EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Trade deadline mega preview: Will Suns get active in wide-open West?

Jan 30, 2023, 2:54 PM | Updated: 3:55 pm

General manager James Jones of the Phoenix Suns looks on after the game against the Miami Heat at F...

General manager James Jones of the Phoenix Suns looks on after the game against the Miami Heat at FTX Arena on March 09, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Trade season is here. The deadline arrives a week from Thursday.

There are two reasons why we could have seen more deals prior to today.

Parity is at an all-time high.

There are seven teams that could win the Western Conference. Perhaps that’s being too kind to the likes of the Mavericks and Clippers but the pedigree from their star players shouldn’t be completely slighted.

This is not like the previous decade, when we knew LeBron James was coming out of the East and it was some dynasty like the Spurs or Warriors meeting him in the Finals. And you can go back to other eras and cite similarly dominant superstars or half-decade runs of superpower teams.

That is not the current NBA. And gosh darn it, it’s a thing of beauty.

With the opening, no team has tried to beat the others with a trade that could move them up the pecking order. Perhaps that’s because nobody is selling with all those competitive teams wanting to keep their best players.

The Lakers’ decent swing on Rui Hachimura for a few second-round picks and a tax-reducing deal from the Celtics involving Noah Vonleh are the two trades since training camp.

The other reason things could heat up before the deadline? Victor Wembanyama. Teams could get their tank tracks moving quicker by getting worse sooner, positioning themselves better for the chance at a once-in-a-generation prospect (not to mention guard Scoot Henderson, who would be a fine No. 1 pick most years).

These two factors should still get everything moving over the next 10 days.

Here’s what you need to know, beginning with a refresher on what to watch for the Phoenix Suns and if they will turbocharge a season to be among the West’s top dogs again.

Where the Suns stand

Phoenix can upgrade a few different spots. It has got to find another source of dribble creation, preferably on the wing, but it could come at guard, too. Torrey Craig’s 3-point percentage is a career best but he has declined defensively. Landry Shamet still hasn’t found a rhythm. The first wing off the bench and the guard alongside Cam Payne are the two spots that come to mind when looking at a depth chart.

The Suns have a versatile toolbox to work with. They are the only team in the league that owns all of their picks and also doesn’t have any from other teams they acquired. Beyond that, the mid-level expiring salaries of Jae Crowder ($10.1 million) and Dario Saric ($9.4 million) help maneuverability.

Their salary sheet is also full of future question marks it could sort out as a tax-paying team this year, although the big picture items are more likely to come in the offseason.

The Suns didn’t agree to a deal with Deandre Ayton before last offseason and matched his offer sheet in the summer.

Chris Paul’s $30 million next season has only $15 million of it guaranteed, with a fully non-guaranteed team option on deck the year after. Cam Johnson is headed to restricted free agency. Shamet’s 2023-24 salary number is $10.2 million, with the following two years non-guaranteed.

The pending transfer of the team to future owner Mat Ishbia plays into all of this.

Whether you want to frame it more as incompetence or patience, the Suns’ lack of movement could have simply come down to waiting for the ownership situation to sort itself out.

If Ishbia is truly willing to do whatever it takes for winning, which is what multiple reports have indicated, the Suns could take on long-term contracts in hypothetical Crowder trades.

That would send Phoenix’s luxury tax bill to nuclear levels next season. There are avenues to shrink the upcoming payment as well, though that might not become clear until the summer.

Up for grabs

The trajectory of the West will shift by the time the sun sets on Feb. 9. It’s just a matter of how much it will, and while the following statement may sound too hyperbolic, that matters this year more than perhaps any other.

All of these teams in the mix of the West are flawed and are positioned to address them.

Denver’s got the best starting five in basketball that massacres the opposition when it’s out there. When the Nuggets’ bench starts to trickle in, though, they get outscored by a fair bit, enough to inspire hesitation about betting on them to make a deep playoff run. Bruce Brown is awesome, but while the young Bones Hyland is really fun to watch, he still requires more development.

The Kings, who I purposefully did not include as contenders, are in the same boat. The on/off numbers aren’t as severe, but once you go past Malik Monk as the first guy off the bench, it gets questionable in a hurry.

Can the Lakers make the move, Russell Westbrook and first-rounders for two starters, that has nauseatingly been over-discussed for months? Even if Anthony Davis and James stay healthy with their All-NBA level play, Los Angeles won’t get far unless it upgrades the balance around those two. Hachimura was a good addition for what L.A. gave up. That’s not enough.

Speaking of better balance, Dallas could attach a pick to one of its wings so another ball-handler will relieve the load on Luka Doncic.

The Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers are still in it. They also feel like the most logical sellers.

But the two franchises to really watch in the conference are the Grizzlies and Pelicans. Both have the wealth of first-round picks and young pieces to create an enticing enough package for a true difference-maker. Memphis clearly has a gap in its starting lineup between its guards (Ja Morant and Desmond Bane) and its bigs (Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams). New Orleans I’m less sold on, given how it did a version of this already last year by trading for C.J. McCollum.

The question is if the Pelicans will go for it or prefer to stick to the team-building principles that got them where they are. After all, we should talk about the Oklahoma City Thunder in this group, too, but all indications are they will stay true as well.

Who would be worth it?

The chips

It would be shocking if an All-Star was on the move. No one in that tier is expected to be dealt. There are a few starting-caliber players, though.

Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic has already been traded once and is seemingly the best offensive player available. Hawks big John Collins never stops getting thrown into trade rumors and could be a sneaky grab for the right team. San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl provides rim protection (if you believe his numbers this year are a hoax) and New York’s Immanuel Quickley can really score. Ditto for Raptors wing Gary Trent Jr. and Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson. Indiana’s Buddy Hield can still shoot that thing.

How much do you need a veteran? Enough to give up something for Crowder, Mike Conley in Utah or Eric Gordon in Houston?

A believer in the young talent of the Hornets’ P.J. Washington or Jalen McDaniels could cut to the front of the line to pay them.

I know, not a star-studded lineup. But …

The wild cards

The premium players depend on what bad teams in difficult positions decide to do.

The Toronto Raptors aren’t good and the years left on contracts for OG Anunoby (player option in 2024), Pascal Siakam (unrestricted in 2024) and Fred VanVleet (player option for next year) are concerning. They could smack the big red button with authority. Anunoby has a case for being the NBA’s best defender and provides a fair bit offensively. Siakam could make another All-NBA team this year. VanVleet is a very good scoring point guard.

To go back to how we discussed a team “going for it,” the Chicago Bulls did and it didn’t work. Zach LaVine, like Siakam, is that star who could become available. Maybe it just isn’t the right fit for him in Chicago. If the Bulls still think it is but want to pivot, the value in DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic on the market is only going to go down from here. Any team would love to have Alex Caruso.

Lastly, the Hachimura trade indicated the Wizards think they can keep Kyle Kuzma with his Bird rights as an upcoming unrestricted free agent this summer. That’s still risky, however, and they could get a decent amount for him at the deadline.

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