EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

One big offseason question for each Suns competitor in the Western Conference

Jun 18, 2024, 9:00 AM

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder is defended by P.J. Washington #25 of the D...

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder is defended by P.J. Washington #25 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

It is officially the NBA offseason.

There is plenty to go over for the Phoenix Suns that we’ve reviewed and more to come. But as we learned last season, how a loaded Western Conference stacks up is a big story to watch as well.

Here is a major question for each potential contender.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Will they retool at all?

Oklahoma City is not going to make any type of move that drastically alters the pecking order that begins with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren. It has the assets to do so. But the Thunder at this stage are not going to consider a “big move” on that scale.

What they can do is find the fifth guy to play alongside those three and Luguentz Dort.

Josh Giddey, in theory, is this guy. His limitations, however, were magnified in the postseason when in the second round he averaged 12.7 minutes per game. Giddey is up for an extension off his rookie deal this summer and would become a restricted free agent next offseason if a deal cannot be agreed upon.

Giddey is good and very much has trade value. He fits the OKC mold with his ball-handling, playmaking and size but his lack of defensive acumen and shooting hold him back. Paying him doesn’t seem wise when considering the mega-extensions to retain Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren and Williams next summer.

The Thunder have 13 first-round picks they can trade. Taking a combination of those plus Giddey to find a difference-maker that is a better accentuating piece to their own Big 3 surely gets explored. Is that wing out there? They are one short. This was supposed to be Gordon Hayward and it did not work out.

Ousmane Dieng, the No. 11 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, required more seasoning this year. Cason Wallace was awesome as a rookie and is going to be really good but is a guard.

A shift in their roster is coming eventually. It’s inevitable. Is now the time or do they wait one more year?

Denver Nuggets: Can they retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

Uh oh.

Caldwell-Pope has a player option he should surely decline before walking into every free agency meeting with a big flashing sign that includes Bruce Brown’s contract details and, “I started over this guy.”

Per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Caldwell-Pope could opt in and then get a four-year extension worth nearly $97 million. Or he could decline and go to free agency, where Denver would be unable to afford him and be proverbially cooked.

This is the Grayson Allen and Royce O’Neale problem for Denver. It has no way to replace Caldwell-Pope other than just paying him and inflating its tax bill even further. Shoutout to Christian Braun. Fine, solid rotation player. But don’t discredit Caldwell-Pope to that degree and act like Braun can replace him like the Nuggets tried to act like Peyton Watson could replace Brown.

The Nuggets also have extensions for Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon to consider.

Uh oh!

Minnesota Timberwolves: Can they find one more on the margins?

Zooming out all the way, Rudy Gobert becoming extension-eligible is a bigger storyline, but for next season Minnesota is in tremendous shape. Kyle Anderson is the only main rotation player not returning and every T-Wolves contributor outside of Mike Conley is either in their prime or young.

Anderson, Monte Morris and Jordan McLaughlin all become unrestricted free agents. Backup point guard has been a position of inconsistency on the Minnesota depth chart for a few seasons now. Morris was the trade deadline acquisition set to fix that but he never earned the permanent role for Chris Finch. McGlaughlin was sorta the defacto guy before that.

Anderson is one of the most underrated players in basketball. The aptly nicknamed “SloMo” has athleticism limitations and can’t shoot. He’s also a great connector, rebounder and heady defender. Minnesota will miss him if he has to go. It could go the Denver route and bet on previous draft picks like Wendell Moore (26th, 2022), Josh Minott (45th, 2023), Leonard Miller (33rd, 2023) or Jaylen Clark (53rd, 2023).

The Timberwolves are a second apron team and also pick 27th in the 2024 NBA Draft.

Be warned: Minnesota is good at this. Jalen McDaniels was a find in the late first round. Naz Reid went undrafted. Conley was acquired for pennies and a throw-in as a part of that deal was Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Expect the Timberwolves to nail it again.

