EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

How Phoenix Suns can attack NBA Draft to help boost offseason

Jun 19, 2023, 7:00 AM

President of basketball ops and GM James Jones at the introductory press conference for new Suns fo...

President of basketball ops and GM James Jones at the introductory press conference for new Suns forward Kevin Durant on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. (Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

The Phoenix Suns have to ace this offseason to really nail the setup around Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.

Step one was adding one of the 30 best basketball players on the planet in Bradley Beal for minimal assets. Pretty good start!

But whether it’s getting more back in another trade than anticipated or signing a key contributor on the veteran’s minimum in free agency, they’ll have to make up ground somewhere, the type of move that will inspire a desk slam or two from opposing contending front offices when it gets the Twitter notification. Maybe there were a few already from the Beal trade.

While zooming in on the fine margins, a smaller but still-significant way the Suns can do that is by showing some aggression in Thursday’s 2023 NBA Draft.

The Suns pick 52nd, and maybe they’ll get lucky with that pick alone. But traditionally, drafts tend to really drop off once the early-to-mid 40s arrive. More on that back-half of the second round in a bit.

The draft, along with trade deadline day, serves as one of the unofficial trade holidays on the NBA calendar. Activity really picks up. Teams with selections that want to get better, faster have their last shot at trading those picks.

In addition, front offices like to get everything in order before free agency. Making trades in the second and third weeks of July denies franchises a chance to fully attack free agency with a complete idea of what its roster is shaping up to be. We will still see deals in that time but preference is key.

Will Phoenix deal Deandre Ayton on draft day? It’s a possibility! And in any potential trade, the Suns could pick up a draft pick from someone with a surplus. Rebuilding organizations tend to stack up selections, taking on long-term value. And then all of a sudden the draft rolls around and it’s in possession of six picks to make. That’s too many salaries and too much young talent on the same timeline.

Teams like the Charlotte Hornets (Nos. 2, 27, 34, 39, 41) and Indiana Pacers (Nos. 7, 26, 29, 32) will very likely not keep all of those picks.

The champion Denver Nuggets recently capitalized on this. They acquired pick No. 37, plus a first and second-rounder in 2024 from Oklahoma City, in exchange for a protected first-round pick in 2029.

The Nuggets’ outgoing first-rounder has more value than those other three picks combined and could wind up being a rather high selection. But those are three short-term selections that directly benefit Denver’s title-contending core now, and if it hits on just one with a rotation player, it’s a gigantic win. OKC won’t care because it has a million other picks and acquires another asset for later down the line when it wants to be more aggressive on the trade market when its mindset flips.

The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie reported the Suns are among three teams that have “explored opportunities” in the late 20s and 30s. As far as getting into the first round, the resources are dicey. Phoenix would need to use Cam Payne plus whatever draft assets it has left after the Beal trade to get in that range if its independent of an Ayton deal.

A change benefitting that thought process, however, especially with the second round, is in ownership.

Mat Ishbia has been a man of his word with his remarks on spending money where he can to improve the Suns. The big-picture areas coming to mind that could factor in were things like paying the luxury tax. And boy oh boy is he going to be doing that now.

But there are rules in place that limit how much an owner can influence a team’s chances by paying up, most notably with the harsh changes to the new collective bargaining agreement coming that punish franchises way above the tax, a second apron Phoenix was over this past season.

With that in mind, there are smaller avenues where there isn’t as much of a hassle and the only downside is, well, spending more money.

Ishbia paid up to retain associate head coach Kevin Young, making him the league’s highest-paid assistant coach. Veteran coach David Fizdale is also on the staff and was pursued with a “significant financial play,” per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The back-half of the draft is another avenue. Early-to-mid second-round picks can go on sale. A future second rounder (projected to be less valuable) with a few bags of cash attached to it can get the job done, or even cash itself.

Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers dealt a 2028 second-round pick and $2.15 million for the 35th selection. In 2019, the Golden State Warriors shipped $1.3 million and a 2024 second rounder for No. 41.

It doesn’t happen as often as we think but there are opportunities there. Is it worth it? Absolutely!

Here are rotation players to emerge from the first half of the second round in 2017-21: Dillon Brooks (45th in ’17), Jalen Brunson (33rd in ’18), Mitchell Robinson (36th in ’18), Gary Trent Jr. (37th in ’18), Jarred Vanderbilt (41st in ’18), Bruce Brown (42nd in ’18), Nic Claxton (31st in ’19), Cody Martin (36th in ’19), Daniel Gafford (38th in ’19), Jaylen Nowell (43rd in ’19), Xavier Tillman (35th in ’20), Tre Jones (41st in ’20), Herbert Jones (35th in ’21) and Ayo Dosunmu (38th in ’21).

Not only is it a steal in terms of value, but if the player turns out to be good, it’s an incredibly cheap contract for a consistent part of the lineup. Jones made a combined $3.5 million in his first two seasons and started 135 games for a good Pelicans team.

Even if the development trajectory takes a while and it’s more of a second contract type of situation, that works too. Claxton emerged in his third season for Brooklyn on a $1.8 million salary, signing a two-year, $17.5 million extension the next summer, and was one of the best defensive players in the league last year on an $8.5 million number.

Lastly, two-way contracts have complicated the end of the draft, as players get promises from more desirable situations to receive that deal and set themselves up not to get picked so they can go where they want. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort and Lakers guard Austin Reaves are two recent examples of two-way guys that should have been selected and were not.

Phoenix has to start aggressively pursuing the two-way market that emerges on a few dozen guys the night of the draft, something that might appear as easy to write off as inconsequential, but tell the Lakers that this past season if Reaves wasn’t around to be their third-best player on a run to the Western Conference Finals.

It is ultimately a lottery ticket. Most of those guys flop, and there is a balance, of course. Phoenix won’t want to load up the back-half of its roster with inexperience. But one extra swing at the plate could be the difference in landing an impactful player, and as we’ve discussed, the Suns don’t have a lot of maneuverability to make that happen in other ways.

The goal for the Suns should be to use as many dart throws as possible on draft night to attempt coming out of it by the time March and April rolls around with one rookie that will be both a short- and long-term factor in the rotation. Trading into the first half of the second round, picking at No. 52 and filling both two-way spots immediately with a pair from the highest-rated undrafted prospects is the blueprint.

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