Suns have lengthy offseason checklist with limited maneuverability

May 13, 2024, 8:33 AM | Updated: 11:59 am

Owner Mat Ishbia, Kevin Durant and general manager James Jones of the Phoenix Suns pose for a photo...

Owner Mat Ishbia, Kevin Durant and general manager James Jones of the Phoenix Suns pose for a photo at a press conference at Footprint Center on February 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

It is the second straight entrance to summer where we have anticipated lots of change for the Phoenix Suns. Firing Frank Vogel kicked off the proceedings. But is that the end of the fireworks?

Before we get there, the Suns’ overhaul must begin with completely starting from scratch on offense. It is imperative for Mike Budenholzer and his staff upon arrival to have deep conversations with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal to figure out a base foundation.

Who is the most comfortable bringing the ball up? How does each want to be incorporated off the ball? What worked from last year to keep around and what has to be corrected? All of it has to be established immediately.

In some ways, this past year was such a disaster that it’s challenging to not find some optimism. Judging on a scale of 1-10 for how much Phoenix untapped the potential of an offense built around those three, the score would be, what, 2.5? Maybe a 3?

This is not about the lack of a point guard in the starting lineup. The discussion is archaic. The point guard is a role that has changed immensely over the last decade-plus. You didn’t need two hands to count how many players 20 years ago were capable of initiating offense, meaning they are bringing the ball up at the start of a possession and beginning the action, taking the initial reads and punishing the defense from there to playmaker or score. Now, everyone is doing it.

Who is the point guard in Dallas? On the Clippers? How about Boston or Oklahoma City? There is one name that comes to mind for the “position” but all of those teams involve a healthy split of initiating duties between multiple players. Yes, the Timberwolves have Mike Conley. He is also a secondary ball-handler, not a floor general. It’s Anthony Edwards’ offense. You’d argue Jamal Murray runs the show in Denver and I’d argue it’s Nikola Jokic. The Ringer’s Rob Mahoney had an excellent breakdown of how to really categorize point guards these days. They all do different stuff.

The insistence on a point guard has many unknowingly taking the blame off Beal, Booker and Durant. All of them are smart enough to know what to run with assistance from the coaches. Booker does not need Tyus Jones to come in to run a pindown screen for Durant, a curl for Beal or a ball screen. Booker can do it and the Suns have to commit to it, unlike this last season.

And all three have to be better at initiating. They have all done it at a high level. Doing so together and bouncing off one another was a mess and it has to take some big steps forward next season.

So, about the thought of the Phoenix Suns blowing up the Big 3 …

Speaking of that trio, some of the fanbase is understandably pissed off enough to want an atom bomb dropped on this whole era of Suns basketball. For the sake of covering the whole offseason landscape, to briefly entertain the idea is nearly impossible.

Beal has a no-trade clause, and because he makes at least $50 million a year each of the next three seasons, that clause won’t be necessary to invoke because Beal’s as close to untradeable as untradeable gets. Even if a team on the rise were to talk themselves into what he does well, Beal once again struggled with injuries and had a disastrous showing in the postseason.

Other awful contracts don’t make sense as trade partners or for Phoenix itself. Brooklyn trading Ben Simmons for two more years of salary is illogical and Phoenix would acquire a guy much less likely to be on the floor than Beal (which is saying something). For other reasons, Phoenix wouldn’t be the proper fit for a Zach LaVine trade, Jerami Grant trade or Trae Young trade.

A complete roster annihilation can’t even happen. And it shouldn’t be under consideration. At all.

Booker next season will be in the first year of his four-year extension. He’s still one of the 10-20 best players in the world. The odds of Phoenix coming away with another one of those over the next decade in any outcome are very low. Giving him the best chance to win should remain the priority, which is where we get to Durant.

With Durant’s path here to the Valley, speculation about his desire to leave has ramped up immediately. The Suns aren’t trading Booker and they can’t trade Beal. So, Durant’s the asset if Phoenix wants to shake things up. But even though he’s Kevin Durant, the return in theory would give Phoenix just a few young, serviceable role players with picks, maybe a bit more.

To paint the picture, would this Suns team look better without Durant and with Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski? De’Andre Hunter, Jalen Johnson and Onyeka Okongwu? Julius Randle and Josh Hart?

It’s tantalizing initially because of how lacking the Suns’ wing rotation beyond Durant was this season, but Booker would have to carry an enormous load again and we’ve seen that arc before. It would also put a ton of pressure on Beal to get back to his pre-Phoenix heights in a dynamic alongside Booker that didn’t exactly set the world on fire last season. Not interested.