Dallas Mavericks: Is there a deal to be done?

It’s a convenient transition from Minnesota to Dallas because the Mavericks’ lone expiring contract in the rotation is Derrick Jones Jr., a minimum signing who will make more than that next season while flashing as a starter.

Dallas’ huge problem coming into the year was finding out who exactly fits in the lineup alongside Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. The center spot worked out wonderfully with rookie Dereck Lively II and the pickup of Daniel Gafford. P.J. Washington pulled an Eric Bledsoe and turned into a great defender once his situation got a whole lot better and is actually perfect as an irritant. That fifth spot became Jones’ but he might be gone.

The Mavericks have Tim Hardaway Jr. ($16 million), Josh Green ($12 million), Maxi Kleber ($11 million), Dwight Powell ($4 million) and Dante Exum ($3 million) to maneuver with. Those are all players who would interest teams, but is that enough to land someone like Washington or Gafford again?

Dallas is in the first apron and has limited draft capital to move.

Los Angeles Clippers: Do they have bidding competition?

Spoiler alert: this is never going to work. But let’s be completionists.

Kawhi Leonard is under contract for three more seasons. An added bonus of having him on your team is having zero information on the injury status of the injury-riddled superstar. The secrecy about his injuries dating back to his San Antonio days has rivaled your favorite conspiracy theory. Paul George has a player option for next season. He’s still awesome when he can play. James Harden is an unrestricted free agent. He’s still awesome until playoff stakes emerge.

There is much made about how the Clippers are moving to a new arena and want it to be opened by a contender. George could get paid out the wazoo with an extension and ditto for Harden. If winning is the first priority for both of those guys by a substantial margin, they should leave. It might not be. George just turned 34 and Harden’s 35th birthday comes in late August. This is the last big bag for them to get.

But who else is going to pay them? The Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic are the two teams with cap space to watch, playoff squads with openings on rosters that could see themselves as elite by adding one of the two. OKC, as we’ve noted, won’t rock the boat with an aging star.

George sandwiched by Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey would form the latest tantalizing 76ers group to fool you into thinking they can win the East. Orlando’s big problem is the lack of a primary ball-handler and Harden’s late-career transition into a supplementary skill set fits well.

Remember, the Clippers gave up a whole lot of picks to make this happen. They might feel they don’t have another choice anyway.

Los Angeles Lakers: Can they find their third star?

Yes, LeBron James has a player option. Let’s assume he returns, as does D’Angelo Russell with his.

By the turn of a new league year, the Lakers will triple their movable first-round picks into a trio of them. Your natural follow-up question here is if L.A. is a second apron team like the Suns, thus restricting their flexibility in trading salaries. The complicated answer, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, is that it is not — until the Lakers utilize any of those mechanisms like aggregating salaries, sending out cash or taking more money back in a trade.

It’s a strange wrinkle in this CBA that tightens up trade movement possibilities even more for a league that garners a lot of interest off of … trade movement possibilities.

The Lakers might be OK with that and just getting one big deal done as the last hurrah. Russell ($18.6 million), Rui Hachimura ($17 million), Austin Reaves ($12.9 million), Gabe Vincent ($11 million) and Jarred Vanderbilt ($10.7 million) is a better-than-you’d-think collection of not only tradable salaries but players with value. Jalen Hood-Schifino was the No. 17 pick last year as well.

Los Angeles will go star hunting. If Cleveland really is going to split up Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, whichever guard is on the outs should be L.A.’s top target. Trae Young in Atlanta makes a lot of sense as a backup plan for another splintering backcourt. But there is a good chance opposing front offices can outbid the Lakers for those two, particularly with picks not so far out and more alluring young players. Do the Lakers get desperate and sniff around on Zach LaVine then? A Brandon Ingram reunion?

There is absolutely a “THAT’S IT?!” outcome to a Lakers deal that leaves them in a decent enough position to still go seven or eight guys deep with a fantastic Big 3.

