EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Phoenix Suns offseason checklist: What needs to get done in free agency
This is the most difficult offseason for Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones since he got the job in 2019 and I doubt he sees a tougher one in the future.
The Suns are on the heels of becoming a luxury tax team while figuring out the fate of restricted free agent Deandre Ayton, and there are also a few holes that have popped up in the rotation after Phoenix’s tremendous depth in the regular season did not carry over into the postseason at all.
The maneuverability is decent thanks to Jones and his staff maintaining flexibility with the way certain contracts are sized and ownership of all its future draft picks.
With that said, it’s going to be a massive challenge to get everything done. Phoenix’s expectations should be title or bust because of 37-year-old Chris Paul’s window. The reloading Western Conference is going to make that harder than ever before.
Here are some of the tasks at hand:
Find immediate clarity at center
The Suns already know their intent with Ayton. They have known for some time. Now, it’ll just be a matter of if they can get done what they want to get done quickly.
In what will be a recurring theme throughout these sections, the Suns do not have many resources when it comes to signing free agents. Knowing what their situation is at center will help them navigate how to prioritize the use of their midlevel exception, a deal worth $10.5 million per year or around $6.5 million depending on if they operate as a tax-paying team or not at the time of the signing.
If Ayton’s restricted free agency is more drawn out, I believe that means he’s coming back and it’s just a matter of negotiating from there. Dilly-dallying for a few weeks would result in uncertainty continuing to loom over a starting position on the roster that currently only has Dario Saric under contract. That does not fit what we’ve come to know about how Jones operates.
If Ayton departs on a sign-and-trade and the return does not include a starting-caliber center, executing that deal in the first 24-48 hours would potentially allow the Suns to still compete for some of the more desirable free agents like Chris Boucher, Isaiah Hartenstein and Kevon Looney.
Regardless, this is more of another way to say the Suns absolutely have a plan in place and know where they are going to upgrade the roster. The main thing to understand is they cannot strictly do it in free agency or the trade market. It is going to need to be both.
Lower down the totem pole, is Saric going to be a part of the rotation? For his price, he should be if he’s still on the team. Bismack Biyombo seems like a logical returnee as the third-string center again. Will the Suns pay up for JaVale McGee’s price of just over $7 million?
Acquire a reliable ball-handler
The point guard market in free agency is not inspiring. Ricky Rubio is recovering from a torn ACL. Tyus Jones will be pricey. Dennis Schroder will probably be out of the Suns’ range as well. Ditto for Victor Oladipo and Patty Mills.
I will note the Sacramento Kings recently let 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo hit unrestricted free agency, the guard Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro reported was the selection for Phoenix in the 2018 NBA Draft at No. 16 before a last-minute trade got done for Mikal Bridges. DiVincenzo would be more of a risk given how the first four years of his career have gone but he’s exactly the type of skilled and smart player the Suns like.
Beyond that, there’s a drop-off to where it’s debatable if it’s even an upgrade over backup floor general Cam Payne. Payne’s inconsistent play all year, along with Landry Shamet’s, plus the need to lessen Chris Paul’s workload makes it a must for the Suns to bring someone in at this spot on the floor.
The expiring contracts of Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig and Saric would all be tough losses for the group to varying degrees because of the contributions they provide but some combination of those guys and/or Payne and Shamet could get some talks going. Throw in some draft picks and now we’ve got some momentum.
Rockets guard Eric Gordon has been linked since the trade deadline. Utah’s Jordan Clarkson isn’t much of a 0.5 player but the offensive injection would be welcome from the 2021 Sixth Man of the Year. Phoenix had a past interest in Hornets guard Terry Rozier.
It is the largest need on the team.
Pay Devin Booker and Cam Johnson
Booker is eligible for a supermax extension worth $210 million that would keep him signed to the Suns through the 2027-28 season. On top of the absolute no-brainer of paying the face of the franchise what he’s worth already as a top 10 player in the league (yeah, I said it), an expected increase in the salary cap via a new TV deal in the middle of the decade could wind up giving the Suns some value on his deal.
These types of extensions can start to fly in with the regular free-agent deals, as you’ll remember from last year with the players from Ayton’s class getting those max contracts, so expect this one to get locked in across a similar fashion.
Johnson’s won’t be as fast. He spoke prior to the offseason with an awareness of how long it could take with the deadline not even until October and has chatted with teammate Bridges about how Bridges approached the process before getting four years and $90 million.
He’s really valuable with the direction the NBA has trended in the last couple of years, and beyond that, he’s just a great young player.
Explore upgrades at the 4
Phoenix’s previous two playoff exits have put Crowder, the starting power forward, in an impossible position where the Suns require more offensive punch at that slot. That is because of how Ayton, Paul and the supplementary options on the perimeter have performed at times.
It’s not on Crowder, who is not that type of player and continues to give the Suns more than enough based on what’s expected out of him. He was excellent in the 2021 NBA Finals and the second-round elimination six weeks ago to the Dallas Mavericks. But that didn’t wind up mattering in the context of the Suns’ fate, and a real game-changer is clearly what is missing there.
A return could go hand-and-hand with the Ayton sign-and-trade discussions.
Yes, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant would be nice, literally the best hypothetical acquisition at that spot across the history of basketball. We could have a functioning time machine and still not find anyone better.
There was lots of speculation about Jerami Grant, who is now off the board after he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers. Toronto’s OG Anunoby would be snazzy but I ask why the Raptors would be willing to let go of someone who appears to be a very good player. The same goes with the Spurs and Keldon Johnson, and he would require a contract extension soon.
Maybe it’s a lesser deal without Ayton involved. PHNX Sports’ Gerald Bourguet suggested Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes. That would be the type of sizable improvement we’re talking about. The Washington Wizards’ Kyle Kuzma has the scoring pop with shooting and defense.
Get more athletic
This, however, is an easier ask and what the Suns have been missing for a few seasons now. There’s a lack of freaky high-end athleticism across the roster, with the exceptions being Ayton and Bridges. If Ayton is gone, that’s just one known commodity. It really exposes them in certain matchups, like against the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round.
My podcast cohort Kevin Zimmerman has been harping on the overall point for years. Again, to go back to Ayton sign-and-trades, this is where one of those bodies could come in. San Antonio has some intriguing possibilities like Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV. Anunoby qualifies, and so does Boucher. How about Brooklyn’s restricted free agents Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton?
The draft, of course, was an easy way to do this. Alas.
Ish Wainright coming back would be a start!