EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

How will Suns respond to failings, then thread the needle in vital offseason?

May 12, 2023, 2:45 PM

PHOENIX — Massive changes are coming to the Phoenix Suns. After how their last two seasons ended, there have to be.

The question is how big and where.

I’d start this off discussing the job ahead for president of basketball operations James Jones but everyone’s future is in doubt.

The reality of new ownership across the top sports leagues is to expect anything when it comes to the amount of organizational makeover. It’s not a coincidence that the Kevin Durant deal got done when it did, during Mat Ishbia’s arrival. When piecing together all the reports, it sure seems like Jones didn’t want to let Mikal Bridges become part of the deal before Ishbia was able to get the trade completed with Bridges in it.

Jones has been the general manager since 2018 and still holds that title as his second. How intentional was that label when he was promoted under the interim leadership before the Ishbia takeover? Is someone going to join him in the front office? If they do, do they report to Jones? Or does Jones report to them? Is Jones even around to see how that process unfolds?

His value is undeniable. A franchise without any culture or identity that was more or less a laughing stock is now one of the most respected.

Players and coaches coming into Phoenix know what it is about. The Suns have a specific style of play and more importantly, a specific style of people. I cannot emphasize enough how, whenever the Suns signed or traded for a player under Jones, I know they are going to be a pleasant human being to interact with despite the deservedly rocky two-way street of player-media relations. Role players like Jamal Crawford,  Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and so on are testaments of that, as are the stars like Chris Paul and Durant.

All of that to Jones’ credit. He made it a good environment for winning basketball. And it has become one. It would be moronic to let Jones go before getting to the whole NBA Executive of the Year thing and how terrific of a job he has done in reshaping the roster in such a short amount of time. The Suns are a premium destination at any level of role in the league. Think about that. We were talking about goat feces in the GM’s office six years ago.

Assuming Jones is staying put and still the top voice when it comes to the basketball operations side of the building, head coach Monty Williams is next on the agenda.

Williams should stay. He is No. 1 on the blame list for how the last two seasons ended and failing to meet expectations. He also was the Coach of the Year in 2022, has played just as big of a part as Jones in what Suns basketball is now and deserves far more credit for leading Phoenix to the 2021 NBA Finals instead of the way people easily pad that together with the last two years, where Phoenix blew 2-0 series leads before ultimately losing.

That said, Williams should also have a lot of pressure on him next year. The Suns have to make the Finals next year. Missing it for the first two years of Durant’s stay would be catastrophic.

So how does Phoenix get there? Well, that’s where we get to the players surrounding Booker and Durant. The roster was flawed this postseason because of the dynamics involved with a midseason trade and how the Suns couldn’t build around the two stars.

The Suns now can do that building this offseason and they knew that in February.

I don’t know how they can take themselves seriously with championship aspirations and Deandre Ayton on the roster after the postseason he just had. His inconsistencies in the last half-decade appeared in the postseason for the first time to tremendous lows. And this is not a player just playing poorly because they are missing shots. It’s mental engagement. If that is a question for one of the most important players on the team, it should be non-negotiable.

Ayton cratered his trade value in the last couple of months. Teams are now aware of the unknown in how he is going to perform each night, with some of Ayton’s defensive shortcomings and disconnected segments resembling his rookie year. There will be a few teams that still believe in his potential, as they honestly should, given he would be a top-3 center in the league right now if he realized it.

Finding a team that has 1) a talent-deprived roster with few other avenues of improving it, 2) an opening at center and 3) the mechanisms possible to make a trade happen is easier said than done. It will very likely be a minimal return for Ayton in a trade. If Phoenix is able to get a starting-caliber player at the 5 or on the wing in a potential deal, it would be a win.

Given how bad the market typically is for centers these days, the Suns wouldn’t have a problem finding a decent-enough option to do all the little things and play a minimal role. Their own version of Kevon Looney (although not that level of contributor, because Looney deserves a lot of respect).

The Paul part of the equation is far less cut and dry.

It’s easy to steer the conversation of his future in a certain direction because of his partially guaranteed contract of $15 million next year, but the reality is waiving him doesn’t do Phoenix any good because of the over-the-cap team it is. That $15 million freed up would do no good outside of the luxury tax payments. It would be shocking for Ishbia to do that, especially since it is a scenario presenting a near-impossible chance of finding a replacement who is better.

The only hiccup for a Paul return, in my opinion, is his role. He himself was rather outspoken about it at exit interviews on Friday.

“It was cool (playing as a secondary ball-handler). Let me tell you. You don’t play 18 years in this league at a high level and not understand how to adjust and adapt with the game,” Paul said. “I’ve been in this NBA a lot longer than some of the people been covering it. I remember when the games ended in 85-80 scores.

“I don’t talk about it too much but I know this game just about better than anybody. I put that up against anybody. That’s what’s not gonna change, is my knowledge of the game. And I’m gonna keep putting in the work. So if you mad at it, you hate it — that’s on you.”

Paul was hit or miss as more of an off-ball player, too many times showing hesitation for a guy that seemingly would be the best 0.5 player on the roster thanks to his aforementioned genius-level mind for the game. Like the team, though, he didn’t get much time to adapt with Durant in the fold as the second dominant ball-handler. But as he alluded to, he will, and the Suns should take the all-time great for his word.

It will be on Booker, Durant and Paul to come together this summer and really strike a balance with how to play off each other. The offense revolving around Booker and Durant doesn’t diminish the need for secondary ball-handlers, but it’s strange to even toss that type of label on Paul.

There’s still a whole other team to put around that trio. And the Suns won’t have much to work with. ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes its unlikely Phoenix will have access to the taxpayer midlevel exception under the new CBA rules and how the Suns don’t have a first-round pick to trade yet after shelling ’em out for Durant.

Phoenix has Cam Payne on a partially guaranteed contract for next season and then Landry Shamet enters the last guaranteed season of his four-year deal. Wainright has a team option (that the team would be wise to pick up). Outside of that, everyone else is a free agent.

There are some no-brainers to bring back, like either Bismack Biyombo or Jock Landale at the 5. Perhaps both. Damion Lee fit like a glove for that organizational identity. Ditto for Josh Okogie. T.J. Warren showed enough positive signs that he seems like a reasonable returnee as well.

That’ll help Phoenix fill in the back-half of the roster nicely, but it must find a way to upgrade the 4-8 portions of the pecking order.

All said, it’s difficult. The window is small and hard to see, the type where only Patrick Mahomes has the vision to identify and then sling a football through. Can the Suns thread that needle, too?

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