It doesn’t sound like the Suns’ top decision-makers are, either. Owner Mat Ishbia focused on “tweaks and adjustments” at his end-of-season availability, speaking to moves outside the core guys.

How can the Suns add rotation role players?

Phoenix would ideally like a more snug fit at center than Jusuf Nurkic: An athletic rim runner to put more pressure on defenses in ball screens who can also protect the basket at a higher level. Ironically enough, that is a description of what Deandre Ayton did well, but please imagine his lack of consistency on a team burdened by the exact same thing. Think instead of what Dallas has right now in both Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford.

Nurkic, notably eligible for an extension this summer like Durant, has two years remaining on his contract and makes $18 million next season. As predicted, he’s been a polarizing player, just like Ayton. When it comes to a skill pairing of playmaking and rebounding, Nurkic is up there with the great centers. But his finishing around the basket was brutal and the Suns abandoned ship on the stretch component of Nurkic’s 3-point shooting that should have been another benefit. The defense was better than expected, with Nurkic showing an ability to execute more aggressive coverages, but he was still a liability at times.

We’ll get back to Nurkic in a minute because this team has real needs to address before getting picky about fit.

Phoenix should be targeting a reserve point guard, someone who is OK with a sporadic role off the bench that would depend on how stable the offense is. What T.J. McConnell did for the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs is the blueprint. A veteran looking for a contender in free agency on the minimum like Kyle Lowry or Monte Morris is the vibe. Russell Westbrook would kind of be perfect, by the way. Just saying!

OK, size. Everyone mentions size with these ol’ Suns.

Quick thing here: look at the core rotations for the eight playoff teams remaining. New York is making it work without Randle, rolling with three guys 6-foot-4 and shorter plus 6-foot-7 OG Anunoby. Indiana starts two point guards and a 6-foot-6 thin wing (Aaron Nesmith) alongside the Durant-sized Pascal Siakam. Dallas’ 4 man is 6-foot-7 P.J. Washington. Oklahoma City’s is probably 6-foot-8 Josh Giddey if not 6-foot-5 Jalen Williams? The league is changing, everyone!

Yes, in a perfect world, the Suns would have a big 3-and-D wing to pair with Durant alongside Beal and Booker. Those are extremely difficult to acquire. We saw them sign two on the veteran’s minimum (Keita Bates-Diop and Yuta Watanabe) and acquire another (Nassir Little) who didn’t work out.

But there is a wing spot missing in the rotation that one of those guys should have filled. Grayson Allen is good and should still get lots of playing time. If Ishbia takes a hit well over $50 million in luxury tax penalties to re-sign Royce O’Neale as well, he is also good and should get lots of playing time. Can the Suns thread the needle to find that specialist?

Which is where we get to the assets.

What do the Suns have to trade?

Little is important to open with. He just completed the first season of a four-year, $28 million deal. On the surface, it’s a reasonable contract. Someone who believes in the 24-year-old’s potential wouldn’t mind paying that. The flashes were brief in Phoenix but they were there, like a patch in the rotation during the back half of November before an ailing left knee kept him sidelined for a good chunk of the season.

Do the Suns think Little can be that specialist under a new head coach and a fresh start for his health? If not, they should look to move him. The two questions start with whether teams would be willing to take on his salary and if he has enough value on his own. It’s safe to assume there would be an interested party but they’d need a draft pick from the Suns included. Phoenix can attach the 22nd pick in this year’s draft to him, as well as its first-rounder from 2031. The Suns can’t make any trades of those picks until draft day on June 26.

What’s the value of that pick?

While acknowledging the trade has worked out far better for the Knicks than most would have thought, the pick they gave up for Hart last February wound up 23rd overall. Is there a salary/value fit out there for the Suns to put together a similar deal? Charlotte’s Cody Martin, Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate and Oklahoma City’s Kenrich Williams are three names worth a shout.

Then again, Phoenix might just think it can draft this guy. There are reasons to be confident.

What can that No. 22 overall pick land Suns if they keep it?

Current contributors from the back-half of the first round to early second round over the last couple of years include Jaime Jaquez Jr. (18th, 2023), Podziemski (19th, 2023), Christian Braun (21st, 2022), Walker Kessler (22nd, 2022), Peyton Watson (30th, 2022), Andrew Nembhard (31st, 2022), Trey Murphy III (17th, 2021), Quentin Grimes (25th, 2021) and Cam Thomas (27th, 2021).

The 2020 NBA Draft was loaded post-lottery. It had a run of great picks from 18th to 21st with Josh Green, Saddiq Bey, Precious Achiuwa and Tyrese Maxey before getting to Immanuel Quickley (25th), Payton Pritchard (26th), Jaden McDaniels (28th) and Desmond Bane (30th).

