictably drawn the ire of many Suns fans. It should be seen as a huge loss for not only the team but among the players too, as he formed a bond with his teammates.

Oubre became the fan favorite on the Suns. He was arguably just as popular as Devin Booker, the star and face of the franchise.

He was acquired from the Washington Wizards in December 2018 for Trevor Ariza, a trade to resolve one of the worst games of telephone in league history when a reported three-team deal involving those two players fell apart. If anything, the deal cleaned things up and gave Phoenix a free look at a player they had some control over in restricted free agency the following offseason.

Oubre turned out to be well worth the sneak peek while also instantly connecting with the fanbase and team.

With his on-court blend of energy and swagger, Oubre made some key plays in his Suns debut against Boston, including introducing Valley watchers to his signature kiss to the Celtics fans in attendance.

“He’s very vocal, very loud, wants to win … fits perfect,” Deandre Ayton said of Oubre shortly after his arrival.

As Oubre started to make himself known on the court, not shortly thereafter he was beloved as the head of the Valley Boyz.

Oubre built up the Valley Boyz moniker by simply putting it as a location tag on one of his Instagram posts less than a month after arriving in Phoenix. Suns fans ran with it from there, anointing it an additional nickname for the team, and almost instantly it became a full-blown thing.

Oubre went on to say throughout his time in Phoenix what Valley Boyz represented. It was about creating a family with his teammates and the city.

“It’s dope, though, man. Valley Boyz is exactly what we are. It’s kinda the wave and we gonna keep riding it,” Oubre said in March 2019.

Phoenix was different for Oubre compared to his first three-and-a-half years with the Wizards.

“I came from a team (Washington) where nobody listened to me. Now I’m here and everybody listens to me,” he said in February 2019.

Needless to say, Oubre’s presence was a much-needed boost for the Suns as well after a rough couple of seasons filled with record-setting losing and a revolving door of players, coaches and front office members. He had clearly changed the dynamic in the locker room for the better and was consistently praised by Booker for that.

“Since he’s been here, he’s helped this team tremendously on both sides of the floor,” Booker said last March.

Oubre got close with Ayton, who he credits as a co-creator of Valley Boyz.

On the court, Oubre’s scoring punch and a knack for making an impact in big moments made him an immediate factor and one of Phoenix’s best players. After initially coming off the bench, Oubre earned a spot in the starting lineup and held it until thumb surgery ended his season.

With restricted free agency looming, Oubre presented himself as rather committed to a long-term future in Phoenix.

“I’m here, No. 3, small forward for the Phoenix Suns,” he said in March 2019. “Trying to keep it that way for the rest of my career.”

“Why would I go anywhere else?” he countered on Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo that month.

Oubre played the best basketball of his NBA career in the 2018-19 season, and then indeed returned. He was signed to a two-year deal worth $30 million.

New head coach Monty Williams arrived as a fan of Oubre’s game.

“He’s one of the reasons that I was excited about the job,” Williams said of Oubre in July of last year. “I loved his versatility from afar.”

Oubre had plans for Valley Boyz merch before a pop-up shop event locally in October 2019, an event most of his teammates attended, as well as over 500 fans.

“It’s just been a beautiful thing to see because that’s the whole city of Phoenix — we’re all Valley Boyz and Girlz. It’s not just the team. It’s a community of people riding behind us at the end of the day,” Oubre said last July. “And we’ll feel that support and the Valley Boyz will continue to grow because we will continue to get better.”

It was a common sight throughout the 2019-20 season to see a Suns player rocking their Valley Boyz clothing and even Oubre’s own “Dope Soul” collection.

In the offseason, Phoenix traded T.J. Warren but drafted Cam Johnson 11th overall, giving them three small forwards competing for one job. Oubre started over Mikal Bridges and Johnson, continuing his consistent year-to-year improvement and once again playing at a high level.

As injuries and tweaks came through the team during the season, Williams eventually deployed a starting lineup featuring both Oubre and Bridges that dismantled teams on the court, outscoring them by over 20 points per 100 possessions.

Oubre partially tore his meniscus in late February, putting him on the shelf for likely the rest of the season.

After the injury diagnosis, it stood out that Ricky Rubio wore Oubre’s practice jersey in warmups the next game.

 

Things got a little weird to end the year, though.

Oubre underwent surgery in early March on his meniscus, and it was feared he would be out the rest of the season. But with the NBA put on pause by the pandemic, he was on cue to return based on the previous timeline given by the team.

Oubre’s rehab schedule was significantly altered when he was in quarantine like millions of others at that time, but team owner Robert Sarver said on Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo June 4 that he believed Oubre would play for Phoenix in the bubble.

Less than two weeks later, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Oubre was “expected” to miss the Suns’ eight games.

Oubre was asked a month later how he felt about his chances of playing.

“Health status is up to the staff,” he said in July. “I feel fine.

“My main focus here is to support my teammates and continue to get better and be a leader. Everything else is out of my hands.”

Williams and general manager James Jones were both asked about Oubre’s status and didn’t deliver concrete answers outside of him looking better while rehabbing with the team in both Phoenix and Orlando.

Oubre didn’t play during the Suns’ 8-0 bubble run, one in which Bridges and Johnson thrived as starters while Oubre cheered from the bench. Phoenix played its best basketball of the season and in years, looking like a team that could potentially push for a playoff berth next year, all without Oubre on the court.

With Bridges, Johnson and Oubre all 24 years old, it started to become more glaring that Oubre was far more expensive and had one year left before unrestricted free agency. That, plus the on-court fit of Bridges and Johnson working better as accentuating pieces around Booker and Ayton, presented speculation about Oubre’s potential departure, which came to fruition in the Paul trade.

But taking that into consideration, Oubre had once again improved, putting up his best career numbers in points (18.7), rebounds (6.4) and steals (1.3) per game, all while shooting a career-high 35.2% from three-point range. He played the best basketball year-round of the three and is more experienced, completing his fifth season as opposed to Bridges’ second and Johnson’s first.

Sure, Bridges is the much better defender and Johnson is the much better shooter, but Oubre is the better overall player now. That still matters even though the other two guys might happen to snap into place easier from a fit perspective.

It was foolish to suggest the Suns would lose Oubre for “nothing” in a year if they didn’t trade him now because the contribution he would have provided on the court in the upcoming season. Even if he left as a free agent, he would have been valuable. Phoenix certainly deemed him replaceable enough, and we’ll see if they’re right — it’s not nearly the foregone conclusion some have penned it to be.

What is irreplaceable, however, is what Oubre brought to his team in true emotion, something the Suns have severely lacked in the past decade. P.J. Tucker is the only other name that comes close.

That is why there will be a void on the team and a presence the Suns lack at times next season, even as Paul takes them a few levels higher.

Because of Paul’s recent All-NBA form and pedigree — he’s won more than 45 games in eight of the last 10 seasons — along with the value Jones got in the deal, the trade is almost a no-brainer and a huge win for Phoenix.

That doesn’t mean it can’t sting, though, as Rubio showed Monday with a harsh reminder of the consequences that come with the arrival of a 10-time All-Star in Phoenix.

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