NBA trade deadline preview: Small-ball 5s the Phoenix Suns should target

Feb 2, 2022, 11:12 AM

Even though the Phoenix Suns are the best team in the NBA, there is still room to improve the roster in one of the franchise’s best opportunities ever at winning a championship. With that type of thinking in mind, Phoenix’s front office should be proactive.

Empire of the Suns’ Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will review three sets of position groups the Suns could look to improve before the trade deadline on Feb. 10. More specifically, they will focus on one headlining target, followed by a few other names the Suns at least discuss.

After tackling ball-handlers, it’s time to look at bigger wings that can feature as small-ball 5s.

The Suns’ acquisition of Torrey Craig last season and the team’s playoff run showed us the value of having a viable small-ball lineup. Phoenix has dipped its toes into these looks this season, most prominently in Sunday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs when two-way wing Ish Wainright had a stellar performance as a 5.

With some of Phoenix’s biggest threats right now for a championship featuring the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks, having that extra wrinkle at the ready would be wise.

While the 27-year-old rookie Wainright has done everything the Suns have asked of him, adding another more experienced option in the trade market is something worth exploring for the Suns.

– Kellan Olson

The Headliner

Robert Covington, Portland Trail Blazers

Salary: $12.9 million expiring
Stats: 7.9 PPG (40% FG%, 36% 3P%), 5.6 RPG, 1.2 APG in 46 games (29.6 MPG)

The Trail Blazers have not been healthy nor taken well to the post-Terry Stotts era, and with that, most advanced stats are probably worth tossing aside when trying to figure out where Covington fits into the whole thing.

Notably, though, Portland went 9-8 when their supposed-to-be best lineup of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, Jusuf Nurkic and Covington at power forward was in action. If we’re being a little lazy, that two-headed backcourt with a defense-first wing and true center around Covington mirrors what Phoenix has personnel-wise. Anyway, he could in theory be a starter, which is something the others on this list probably can’t say.

Covington plays bigger than his 6-foot-7, 209-pound listing. Though he’s lost lateral pop at 31 years old, he can still hang with smaller guards thanks to his length and can get physical against true bigs in a pinch.

Covington is top-15 league-wide in steal percentage and block percentage. It’s evidence that he remains at his best as an active and aware help defender, though he’s no longer the on-ball eliminator that earned him an All-Defense First Team nod in 2018 with Philadelphia.

It’s a nice time to mention him after watching Phoenix go small against the Spurs with Wainright at center. Covington would become the Suns’ best rebounding wing option ahead of Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and probably a larger sample size of Wainright too.

A red flag: Covington is in the midst of a rough offensive season. His true shooting percentage of 53.1% at the moment is the worst of his career.

Covington is hitting 39% overall and 35% from three-point range. Not terrible. He’s taking 4.8 threes per game and 7.0 attempts total.

Covington would mirror what Torrey Craig did a year ago, at a steeper price and with a little more of an offensive resume. He may seem redundant with Johnson and Crowder available, but the Suns would be proactive to consider that he would play with them at times.

And as The Athletic’s John Hollinger put very well in writing about the Suns at the trade deadline this week, redundancy is something Phoenix should covet more than any other team.

Additionally, the Suns need to think hard about redundancy and potential problems, to avert the type of situation that happened in their frontcourt a year ago. One of the biggest, underrated threats to a team built this way is that it needs the entire ensemble. An injury to any of the Suns’ four best players would be critical in a way that, say, an injury to a non-(Joel) Embiid Sixer is not. Effectively, they’re four times as vulnerable. A front office can’t predict who will be injured, obviously, but they can anticipate where the biggest risks lie.

Anyway, the Blazers might want to blow things up, and Covington will garner attention across the league.

– Kevin Zimmerman

Other Possibilities

Nic Batum, Los Angeles Clippers

Salary: $3.1 million, $3.3 million player option in 2022-23
Stats: 9.1 PPG (49% FG%, 41% 3P%), 4.6 RPG, 1.6 APG in 31 games (25.2 MPG)

As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor expertly laid out, the Clippers could go either direction at the deadline. If they sell, Batum on that contract has to be worth at least a few phone calls for the Suns’ front office.

Batum, 33, is one of those small-ball 5s the Suns ran into last postseason. He’s got the size and strength to handle more powerful wings, as well as his interior duties defensively, while becoming a knockdown shooter the last two seasons on the other end where he’s still got that little bit of playmaking spice off the bounce.

Monty Williams coached a young Batum in Portland as an assistant and always speaks highly of the well-respected veteran, who has called Williams his mentor.

The only question is if Batum would take a situational role on the Suns, one where he’d play spare wing minutes while featuring more depending on when Williams would want to go small. Batum would be playing for Williams without a championship to his name, so I’d say there’s a decent chance of that.

– Kellan Olson

Torrey Craig, Indiana Pacers

Salary: $4.9 million, $5.1 million in 2022-23
Stats: 6.1 PPG (47% FG%, 32% 3P%), 3.6 RPG, 1.1 APG in 46 games (18.9 MPG)

We keep tracing back to this man being acquired by the Suns last year, so why not just consider doing that again? True, Craig is on a bigger deal that will crowd the salary situation into 2022-23, but let’s move past that because, you know, it’d be smart to worry about that later if you want to win an NBA title.

Bringing him back would be realistic (have you watched the Pacers?) as well as an easy transition.

Craig has appeared to enjoy more offensive freedom playing with Indiana, and he’s still got enough wily energy to get off good shots on broken possessions. It’s worth pointing out he had a very efficient year playing with more structure in Phoenix last year.

The question with him comes down to what more do you want out of a big wing? More shooting? Craig is at just 32% from deep, and his 37% accuracy with the Suns last year might be an anomaly.

Do you want more of a “connective” ball-moving big man? Batum and our next candidate might be better there.

Defensively, do the Suns foresee another meeting with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Finals, where they will need more girth at center even in smaller units? Are Craig, Batum and Covington just not the answer because of it?

– Kevin Zimmerman

Larry Nance Jr., Portland Trail Blazers

Salary: $10.6 million, $9.6 million in 2022-23
Stats: 6.9 PPG (52% FG%, 31% 3P%), 5.6 RPG, 2.0 APG in 37 games (23.2 MPG)

First of all, I know this is cheating on the “big wing” group. Nance is a big man but he can play some 4 and would be that “small-ball 5,” so I think we’re cool including him here.

This is a tough one because it would essentially be the Suns swapping out Dario Saric for a guy who, sure, is a different player, but a healthy option as an alternative look to what the Suns have at the 5.

The willing inclusion of Saric in most fan-constructed trade proposals stings because of Saric’s importance as a great personality in the locker room and a big part of Williams’ program. His departure would go in line with losing Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Jevon Carter the last two seasons.

Beyond Nance being available, it’s an intriguing fit because Nance is less of a pick-and-pop guy offensively and will still feature as a dive man, which is what the Suns do with all their healthy centers. Nance’s dynamic, however, is that he’s a legitimate playmaker and can unlock even more ball movement possibilities as a passer and he’s a switchable defender.

With that in mind, he would add a pinch of variety to the offense. Nance has really figured out how he can use his own body in dribble handoff situations. He passes the ball with an intent to set up himself as a screener. It’s cool to watch.

Portland is sinking and Nance, who has not played since early January due to a reported bone bruise in his knee, is surely available for the right price. Just depends on what that is.

-Kellan Olson

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