EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns make leap into top-10 of ESPN’s future power rankings

May 11, 2021, 9:01 AM | Updated: 3:48 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, shoots over Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, shoots over Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) and guard Wesley Matthews (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

For the first time in more than a decade, the Phoenix Suns have the player talent and the front office in place to string together multiple years of success.

As good as it looks now with the team set for a playoff appearance and with a roster that includes veteran point guard Chris Paul surrounded by a core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, there are not-too-far-away challenges facing general manager James Jones.

But it appears doable to keep the Suns humming over the next few years, and that’s why ESPN rated the Suns ninth in its annual NBA future power rankings, which considers how well teams are set up for the next three seasons. It’s a 10-place jump from last year, when Phoenix was 19th.

Writes ESPN’s Kevin Pelton:

Phoenix’s first playoff trip since 2010 can be the first of many if the Suns skillfully manage the combination of their young core and 36-year-old point guard Chris Paul. Paul can become an unrestricted free agent this summer by declining a $44.2 million player option, but he seems unlikely to leave after helping orchestrate a trade to Phoenix last fall. Long term, the Suns’ payroll could be a concern when extensions for starters Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges kick in. That’s a good problem to have given the role Ayton and Bridges have played alongside two-time All-Star Devin Booker in lifting Phoenix out of the lottery.

ESPN’s future power rankings asked analysts Bobby Marks and Pelton to rank each team in five categories: players (accounting for 58.3% of the final scores), management (16.7%), money (8.3%), market (8.3%) and draft (8.3%).

The Suns rate well in player talent (tied-7th) and market (7th), which measures how well the team can sell itself to future acquisitions. Phoenix garnered a tie for 11th in management, which includes ownership, coaching and front office leadership.

But the team got dinged hard in the money category (19th) and future draft positioning (tied-21th).

From the team’s perspective, negotiating with Bridges, Ayton and Paul this offseason will be critical in mapping out how much money will be available down the road.

Ayton and Bridges will be on the final year of their rookie deals in 2021-22, but Phoenix could potentially sign both to extensions this coming offseason to keep them out of the restricted free agent pool.

Ayton’s per-game averages are down from last year (14.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists) but he’s shooting 62% from the field, an 8% increase over 2019-20. The 22-year-old has steadily progressed as a more consistent manager of the defense on the back end. He might be best suited to skip going after an extension and continue progressing in 2021-22 to increase the value of his next contract.

Bridges could arguably do the same. This season, he’s averaging career highs of 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 53% overall and 42% from three.

Bridges’ ceiling has only grown as he’s added some offensive punch to his key role of taking pressure off Paul and Booker on the defensive end.

How much money he and Ayton garner and how that fits with any new contract for Paul — and Booker’s already signed max contract — remains to be seen.

For now, as Pelton said, it’s a good problem to have.

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