They have a way of doing that. Don’t write them off just yet.

New Orleans Pelicans: Is it time to try something new?

Since the Pelicans traded for C.J. McCollum at the 2022 trade deadline and looked like a dangerous squad on the rise after pushing the Suns to the limit in the first round, they missed the playoffs and then were swept in the first round.

The majority of this has to do with the health of Zion Williamson, who played 29 games a season ago before quietly piecing together a relatively healthy season. Until, in the middle of an elite performance in the play-in tournament, we could feel him physically turning the page on a new chapter of his career. Then he got hurt again and missed the rest of the run.

It is unlikely that the solution here is to trade Williamson. The return would be complicated and likely not leave the Pelicans in that great of a situation. McCollum has two years remaining on his deal at $33 million next year while Ingram is on a $36 million expiring contract.

In one basketball blog boy’s opinion, they gotta get some new cooks in the kitchen. Because, similar to the Suns of a few years ago, New Orleans has something every team wants and most do not: a well-rounded complementary wing combination. If we need a stop with planet Earth on the line against aliens, Herb Jones is one of our five defenders out there. He also shot 42% from 3. Trey Murphy II is a top-of-the-line, high-volume shooter with size, and the door is not closed on his All-Star upside.

Thanks to the Anthony Davis trade, New Orleans has six tradable first-round picks. That includes a 2025 unprotected first-round pick via the Lakers, and more enticingly, swap rights with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2026 and their unprotected first-round pick in 2027.

It is convenient to discuss the Pelicans right after the Lakers because they are one of those teams that can swoop in with a better deal for Young, Garland or Mitchell.

They’ve also got Jonas Valanciunas heading to free agency and would need to figure some things out at center. New Orleans picks 21st in this upcoming draft. Can it move up a few spots to get Zach Edey or a ton of spots to get Donovan Clingan?

Sacramento Kings: Hey remember them? (Part 1 of 2)

It was just last season when Sacramento had two players make All-NBA and finished third in the West. This year, the Kings only won two fewer games to finish ninth but did not take any steps forward in ways a younger group overall should have. They missed the playoffs.

So where do they go from here?

De’Aaron Fox is 27 years old and due for a max contract extension this summer. Year 1 of Domantas Sabonis’ at the age of 28 kicks off next season. Keegan Murray is good and a breakout campaign is on tap for him after two seasons in the league. That’s a pretty good base.

Harrison Barnes and Kevin Huerter each have two years left on their deal. Both hold a decent amount of value on the trade market and the Kings have four tradable first-round picks. They could use some combination of those assets to reshape the supporting cast for the two stars to get back on track with the balance other contenders in the West possess in their rotation. As an example, this has been a personal favorite Kyle Kuzma destination of mine for a while now.

Speaking of that balance, Malik Monk is an unrestricted free agent. He’s awesome and would be a significant loss. Keep an eye on Orlando and Philly sniffing around.

Bunch the Kings up with the Lakers, Pelicans and our next team in that if they aren’t able to do anything significant this summer, don’t worry about them jumping into the discussion of the conference’s contenders.

Golden State Warriors: Is this it?

Maybe! Probably!

Klay Thompson is an unrestricted free agent. His time as one of the best players on an elite team is over and it’s now about if he can make the ever-so-difficult transition into a role player, one that looked promising after the All-Star break. Every NBA team should be interested in trying to see out that transition. Thompson is still one of the best shooters ever and an incredibly smart basketball player with bountiful amounts of experience winning. OKC should give him a call.

Golden State may not be motivated enough to keep this thing rolling in its previous iterations. As Marks notes, the Warriors have now been a tax team four out of the last six seasons and that has added up to $677 million in luxury tax penalties. Yep. You read that right. Two-thirds of a billion. Owner Joe Lacob has said the primary plan is to get out of the tax. Waiving Chris Paul to get off his $30 million in nonguaranteed money will help Golden State get there (OKC should give Paul a call, too).

