EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Potential targets in free agency for Phoenix Suns at backup C

Jul 30, 2021, 5:55 PM | Updated: Jul 31, 2021, 6:35 am
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)...
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In a perfect world, where all NBA rosters can be perfect with the perfect move available for the perfect player, the Phoenix Suns would have acquired a tad more size at the trade deadline last year.

Before that, things got thrown off in James Jones’ roster construction.

He brought back Dario Saric as a playmaking stretch five behind Deandre Ayton, and as the third-string body with more bulk and a traditional 5 frame, it was Damian Jones. But Jones didn’t work out, so in came a proven commodity in Frank Kaminsky to at least be a depth piece they could rely on. Now, it was two playmaking stretch fives behind Ayton that head coach Monty Williams could trust and no big lad to be a true interior presence.

And that’s how it works out most of the time. Even after a season where James Jones was very well deserving of winning NBA Executive of the Year, it can’t be a 100% grade, because that’s just about impossible. To those who wanted that 5 at the deadline, I don’t want to say you were being too greedy, but gee whiz!

Anyway, it’s not too greedy now, especially after Saric tore his ACL in the NBA Finals. He will unfortunately miss most of next season, a brutal blow to both him and the team.

The Suns have to add another body down low, maybe two. While second-year big Jalen Smith could be in line for some minutes, a more proven player is needed somewhere in that big rotation. And without Saric, maybe they find a replacement for him and that spot they intended to fill after the team released Damian Jones.

Remember, the Suns are a destination of desire for free agents now. It’s more realistic now to expect a solid, decent veteran that can be had on the minimum as opposed to someone younger like Jones.

To cover ground on both of those possibilities, we’ll go over 10 free agents through two groups.

We will separate into two groups of high-end and low-end names. The high-end targets probably cost more than the minimum or the bi-annual exception ($3.7 million salary next year). To pursue those large humans, the Suns can use either all or a chunk of their mid-level exception ($9.5 million salary next year). Those are the resources available for the Suns to sign players as a team over the cap, a full exercise our Australian correspondent David Kevin went over in his newsletter if you want to see a full best-case scenario in action.

(For more extensive breakdowns on a few of these players from a Suns perspective, our friends over at The Timeline Podcast painted the full picture in videos on three of ’em. Have a click on their name to go tune in.)

High-end targets (MLE)

JayMchal Green, 31 years old

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Stats: 58 GP, 19.3 MPG, 8.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.4 BPG, 0.4 SPG, 46.3 FG%, 39.9 3P%, 80.7 FT%

You won’t find a better free agent in this tier of players who gives a team rock-solid minutes bouncing between the 4 and 5.

Green’s a monster on the offensive glass, where he’s averaged 1.8 per game over his career despite just 21.6 minutes a night. On top of that, he’s at 38.0% from deep on over two attempts an outing and is a steady defender.

It’s a twist on the Saric role, with less passing and more bruising. Green’s not much of an explosive shot-blocker or automatic finisher at the rim but provides a unique skill set that should appeal to a whole lot of the teams.

Jeff Green, 34 years old

Stats: 68 GP, 27.0 MPG, 11.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 49.2 FG%, 41.2 3P%, 77.6 FT%

If the Suns want to embrace more five-out and stretch the limits of making one of these bigs a perimeter player, this Green is the guy.

One of the coolest parts of watching the NBA is seeing an extremely talented player reinvent themselves in the back-half of their career, and Green has taken everything that was great about his game to utilize it as a small-ball five.

He is absolutely, as my podcast co-host Kevin Zimmerman and I say, a “dribble guy,” someone who can attack closeouts to make a play off the bounce and even in pick-and-roll. Even at his age, his terrific athleticism still has him as a switchable defender, and he’s improved as a shooter to that career-best mark of 41.2% on nearly four attempts from 3 a game.

Green would be a high-quality addition.

Blake Griffin, 32 years old

Stats: 26 GP, 21.5 MPG, 10.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 49.2 FG%, 38.3 3P%, 78.2 FT%

In that same vein of player, Griffin unsurprisingly appears to have a great feel for that transition as well. Even in a situation like Brooklyn where he’s primarily touching the ball after it rotates to him, that assist total (2.4) on those minutes (21.5) is impressive.

He showed an ability to make his presence known on games with impact moments, whether it was offensive rebounds or more outright hustle plays. The defense is not nearly as utilizable as Jeff Green’s, but like him, Griffin shot well from 3 on that squad as well.

There’s a bit of repetition in pros/cons with Saric, so that could make the commitment a little more difficult.

Richaun Holmes, 27 years old

(Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Stats: 61 GP, 29.2 MPG, 14.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 63.7 FG%, 18.2 3P%, 79.4 FT%

To swing back to a more traditional center, who doesn’t love a reunion? For his sake, I hope Holmes is the most expensive of this bunch after he somehow only got a two-year, $10 million deal with Sacramento. He then proceeded to kill it again like he did in Phoenix, so hopefully, that earns him the big payday he deserves.

