The Phoenix Suns postseason drought stretched to nine consecutive seasons as they finished with the second-worst record in franchise history at 19-63. After firing General Manager Ryan McDonough on the eve of the season, Phoenix went through the year with a front office by committee approach. Shortly after the season, the Suns handed the GM title over to James Jones, who is just two years removed from being an active NBA player. The Suns also hired front office veteran Jeff Bower to assist Jones, who is only two years removed from being an active player. Now it’s up to Jones to get a rebuild back on track that has already stretched at least twice as long as anyone expected.
The first decision Jones made was to remove Igor Kokoskov as head coach. Whoever Jones hires will become the team’s seventh head coach since the 12-13 season tipped off. During that period, only Jeff Hornacek made it through as many as two full seasons on the Suns sideline. It’s important that Jones and Phoenix nail this hire, as this coach will be tasked with developing a mixed bag of young talent.
After years of high draft picks for the Suns, Jones is building around some interesting pieces. Franchise centerpiece Devin Booker signed a contract extension last offseason that will start with the 19-20 season. Booker has proven to be one of the NBA’s best offensive weapons, but a player that needs help.
That’s where last year’s first round picks DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges come in. After some predictable early struggles, Ayton showed off his elite offensive skills. He averaged 16.3 points per game on 58.5% shooting from the field. His defense needs work, but he showed a better understanding of how to play in an NBA scheme as the season went along. And Ayton’s already a potentially elite rebounder, as he snagged 10.3 rebounds per game and finished in the top-20 in both offensive and defensive rebound rate.
Bridges took longer to come around, but after becoming a starter around the holidays, he showed a lot of positive signs of development. He played in all 82 games and was one of the Suns better perimeter defenders. Bridges needs work on offense, but he’s a good ball-mover and shot 33.5% from behind the arc as a rookie.
Phoenix needs the trio of Booker, Ayton and Bridges to blossom together, because the rest of the roster doesn’t have a ton of promise. Josh Jackson took a step backwards in his sophomore season. T.J. Warren is fine, but he’s best suited to a reserve role and, more importantly, he can’t stay healthy. Dragan Bender has completely washed out and had his fourth year rookie scale option declined. Marquese Chriss is long-since gone. And there still isn’t a starting-caliber point guard to speak of on the roster.
Finding a point guard, or the lack thereof, was reportedly one of the things that got McDonough fired. It’s priority number one for Jones this summer. Tyler Johnson, who was acquired from the Miami Heat, at the trade deadline, will almost certainly pick up his $19.2 million player option. While that’s a major overpay for Johnson, it’s an expiring contract and he’s fine as a bridge player for Phoenix at the lead guard spot.
The Suns have two young options on the roster in De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo, but neither seems like a starting point guard in the NBA. Melton has some playmaking skills, but seems best suited to a combo-guard role off the bench. Okobo shows some promise, but will likely cap out as a backup due in part to his offensive limitations.
That leaves Phoenix looking for a backcourt partner for Booker, ideally someone to form a long-term pairing. Fortunately for the Suns, there is such a player available in the 2019 NBA Draft in Ja Morant. Morant set the basketball world a flutter with his breakout performance in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. He’s got terrific all-around skills and is a competitive defender. He’s not a pure shooter, but his overall skill set should pair nicely with Booker’s shooting/scoring game.
Of course, if Phoenix moves up to the first overall pick in the draft via some lottery luck, they’ll draft Zion Williamson, who would become the frontcourt partner for Ayton for the next decade or so. If the Suns slide down the board in the lottery, they’ll be looking at adding another wing, likely R.J. Barrett or Cameron Reddish. Barrett’s all-around game would fit in well with Booker and Bridges to from a promising wing trio. Reddish struggled through his lone season at Duke, but still has fans with his combination of size and shooting ability.
Where the Suns land on the draft board will likely help decide on their course for free agency this summer. The biggest decision point is with restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre was acquired in mid-December when the Suns gave up on offseason signing Trevor Ariza. After some confusing and comical misunderstandings with the Memphis Grizzlies about which Brooks (Dillon or MarShon) Phoenix was acquiring, a three-team trade between the Suns, Grizzlies and Washington Wizards fell apart. Phoenix and Washington instead linked up on a two-team deal that sent Oubre to the Suns.
In 40 games with the Suns, Oubre played some of the best basketball of his career. He scored 16.9 points per game and shot a career-best 45.3% from the floor. The challenge, as it always seems to be with Phoenix, is duplication of players at the same position. The Suns have Bridges, Jackson and Warren already in the same spot as Oubre, and all three of them are locked in for at least the next two seasons. And, if Phoenix drops in the draft and can’t select Morant, they’ll be looking at adding yet another forward to that group.
That makes Oubre’s situation the tipping point. With his $9.6 million cap hold on the books, along with the Suns guaranteed money, Phoenix is over the cap. If the Suns decide the forward spot is simply too crowded, they could look for a sign and trade for Oubre to get help at another position. Or they could simply let him walk and have about $17 million in cap space to work with. The draft position, and the ability to draft Morant, will have a lot to say about Oubre’s future in Phoenix.
No matter what happens, it’s going to be another year of rebuilding for the Suns. They don’t have enough cap space to make a major splash in free agency. The best hope is to add a point guard of the future to pair with Booker, and let the young core grow together. The logjam at forward will work itself out over the next year or so. It’s been a while since Phoenix has been in the playoffs, and that’s going to continue, but there are some glimmers of hope for the first time in a while. That’s at least something to latch onto for the Suns.
Guaranteed Contracts (7): DeAndre Ayton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, T.J. Warren
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (0): None
Potential Free Agents (9): Dragan Bender (UFA), Jamal Crawford (UFA), Troy Daniels (UFA), Jimmer Fredette (UFA – Team Option), Richaun Holmes (UFA), Tyler Johnson (UFA – Player Option), George King (RFA – Two-Way), Kelly Oubre Jr. (RFA), Ray Spalding (RFA – Team Option)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #3
Maximum Cap Space: $42.8 million
Projected Cap Space: None. $9.4 million over