Phoenix became a destination this offseason, where future Hall of Famers and valuable complementary players wanted to be in 2020-21.
As Jae Crowder considered his next NBA venture, Devin Booker and Chris Paul made an irrefusable pitch.
Crowder, then a free agent who had most recently started in the Finals for the Miami Heat, believed Booker was ready for the “real pressure” of postseason basketball. The decorated resume of the recently acquired Paul spoke for itself.
“I was just able to make the decision just solely off of me envisioning myself (in Phoenix),” Crowder said, “and me wanting to help an organization get to playing playoff basketball again.”
Crowder’s interest, Booker said, exemplified the shift in Phoenix’s reputation that has been spearheaded by James Jones and Monty Williams, and fueled by the Suns’ 8-0 Bubble finish to last season and promising returning talent. Jones echoed “there wasn’t a lot of convincing I had to do” as general manager with targeted free agents during an abbreviated offseason.
Phoenix became a destination, where future Hall of Famers and valuable complementary players wanted to be. Fourteen teams reached out to Crowder, for instance, and he chose the Suns.
“After what we’ve been through for the past five to 10 years, I think that’s a step forward for this organization,” said Booker, the Suns’ All-Star and longest-tenured player. “People really see something’s brewing over here. I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, but I think already this is a big step for this organization, and it’s perfect timing. …
“It’s a great culture around here, and it’s still building. That’s what we’re working at every day is keep building the culture (and) keep making this facility, this locker room, a place that guys want to come and keep getting better. Because this is fun for us.”
Jones has retooled this team’s makeup to propel expectations even higher for 2020-21, which begins with Saturday’s preseason opener at Utah airing at 7 p.m. on FOX Sports Arizona. He merged the Suns’ young core with respected veterans and players with versatile skills, who will contribute to winning immediately and to the franchise’s long-term vision.
These “Suns fits,” as Jones likes to say, accomplish the following:
* Add proven players with experience with winning, and as “productive teammates.”
Chris Paul, a 10-time All-Star point guard and one of the best players of this generation, is the obvious headliner. But Crowder played in the Finals two months ago. E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway have earned high praise from former teammates and coaches. Big man Damian Jones was a two-time NBA champion with Golden State at the beginning of his career.
“We wanted guys that wouldn’t be afraid of the moment,” Jones said, “and that have proven that they can make big plays when it matters.”
Added third-year big man Deandre Ayton: “They’ve already been through all of this that we’re about to go through (as a team this season). They already know what’s ahead. They already know how to handle whatever’s coming our way. … Just having that experience and having people on the team to sit us down as companions and not coaches — but as players and teammates, as brothers — it’s a whole new ballgame.”
* Improve outside shooting, a premium skill for Jones and in the modern NBA.
Moore’s 3-point percentage in each of the past three seasons (all with three or more attempts per game): 37.7 in 2019-20, 43.2 in 2018-19 and 42.5 in 2017-18. Galloway, meanwhile, shot 39.9 percent on five attempts per game last season, a number that ranked in the top 35 among all NBA players.
Crowder’s accuracy from beyond the arc shot up to 44.5 percent on 6.4 attempts per game after he was traded from Memphis to Miami, a product of being encouraged to let it fly when open, he said.
Paul, meanwhile, is a career 37 percent 3-point shooter.
“I’ve been very clear about the types of players that we value and the skills and traits that we look for when we’re trying to build our team,” Jones said.
* Increase depth for this unique NBA season.
When asked about this roster’s talent, returning big man Dario Saric marveled that there are “10, 11, 12 guys, 13 maybe, who can really play in every moment, who can start.”
Depth is always important during the grind of an NBA season. But with the coronavirus still “running rampant,” as Williams described, and teams preparing for a condensed 72-game season, having quality players up and down the roster is even more paramount.
Playing outside of a Bubble and traveling from market to market naturally increases the chance Suns players will test positive at some point during the season, leading to missed on-court time. Nine back-to-back sets before the All-Star break also mean reserves could receive more opportunities while higher rotation players keep their bodies fresh. The skill versatility within that depth provides Williams with the flexibility to play a bevy of different lineup combinations, with players complementing each other on offense and guarding multiple positions on defense.
Depth also inspires internal competition, organically raising everybody’s level of play. Williams said he is particularly looking forward to how the battles for the backup-guard minutes unfold.
“It forces us, as coaches, to put guys in a position where they can be their best, so nobody can say they didn’t get a shot,” Williams said. “ … I’ll say this about the guys we have here: They don’t run from competition. That’s something that we value when you look at our roster, the way it’s constructed. We love guys that compete.”
* Add players who could easily integrate with the core.
The Suns established an identity in Williams’ first season. They installed the “0.5” offense predicated on rapid ball movement and decision-making. They stressed relentless effort on both ends of the floor. They fostered an everyday culture of selflessness and accountability.
Jones and Williams wanted to add players who could easily mesh, especially during this truncated season with less practice time. However, Williams is also open to catering to those newcomers’ strengths.
