2018-19 Phoenix Suns
Projected Record: 26-56 (14th in West)
2016: 21-61 (15th in West)
- DeAndre Ayton (Pick #1)
- Mikal Bridges (Trade — Pick #10)
- Elie Okobo (Pick #31)
- George King (Pick #59)
- De’Anthony Melton (Trade)
- Ryan Anderson (Trade)
- Richaun Holmes (Trade)
- Darrell Arthur (Trade)
- Trevor Ariza (Free Agency)
- Marquese Chriss
- Alex Len
- Jared Dudley
- Brandon Knight
- Elfrid Payton
- Tyler Ulis
- Alan Williams
- Young upside
- Offensive potential
- Wing depth
- Defensive talent is uncertain
- Booker needs to make the superstar leap
The Phoenix Suns are a franchise undergoing an identity crisis. Three straight seasons with a winning percentage under 30% paint the picture of a team mired in the midst of a brutal rebuild, and the roster reflects it — well-stocked with high-upside lottery picks, but seemingly poorly positioned to win games right now. The front office — or at least, what remains of it after ownership purged Ryan McDonough and most of his assistants — seems to think differently. Trading Zhaire Smith and a valuable future draft pick for Mikal Bridges, signing effective-but-33-year-old two-way wing Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract and trading 21-year-old Marquese Chriss for Houston’s Ryan Anderson are the kinds of moves you make when you think you can win right now, not ones you make to support an ongoing rebuild, to say nothing of their reported interest in point guards like Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and Terry Rozier.
Wanting to contend is one thing, but actually contending is another. The cost of a Western Conference playoff spot last season was a whopping 48 wins, and things could be even tougher now with LeBron James having switched coasts. It’s hard to fathom exactly how the Suns work their way into the picture, even if they manage to add a player like Lillard — whose playoff position is far from secure as it is, even on a more talented Portland Trail Blazers roster.
The flaws in Phoenix’s roster start with the defense. Ariza is a longtime standout, of course, but there’s little else to get especially excited about here. Youngsters Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton have upside, but it’s simply difficult for young players to have a consistent, positive defensive impact right away. Meanwhile, the two most important players on the roster come with significant concerns of their own: Devin Booker’s defense can best be described as “sieve-like,” and Ayton showed very little defensive aptitude during his time at Arizona, despite his immense physical tools. Ryan Anderson, Dragan Bender, T.J. Warren — Phoenix is just short on guys you can really count on for consistent stops on this roster. Tyson Chandler ain’t exactly a spring chicken.
On the other end of the floor, there’s a bit more good news. This unit should be decently improved from their last-place rank in offensive rating last season. The Chriss trade removes one low-efficiency chucker from the mix, while Ariza and Anderson will step in as reliable spot-up shooters immediately. Jackson can hardly be worse than he was as a rookie, and his skillset suggests likely improvement — in particular, he was an effective passer during his time at Kansas, and I would expect new coach Igor Kokoškov to involve him more as a facilitator, considering the team’s deficit at the point. Bender is an interesting, stretchy seven-footer who improved dramatically from Year One to Year Two, and feels like a sneaky candidate for Most Improved Player, while rookie Élie Okobo has professional experience with Élan Béarnais and looks like a potentially advanced pick-and-roll ball handler.
Then there’s Ayton, arguably the most important building block for this franchise. The Suns clearly love him, as they never seemed to really consider anyone else with the top overall pick, not even Kokoškov’s former Slovenian pupil Luka Dončić. Some will argue their faith was misplaced — Dončić is the more accomplished prospect, Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. the more well-rounded one — but Ayton’s upside is undeniably immense. He’s the most physically gifted frontcourt prospect since Shaq, with the skills to back it up. He scored 20 points per game for the Wildcats last season on outrageous efficiency, with a 65% true shooting percentage on a hefty 26.6% usage rate. Ayton snagged nearly 12 rebounds per game — 3.4 offensive — and even canned 34% of his threes. The potential sum of his skills is nearly unprecedented at the NBA level.
And yet, it’s not quite all there. He was a step slow with his defensive rotations and didn’t seem to have a good grasp of when and how to contest shots. His effort on both ends came and went all season long. He managed only 14 points in Arizona’s first-round defeat to Buffalo. You never quite felt like he was dominating the way it you’d think a player like him arguably should. Ayton was pretty good at just about everything offensively, but what was he great at? Does he have one bankable skill?
The Suns’ aggressive pursuit of immediate contention stands to gain them very little, and cost them quite a bit. They’ve already lost a valuable asset in the Miami pick they shipped out for Bridges, and a subsequent trade for a star point guard will take even more. Is such a direction worth it if it yields 42 wins and the 10-seed in the Western Conference? I’ve never been one to argue that teams should pass on the opportunity to win games, but when you’ve already spent three consecutive seasons losing tons of games, it feels like you should see the rebuild out to its natural conclusion.
Most Valuable Player: Devin Booker
You know that trope in superhero stories, where someone critical of the hero argues that supervillains never would have existed if the superhero hadn’t created them? Devin Booker is that, but for the basketball analytics community. He’s the Joker to RPM’s Batman, and how you feel about him can say quite a bit about how you consume the NBA from a fan perspective.
For casual fans and the “eye test” crowd, Booker checks every box. He piles on the counting stats (he’ll probably average 25-5-5 this season), drains a Kobe-esque collection of pull-up jumpers and once scored 70 points in a game. He LOOKS the part of a traditional NBA superstar, and that satisfies a lot of people.
From the reverse side, Booker has never really impressed in terms of modern NBA analytics. Despite his scoring prowess, the Suns have consistently been one of the worst offenses in basketball, and prior to last season, his offensive game was merely okay from an efficiency standpoint. Last season was by far the best year of his career, and the Suns were only 0.7 points worse per 100 possessions with him off the court. Real Plus-Minus ranked him only 38th among NBA shooting guards last season, below standouts like, uhh, Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe.