Big boards and mock drafts have a few seasoned wing targets in range like Colorado’s Tristan da Silva and Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr.

All of this on the wing search is why re-signing O’Neale is a must. Phoenix cannot afford to lose any other guaranteed solid minutes in the rotation. Having a base of six guys to work around is doable. Five would be almost requiring Phoenix to find gold with a dollar store metal detector. Ishbia will surely pay up, as he has at almost every chance.

What of the center position?

To return to our center conversation, maybe the Suns think they could get more out of the draft picks by including them with Nurkic for an upgrade. Salary matches include Clint Capela in Atlanta and Jarrett Allen in Cleveland, as well as Toronto’s Jakob Poeltl. Is Nurkic’s leaguewide rep good enough to interest any of those teams? Is a more traditional center worth making the asset chest even more barren?

Phoenix must pursue another option at the 5 regardless. Drew Eubanks’ Portland tape showed an ideal backup big before leading the team in brain farts per 48 minutes, driving his teammates nuts and losing trust from the primary ball-handlers. He has a player option and told azcentral’s Duane Rankin he wants to be back.

The free-agent class is lacking in center depth, which might make a high-value minimum signing challenging, something that usually isn’t so hard to do with 5s.

Andre Drummond is ideal if the Suns want to double down on playmaking and rebounding as the two best skills for the 5 to offer. Goga Bitadze showed brief promise in Orlando before losing his rotation spot when other bigs got healthy. Daniel Theis offers good screens and defense. Mo Bamba would be a big swing on a stretch 5, a reclamation project for Budenholzer.

Using the 22nd overall pick for a backup center might be viewed as wasting a valuable asset. What if Phoenix’s scouts believe enough in a prospect who could command 20-plus minutes at the 5 fairly quickly?

Duke’s Kyle Filipkowski is an odd tweener big while Baylor’s Yves Missi, Indiana’s Kel’el Ware and Camaroonian prospect Ulrich Chomche are more developmental selections with high ceilings. Daron Holmes II out of Dayton would form a good two-man game with any of the Big 3 and Marquette’s Oso Ighodaro is fundamentally sound.

Regardless of how the Suns do with one of their few swings left of the bat, they have to convert better on the edge of the roster after whiffing on Jordan Goodwin, Chimezie Metu, Bates-Diop and Watanabe last offseason.

Which players from the 2023-24 roster could return to the Suns?

Josh Okogie was unable to replicate his strong second half in the 2022-23 season, going from a seemingly perfect fit for Vogel to hardly in the rotation. We covered Eubanks already.

The two relative successes were Eric Gordon and Bol Bol. Gordon wasn’t quite the Sixth Man of the Year candidate nor a heist of a minimum contract. His effectiveness waned. He also had a lot of impactful performances despite that.

Bol was a big-time surprise, the one guy outside of Allen to reap the rewards of playing off the Big 3. He turned himself into an energy big before Vogel ultimately couldn’t get past Bol’s defensive mishaps enough to give him a permanent role. There has to be mutual interest in a return given how long it took Bol to find a situation like this.

Four guys have player options: Eubanks, Gordon, Okogie and Damion Lee. It’s easy to assume Eubanks, Lee and Okogie will all trigger it given the seasons they had but the trio could decline in pursuit of a more long-term deal or different situation. It would be surprising to see Lee bounce given he missed the entire season due to injury and he would have a chance to compete for minutes in training camp.

Gordon’s the mystery. He turns 36 years old on Christmas and on six different occasions had to miss a game or two to get his body right. And assuming the Suns do bring in a point guard and try to mix in another wing with size, that leaves Gordon on the outside looking in for playing time. Booker, Beal, Allen and O’Neale will command enough minutes as it is.

David Roddy is under contract for at least one more season, at $2.8 million next year, before a $4.8 million team option in 2025-26 has to be decided on by Halloween. The Memphis Grizzlies’ 2022 first-round pick was never going to get a real crack at minutes as a midseason acquisition during a topsy-turvy season. Maybe he can find a role.

Soaking all of that in, what the Suns have on paper is a very good team. Assuming it’s not another perplexing product on the floor, the top talent on the team can jell and the problems for this team can finally extend beyond locating a style of play or consistency, this team will win 50-plus games.

Does that mean it will be in title contention? No. Before we witness legitimate proof that the team dynamic is succeeding, Phoenix also has to dramatically improve the backend of its rotation, which will go a long way in decreasing its vulnerability during a deep playoff run.

Just like last year, the path to doing so is there. Just like last year, that’s a path akin to an F1 street circuit that will require perfection to finish.

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