EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Jones: Even after Chris Paul trade, Suns feel good about returning core

Nov 19, 2020, 1:49 AM | Updated: 9:49 am
(AP Photo/Matt York)...
(AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ricky Rubio are gone.

The wavy, vibey wing and the calm, quiet floor general depart on surprising and probably bitter emotional terms.

Even so, Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones believes that, despite the tough call to trade two key members of a cultural shift for a future Hall of Fame point guard, the team can return a core group with a few upgrades.

Two days after shipping off Oubre, Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire Chris Paul, Jones said he feels good about filling out the roster.

“We have our mechanisms. We’ll be an over-the-cap team,” he said. “We have a few exceptions to add, we’ll add some minimum guys. We’ll see how we can fill out the roster. I feel pretty good about where we are just because we have a core group of guys.

“Our free agents, we have their rights so we can re-sign them. Our restricted guys, we’ll do our best to keep them in house. I feel real good about our ability to build out our roster.”

Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are the start of the core. Jalen Smith, who the Suns drafted 10th overall on Wednesday, joins them.

Beyond that, there are question marks. By operating over the cap, Phoenix can re-sign or keep as many of the players from last year’s squad as they want because they own their Bird rights.

Aron Baynes (unrestricted free agent), Cam Payne (team option), Frank Kaminsky (team option), Cheick Diallo (team option), Elie Okobo (non-guaranteed) and Tariq Owens (restricted free agent) could return.

Backup big man Dario Saric and scrappy guard Jevon Carter are restricted free agents, and Jones’ comments indicate that the Suns would very much like to bring both of them back.

Because the Suns traded for Paul prior to the draft and free agency, they lost a good chunk of salary cap space that could have been used to aggressively pursue a top-tier free agent. Had the Suns waited to trade for Paul, renounced their cap holds, declined all options and released all of their players on non-guaranteed contracts, they could have pushed beyond $17 million in cap space for free agency.

That, however, would restrict their ability to bring back core pieces beyond the players who are on guaranteed deals. In other words, they would have to fill a good chunk of the roster out with minimum contracts.

Additionally, the Thunder, their partners in the deal for Paul, in all likelihood didn’t want to wait until free agency to get a move on.

The Thunder shed Paul’s massive $41.5 million contract for 2020-21 and remained aggressive on Wednesday. Not only did Oklahoma City acquire Al Horford from the Philadelphia 76ers, but it swung Rubio’s two years left on his contract to the Minnesota Timberwolves — the Thunder picked up an additional draft pick and swapped another.

From the Suns’ perspective, dealing Rubio and Oubre marks the first time in the Jones era that he rubbed a core player the wrong way with an unexpected trade. At least, that’s what Rubio’s tweet upon the news of the Monday deal for Paul indicated.

“It was a tough situation for us, because in order to acquire Chris, we had to move away from four guys that have helped build our culture,” Jones said Wednesday. “It was a tough decision, but we knew we were getting exactly what you’ve seen over the last two days (with Paul already working out with Booker) — a Hall of Famer, an All-Star, a leader, a winner, a guy that lives and breathes basketball 24/7. And that’s the type of leader and personality that we need, those are the traits we want all of our guys to embody.

“It’s big for us not just because of Chris’ name but because of his game. We know we’ll get a guy who is here early, leaves late and will never let his teammates quit.”

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