The disconnect is clear, and polarizing. Many people consider Booker a GREAT player, and many consider him an AWFUL one. There’s little in-between.
I like Booker, overall. His efficiency did take an encouraging step forward last year, and he also blossomed as a passer and offensive initiator. I’m intrigued by the potential of wing-heavy Suns lineups featuring Booker as the “point guard” and primary facilitator — something like Booker/Mikal Bridges/Josh Jackson/Trevor Ariza/DeAndre Ayton. He’s also only going to be 22 years old this season.
That said, Booker is also deeply flawed. He’s a simply miserable perimeter defender despite his size; he plays much smaller than his 6’8″ wingspan would suggest. His shot selection remains terrible, to say the least; nearly 50% of his shot attempts were classified as pull-ups by NBA Stats, a mind-boggling number, and he shot worse than 40% from the field on those attempts. In contrast, he shot 42% on catch-and-shoot jumpers (mostly threes) and 59% at the rim. Imagine if those were the bulk of his attempts.
At any rate, if there’s one rule I’ve learned to abide by during my time around NBA Twitter, it’s this: never get into a debate about Devin Booker. People get FIRED UP about Devin Booker. It’s just not worth it, trust me.
X Factor: Josh Jackson
I saw a little bit of Andre Iguodala in Jackson’s Kansas tape, and while I don’t believe he’s quite going to hit that level, I still see it as a reasonable comparison for his upside. Jackson is a plus athlete, and in college, he was a polished and versatile defender — the kind the NBA can’t get enough of right now. At worst, he should be able to defend two through four as a pro before long. Trevor Ariza will serve as a valuable mentor.
It’s on the offensive side of things that Jackson looks a little concerning. The Suns tried to push him into a primary scoring role alongside franchise player Devin Booker, and Jackson quickly showed he was miscast in such a role. The jumper that had been a question mark since Kansas seemingly took a step further backward — he made a brutal 26% of his three-pointers on the season. While he looked like a plus passer for a wing player in college, he managed only 2.2 assists per 36 minutes as a rookie. Nothing quite worked.
The Suns need better from Jackson if they’re going to accomplish their long-shot odds at a Western Conference Playoff team. Short of that, Jackson still needs to display serious growth — and keep his head on straight — to justify Phoenix’s faith in him as the fourth overall pick in his draft. Modern NBA success starts on the wings, and Jackson should be the kind of guy teams want for that reason — he just needs to prove it.
Don’t Forget About: Élie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton
As I mentioned above, the Suns have been aggressive in their pursuit of a star-caliber point guard to fit into their starting lineup. While the point may be their thinnest position in the grand scheme of things, I would argue that it isn’t as much of a position of need as they might believe, thanks to their pair of intriguing rookies.
Okobo is an international prospect who will enter the NBA with three seasons and one All-Star appearance in France already under his belt, and I would have argued strongly for taking him much closer to the lottery. He’s already an advanced pick-and-roll ball handler at 21 years old, and a bona fide bucket-getter who can shoot the lights out from behind the arc — he hit nearly 40% of his threes in his final season in France. He burst onto the NBA Draft radar after a 44-point explosion in the first round of the playoffs.
Then there’s Melton, who could be the thunder to Okobo’s lightning. There’s a case to be made that Melton was actually the most valuable player to change hands in the Anderson-Chriss swap, and I’m certainly fine with making it. He’s a defensive pitbull with the size to cover either guard spot — the kind of player who can just fill gaps in any lineup. There’s a little Marcus Smart to him, and any team can use a guy like that. Melton may not be a particularly useful scorer at this point in time, but the Suns have scoring in spades; they need guys who bring a defensive edge, and that’s who Melton is.
Okobo and Melton aren’t going to contribute consistently in their first seasons — few rookies do — and that doesn’t necessarily fit with the Suns’ apparent desire for immediate contention. From the standpoint of a franchise in the middle of a rebuild, though, the duo certainly brings some intriguing potential.
Sean Highkin, Bleacher Report + Dime Magazine (@highkin)
After several years of near-complete futility, the Suns are going for it. Going for what, exactly, isn’t clear, but they’re going for something. A team looking to keep tanking doesn’t sign Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million deal or trade for Ryan Anderson and the $20 million per year he’s owed for the next two seasons. Those are moves (now-former) GM Ryan McDonough made because he wants to make the playoffs for the first time since the end of the Amar’e Stoudemire era in 2010. But that goal is entirely unrealistic for 2018-19, especially with the Western Conference even more loaded than it was last year with the arrival of LeBron James in Los Angeles.
So where does that leave the Suns? They’ll win more games than last year’s 21, but not many more. New head coach Igor Kokoskov is well-regarded for his work as an assistant with the Jazz and as the coach of the Slovenian national team. In rising star Devin Booker, second-year forward Josh Jackson and lottery picks Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, they even have the makings of what usually gets called a “promising young core” when it’s a team that hasn’t won anything in this long. Booker just inked a five-year, $158 million extension, and last week underwent hand surgery that will likely cost him all of training camp and maybe even the beginning of the regular season.
In the short term, their win total might jump from the low-20s to the high-20s or low-30s. Ariza and Anderson, brought in to be veteran mentors and calming locker-room presences, have late-February buyout written all over them, as does Tyson Chandler, who, in case you forgot, is still in Phoenix somehow. Assuming Booker’s hand injury isn’t a long-term concern, the Suns are poised to take the next step, which is going from a bottom-feeder to a team with enough intriguing young talent to make people say, “Watch out for these guys in a few years.” There is a long way to go before we know if any of that hope for the future will come to fruition.