Golden State might go for one last shot at glory by re-signing Thompson and exploring what few trade avenues it has left to get Stephen Curry the help he will need for one more deep postseason run before this ride arrives at its conclusion. The most likely outcome is next season continues the slow burn of an end to one of the sport’s greatest dynasties, and that the aforementioned final go already happened in 2022.

Memphis Grizzlies: Hey remember them? (Part 2 of 2)

Don’t forget about this group. Memphis’ injury situation was so abysmal that Ja Morant’s return was fairly inconsequential and then he got hurt, too.

What the Grizzlies were able to do during a 27-win campaign was sift through all the options it has to fill in the complementary pieces around Morant, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marcus Smart. GG Jackson and Vince Williams Jr. were two great finds. The jury is still out on former first-round picks Santi Aldama, Jake LaRavia and Ziaire Williams.

While you wisely weren’t paying attention to the Grizzlies, they traded Steven Adams to cut down the luxury tax bill. They need to replace him and can use Luke Kennard’s $14.7 million team option plus picks to trade for one. Memphis picks ninth this year and owns all its future firsts. Keep an eye on the center situation in New York between either Isaiah Hartenstein or Mitchell Robinson, plus Atlanta’s with Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu. Robert Williams II is whittling away in Portland if he can pass some medicals.

Morant is a superstar, so that’s why Memphis still has to be mentioned. A jump to a top-six spot would not be surprising. The Grizzlies won 107 games over two years prior to last season. Again, don’t forget about them.

The worst of the rest: Anyone going to show up a year early to the party?

With respect to the brighter-than-you’d-think futures for the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, the question primarily goes out to the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, two organizations that will return to the playoffs soon enough. Next year seems too early.

San Antonio this season did not unearth another pillar to put alongside Victor Wembanyama as the foundation of this era of Spurs basketball. That could still come in due time, either from the guys on the roster now or additions to come. Devin Vassell is good and has to prove that he’s great. Tre Jones is a fine, serviceable point guard. San Antonio doesn’t have the big-time cap room to make a run at someone like George or Thompson.

It could (and should) call any team shopping an All-Star-caliber player, so Wembanyama’s development can get accelerated a bit. Can the Spurs find their version of the Suns’ 2020 offseason, trading for Paul and signing Jae Crowder? If they can, Wembanyama is ready. He could lead a group like that to the postseason next year. He’s that good.

It doesn’t seem like San Antonio’s style. We’ll see. Either way, the alien is coming. He is inevitable.

Houston is closer when it comes to overall talent.

Alperen Sengun is an All-Star and the Rockets learned how to defend last year at a high level. There are “I’m still not sure yet!” questions about Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. that could be answered to solidify the top end of the roster. Perhaps it won’t matter because the supporting cast is very promising. Remember the Adams trade we mentioned? This was the team that got him and it’s a wonderful fit. Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks were a lot of the stability to get Houston to 41 wins, and Adams provides even more. Amen Thompson rules. Cam Whitmore is going to be something. Jock Landale balled out once he got minutes.

And the Rockets also have the third pick in this year’s draft, quietly joining San Antonio’s Nos. 4 and 8 as selections that could legitimately make a difference in the conference’s long-term dynamic. Think of San Antonio in 2022 passing on Jeremy Sochan (ninth) for Jalen Williams (12th), OKC in 2021 missing on Franz Wagner (eighth) for Giddey (sixth) or — brace for impact Suns fans — Phoenix in 2020 failing to select Tyrese Haliburton (12th) in favor of Jalen Smith (10th).

Nailing that pick can change everything. Just look at the Thunder with Williams for the other side of it. If either Houston or San Antonio does, the pecking order is going to get interesting a lot sooner than expected.

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One big offseason question for each Suns competitor in the Western Conference