With young core and plenty of assets, time is ripe for Suns to begin makeover
When the losses begin to multiply and the burden makes your knees buckle, and the playoffs are too far away to see without a squint, and attendance at home games has fallen right along with the hopes, the season is just about done.
But it’s not lost.
Actually, the Phoenix Suns, currently magnetized to the bottom of the West with no elevator in sight, can be a big player, and given their situation, should be a big player at the trade deadline this month. Yes, while the championship contenders are aiming for June, the Suns need to figure a way to win February and do it smashingly, so they won’t be in this position this time next year.
They may lack the pieces to compete for titles but have ample assets to swap at the right price, making them the ultimate sellers. And if general manager Ryan McDonough can play his cards right, the Suns can turn themselves around fairly quickly while holding onto their ace, which of course is Devin Booker, perhaps the best 20-and-under player in basketball.
There really isn’t a debate about whether the Suns should make deals. That’s fairly obvious, even if technically they’re seven games out of the last playoff spot; they’d have to leapfrog a half-dozen teams in a miraculous push. Therefore: What do they have to lose? They’re 15-33, second-worst in the league behind the Brooklyn Nets, and their attention is understandably being diverted at least partially toward next season and beyond. It’s a familiar position for a team with only one winning season and no playoff appearances since 2010. Once a model franchise under the guidance of Jerry Colangelo, the Suns are an off-radar organization troubled by recent drafts that rated inconsistent at best and the absence of a significant addition through a trade or free agency besides Eric Bledsoe.
Gone are the days of Mike D’Antoni and the seven-seconds-or-less offense that rolled up the score and was fun to watch. Their last All-Star was Steve Nash in 2011, who was also the last Suns player to lead the league in any positive statistical category. Since those heady days, the Suns have seen their wins, fans, national presence and credibility dwindle. If staring at the bottom of the West, which the Suns are currently doing, doesn’t qualify as a crash, what does?
And so: The time is right, and ripe, for the Suns to begin a makeover by taking a hard look at the roster and sending out proposals the next few weeks.
The good news is that, for a team that’s struggling, the Suns aren’t in bad shape. They’ve got assets, enough to get the attention of at least a half-dozen teams, enough to fetch draft picks and/or rotation players in return. With a good February, and then a solid June during the draft, followed up by an encouraging July in free agency — admittedly, that’s asking a lot — Phoenix can feel reasonably good about itself come October at training camp.
First up: Tyson Chandler.
He’s among the league rebounding leaders, still a reliable rim protector and above all, a solid locker room guy with championship credentials. Which means, he’d be a catch for a handful of contenders looking for that missing piece and interior defensive presence.
He also turns 35 this fall, which means if he’s still on the Suns by then, they blew their best chance to move him for a decent price. By next season, he could run smack into the old-age wall and his production could fall off a cliff. Who’d want him then?
Suns coach Earl Watson wants Chandler to stay in Phoenix, partly because Chandler makes Watson’s job easier. He’s a major influence around the young players, especially Booker, and provides a respected voice and presence on the floor.
“He has the same voice every day, and that is invaluable,” Watson said. “I love Tyson Chandler. Tyson wants to be part of this process.”
“I love Tyson Chandler. Tyson wants to be part of this process.”
— Phoenix coach Earl Watson
Good news for the Suns: Watson isn’t calling the shots. Chandler might be more valuable to the Suns on another team. His contract has two years and $26 million left, which is good value in today’s crazy dollars, and wouldn’t frighten off many teams, especially those built to win now. He’s better than any big man on the Warriors, for example. He’d also help the Celtics, Raptors and maybe the Rockets (D’Antoni coached him in New York). If the Suns could get a mid- or late-first rounder, that’s worth a discussion.
There’s also PJ Tucker, a tough-minded defender and rebounder. His contract is up this summer and the Suns could look in another direction. Therefore, why keep him on the roster for two meaningless months and get nothing for him this summer? Again, like Chandler, Tucker brings a strong voice to a young team and Phoenix needs his type around. And yet, there’s also a strong case for the Suns getting whatever they can for him now.
The Suns have a pair of starting-quality point guards in Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and also a tough call as well. They’d rather keep Bledsoe, who’s having his finest season (21 points, six assists). But Bledsoe’s talent and contract (two years, $29 million remaining) make him more attractive to teams than Knight. In any event, point guard isn’t a position of demand in the NBA, since most teams are blessed with one.
Finally, the Suns could roll the dice on one of their two young bigs, Alex Len and Dragan Bender, neither of whom have shown enormous promise just yet. The risk is watching them soar in another uniform. But with rookie power forward Marquese Chriss giving hints of being a solid player, the Suns can sacrifice Bender or Len in a package that brings back a solid player.
The Suns own all of their No. 1 picks plus a pair of future No. 1s from Miami in the Goran Dragic deal. The only team that can put together a better package of young players and picks for trades is Boston, which is why the Suns are a potential destination for DeMarcus Cousins if the Kings are ready to move on.
The obvious goal for the Suns is keeping the core of Bledsoe, Chriss and Booker and then adding to that. Their low payroll (25th out of 30) gives them flexibility for now and the near future, which provides for a better chance to make difficult trades and conducting discussions with free agents.
If McDonough can get creative with trade proposals and jump-start the process of remaking this team, he can breathe life into this franchise by the trade deadline. It’s the best way to salvage the season. A handful of contenders might take a closer look at their needs and realize the road to the championship goes through Phoenix first.
The Suns should have no problem helping another team win big now, if a trade or two makes Phoenix better in the long run. That’s where the focus should be, down the road, not 2016-17. This season isn’t a nightmare, but this is: The Suns don’t want to wake up one day in the future in a cold sweat and realize they’re wasting Booker’s prime years.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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