Y’all know the story here. At least, those of you who were here through the very bad times. Holmes is a delight. He’s relentless on dives and the glass, and is an explosive finisher that plays with a fearlessness around the basket despite being undersized. He’s been improving as a defender year-by-year, which I believe will really shine through on a good team if he finally finds himself on one.

We saw what a difference-maker he was three years ago when Holmes was arguably one of the three best Suns on that 2018-19 team, and he’s only gotten better since. Would he take a reserve role again? I’m not sure, but the Suns couldn’t do better if he would.

Nerlens Noel, 27 years old

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Stats: 62 GP, 24.2 MPG, 5.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 0.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.2 BPG, 61.4 FG%, 0.0 3P%, 71.4 FT%

Noel is a tad more realistic than Holmes, who in my opinion is a starting-caliber center at this point in his career. You could make the case for Noel being there as well, but he’s best used in a role of 15-20 minutes a night, where he’s been thus far seven years into the NBA.

He’s the best defender we’ll cover. Noel has tremendous instincts defensively and some of the best hands you’ll see on a 5 in pursuit of steals and blocks. Noel glides laterally, so that allows his pursuits to be faster than just about any other center in the league.

The offense is about rim runs and being a target around the rim, but the limitations are worth it for that defense. If you’re not aware of him, you’ve probably heard his name mentioned by Suns fans who have, and that’s with good reason. He’s awesome.

Low-end targets (BAE/min)

Gorgui Dieng, 31 years old

Stats: 38 GP, 14.5 MPG, 6.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 52.1 FG%, 42.9 3P%, 86.6 FT%,

A lot of rinse and repeat on this lot.

Dieng is your typical big body who can rebound, finish and protect the rim while doing a handful of smart things across the floor.

The spice he’s trying to add to this game is a three-point shot, and I say try because his numbers are still over the place. The 42.9% from this year is great but he was below 32% in his 16 games for the Spurs.

Useful, but not inspiring.

Robin Lopez, 33 years old

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Stats: 71 GP, 19.1 MPG, 9.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 63.3 FG%, 27.8 3P%, 72.3 FT%

Who doesn’t love a reunion (again)?

Lopez has turned himself into one of the most efficient post scorers in the NBA. Yes, you read that right. Among the 54 players who got at least two postups per game last season, Lopez ranked first in field goal percentage at 65.3%, per NBA.com. That delightfully strange hook shot you shook your head at a decade ago is now a more-than-viable offensive weapon!

Other than that, he’s a heady player on both ends who embraces the role of being a bruiser and a bit of an irritant. Sign me up.

JaVale McGee, 33 years old

Stats: 46 GP, 14.7 MPG, 7.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 51.1 FG%, 20.8 3P%, 65.7 FT%

It’s not every day you get an opportunity to add an Olympian to your bench.

To go back to Jeff Green and Griffin, McGee has welcomed worrying about the margins of his game more than anything else, picking up wisdom along the last five years of winning an NBA title three times.

The Shaqtin’ A Fool of his game is never going away, but in that you’ve got a guy who will run up and down the floor and be a presence in the key. Steady, solid minutes overall.

Daniel Theis, 29 years old

Stats: 65 GP, 24.6 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 54.1 FG%, 32.2 3P%, 67.3 FT%

Theis just gets it. Like the last center we’ll go over, he’s got a complete understanding of what his job is on the court and doesn’t need the ball to do it. He uses his size and physicality better than most on both ends. He makes himself, as they say, felt on the game even at 6-foot-8.

Of these five centers in this section, I’d say Theis is the best defender, too. Years of experience in Europe ironed that out, even though he’s not the quickest.

The sprinkle of skill in Theis’ game with passing and shooting fills in the gaps nicely. Nothing special, but he’s a player everyone would want on their team.

Cody Zeller, 28 years old

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Stats: 48 GP, 20.9 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 55.9 FG%, 14.3 3P%, 71.4 FT%

I feel like Zeller deserves to be in the other group, but Holmes’ recent go in free agency after leaving Phoenix tells me that the years in Charlotte did not give Zeller the exposure to get his proper dollar figure this offseason.

As our bud Sam Cooper covers in the video you can click on Zeller’s name, the former top-5 pick just checks a lot of boxes, like Theis. Rebounding, screen setting, defense, passing, etc. If you don’t believe Sam, which shame on you if you don’t, why not believe the Suns’ head coach?

When I asked Williams before a matchup with the Hornets in late February about a lot of Charlotte’s names that have impressed, I did not mention Zeller. That is where he started his answer.

“Zeller. Zeller is a guy for me that ties it together … Zeller is a guy that can offensive rebound, he can pass, he can defensive rebound, he can attack the basket, he’s good diving,” Williams said. “He’s one of those guys that you have to pay attention to.”

He fits the profile for sure.

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