The Phoenix Suns have had a truly baffling offseason.
Every decent move has been seemingly followed by a terrible one, which is followed by a decent one. There’s a plan in place in Phoenix to build around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but the execution of that plan has been haphazard at best.
The Suns’ opening move was to trade T.J. Warren and their own 2019 second-round pick (No. 32 overall) to the Indiana Pacers for nothing in return, which opened up about $10 million in cap space to use this summer.
Warren is a perfectly fine player on his contract—which had three years and a bit more than $35 million left going into the 2019-20 season—but Phoenix opened up some significant cap space with the trade.
Unfortunately, their later moves showed how little they were able to do with that extra financial flexibility.
During the draft, Phoenix moved down from No. 6 to No. 11 in a trade that netted them Dario Saric and was truly awful from a value perspective. Saric will play a key role for a Suns team that doesn’t have many power forwards, and he fits the roster relatively well as a semi-versatile “jack of all trades, master of none.”
But considering what other teams received in return for moving down in the lottery, only getting Saric to trade down five spots was a poor piece of business.
Later in the draft, the Suns moved the protected pick they got from the Milwaukee Bucks for Eric Bledsoe to the Boston Celtics in order to get No. 24 (Ty Jerome) and Aron Baynes.
Between this trade and the acquisition of Saric a few hours earlier, the Suns essentially offset the Warren salary dump, as these two trades added about $9.3 million in salary to their books for 2019-20.
So, the Suns basically traded Warren, No. 6 and a protected pick, for Nos. 11 and 24 and the cap space to burn on Saric and Baynes. That they then overreached on Cam Johnson at 11 when they could have found Jarrett Culver, Coby White or DeAndre Hunter with the earlier selection just doesn’t make much sense.
To top it off, they swung the rest of the bat on their available cap space in an early agreement to sign former Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio to a three-year deal worth $51 million.
Phoenix missed out on D’Angelo Russell and Malcolm Brogdon, who went to Golden State and Indiana, respectively, so they settled on Rubio but wound up paying market rate for a starting-level point guard who doesn’t really fit their team on the more important end of the floor.
Rubio’s lack of outside shooting acumen is counteracted by Devin Booker’s, though the Suns’ star shooting guard has also taken a lot of the primary ball handler responsibilities from a slew of subpar Phoenix point guards over the years.
Rubio will be the best point guard to suit up for the Suns since Bledsoe forced his way out, but there are still massive concerns about what he can do for this team. He does fit well defensively, as he’s big enough to defend both guard positions and will hopefully make up for some of the areas in which Booker lacks on that end of the floor.
But Booker has proved he can operate effectively with the ball in his hands, while Rubio cannot when it isn’t. Perhaps they’ll be splitting time at the position, though that would essentially mean Rubio is a spot-starter-turned-glorified-backup (for them) who cost starter’s money.
Let’s also not forget that Phoenix kicked off the summer by firing Igor Kokoskov, who coached the team for just one season after being a well-regarded assistant tactician with the Jazz. New head coach Monty Williams is especially highly regarded for his character building and interpersonal skills—something this young roster will surely benefit from—but he’s also essentially the sixth coach in seven years.
Phoenix isn’t quite done with their offseason, as they still have Kelly Oubre floating in restricted free agency and will be able to match any offer sheet he receives from another team. Oubre turned in a nice half-season of slashing and shooting after he arrived from the Washington Wizards via trade, though that was supposed to have been Josh Jackson’s role.
Instead, Jackson was part of another cap-clearing move, which will ensure Oubre’s cap hold can remain on the books after Phoenix signed Rubio once the moratorium ended on Saturday.
Jackson was moved to Memphis for Kyle Korver in the primary part of the trade, which saved the Suns just about $3.5 million in cap space, as Jackson’s $7.06 million salary was fully guaranteed, while Korver’s salary is only guaranteed for $3.44 million for 2019-20. Korver will be released by the team before his contract guarantees for the remainder of his $7.5 million base salary for next year.
That small difference in salary was just enough to sign Rubio and keep Oubre.
Provided Oubre is back with the Suns, they’ll have one open roster spot remaining on their 15-man regular-season roster, plus a pair of Two-Way spots. The clearest need is on the forward line, particularly at power forward.
Saric should be the team’s starter, Frank Kaminsky should draw some minutes there and Oubre can play up if needed, but trying to find an actual four to fill out the roster would be smart. Then again, that seemed like it could have been Jackson’s role in small-ball lineups, but the 6’8″, 200lb swingman never fully latched on due to highly inefficient play and then ran into reported off-court issues this summer.
Still, it’s never a great look when a perennial lottery team is essentially salary-dumping its former No. 4 pick just two years later.
The Suns only have the minimum to offer, but there are some options available who would make sense: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Brooklyn Nets) and Trey Lyles (Denver Nuggets) are both young players who may just need a change of scenery to show what they can do. RHJ can’t shoot but is a nice rebounder-defender-hustler, while Lyles has some post and mid-range moves and the bigger frame, albeit far less defensive fluidity.
If Oubre receives an outlandish offer sheet in restricted free agency and the Suns don’t wish to match, then they’ll have another roster spot to fill but a lot more money to use.
In that situation, they’d be left with nearly $10.4 million to finish building the roster, all of which should be used on the wing and forward spots. Oubre’s exit would leave them even thinner in those positions than they already are, but having more money to spend means they can target some non-minimum signings to fill them.
The Suns have their two franchise players with Booker’s scoring and Ayton’s five-tool center potential.
It’s up to them to build around those guys and put a competitive team on the floor that can entice future free agents to join them. One can see that idea here, forming around Rubio’s passing, Saric’s “glue-guy” starter role, Oubre’s slashing, (perhaps) Johnson’s shooting and Mikal Bridges’ athleticism, led by Williams’ underrated tutelage.
But they just don’t look to be on a discernible trajectory yet, though maybe that’s because we’ve seen this type of Phoenix reboot so many times before since the Mike D’Antoni era ended more than a decade ago.
The Western Conference is absolutely loaded with playoff teams, and unless a number of players make a leap in 2019-20, the Suns will be on the outside looking in once again.
Though maybe they’re finally inching closer to opening a window.
Jeff Siegel comes to your computer screen from San Diego, where he laments the lack of an NBA team while sitting on the beach in 72-degree weather year-round. So maybe it’s not that bad.