“I learned from ‘Pop’ (legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) years ago, if you have rules that stifle talent, you need to change the rules,” Williams said. “The process of learning who they are while implementing what we do is something that we cannot mess with. …
“I was pretty direct with all of the guys that we signed and traded for about how we play. But I also told them I’m willing to learn from them and grow, so that they can help our program.”
Here is a breakdown of the Suns’ 2020-21 roster:
2019-20 stats: 17.6 points, 6.7 assists, five rebounds, 1.6 steals per game, 48.9/36.5/90.7 shooting splits (with Oklahoma City)
Second-team All-NBA, All-Star
Paul has been an elite playmaker, defender and leader for 15 seasons — and is still producing at that level. He is a master at manipulating defenses in the pick and roll and operating in the midrange, finding space to score or set up teammates.
Williams, who coached Paul in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season, and new teammates have already highlighted Paul’s commanding presence, and how he makes everybody better both on and off the court.
“He’s a guy that he expects greatness out of us,” Booker said of Paul. “ … We can all learn from Chris in that way, of being vocal and letting people know where they need to be. Competing with people and doing it with love, doing it with care.
“Not doing it with intentions of showing somebody that they messed up, but intention to really get better and learn and not make the same mistakes again.”
2019-20 stats: 10.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 40.1/34.3/77.6 shooting splits (with Memphis and Miami)
Crowder is an immediate contender to start at power forward. His toughness and physicality allow him guard all five positions, including matching up against superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. Additionally, Williams likes the way Crowder can shoot and move the ball as a passer, making him ideal to play in the Suns’ offensive system.
Crowder also relishes the opportunity to impart wisdom on young wings Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. That’s paying it forward, he said, after he entered the league on a Dallas Mavericks team with Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter before continuing to play in winning cultures in Boston, Utah and Miami.
“I embrace that role,” he said. “Because who am I to take that game from those Hall of Famers and just keep it to myself? I want to do the same thing. I want to help the next guy.”
2019-20 stats: 8.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists per game, 42.6/37.7/68.9 shooting splits (with New Orleans)
Moore was most recently a spark off the bench for the Pelicans, with the versatility to play either guard spot or small forward. No matter the position, he will be a long-range shooting threat.
“That’s’ the thing, I’m comfortable everywhere,” he said. “… No matter what the team needs at any point, I can come in and help fill that void.”
2019-20 stats: 10.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists per game, 43.5/39.9/85.9 shooting splits (with Detroit)
Galloway was a key reserve for the Pistons, providing knock-down shooting and hustle plays such as diving on the floor and pressuring ballhandlers for the full length of the court. When asked about his mentality, he said, “first and foremost, defense. And secondly, also.”
2019-20 stats: 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks per game, 53.8/36.8/75 shooting splits (at Maryland)
The 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft is a big man with the unique ability to block shots, run the floor and shoot from 3-point range. Read more about Smith’s upbringing and journey to the NBA in this in-depth profile.
2019-20 stats: 5.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.7 blocks per game, 68 percent from floor (with Atlanta)
Jones was drafted in 2016 by the Warriors, then immediately immersed in an organization that won two consecutive titles. Williams called the 6-foot-11, 245-pound Jones a “freak athlete,” noting he “gave us trouble last year with his size and ability to put pressure on the rim” for Atlanta.
2019-20 stats: 6.3 points, 1.8 rebounds, 0.7 assists per game, 46.8/37.5/77.3 shooting splits (with Oklahoma City)
Nader was part of the trade that brought Paul to Phoenix. So it’s high praise when Paul calls Nader “a consummate team player.”
“He’s gonna do whatever Coach asks him to do,” Paul said of Nader. “If that’s defending the best player, he’s gonna run hard, he’s gonna compete. And he can really shoot it.”
2019-20 stats: 16.9 points, five rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals per game, 43.1/39.9/86 shooting splits (with Creighton)
The undrafted rookie guard joined the Suns on a two-way contract after earning first-team All-Big East honors last season.
2019-20 stats: 26.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds per game, 48.9/35.4/91.9 shooting splits
Booker's consistent development culminated with his best NBA season in 2019-20, making his first All-Star appearance while using historically efficient shooting to score from all over the floor. He was also a reliable playmaker, an improved defender and one of the league’s best performers in the Bubble seeding games.
“There’s a few things that are sort of going to draw you to a person, depending on what you have in common,” Paul said of Booker. “I love basketball. I love to be in the gym. Love to hoop. (I’m a) gym rat. Book is like that.”
2019-20 stats: 18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 blocks per game, 54.6 field-goal percentage
The former No. 1 overall pick flashed progress in a limited second season. He recorded 23 double-doubles in 38 games and exhibiting significant improvement as a defensive rim protector.
Ayton is downright giddy to play with Paul, whose synergy with big men in the pick and roll often ends with a lob and thunderous finish. And though Ayton has worked on his 3-point shot and expects periodic opportunities to let it fly while trailing in transition, he believes the proven shooters added to the roster should give him more room to operate inside.
“(There’s) gonna be a lot of space to dunk on people,” Ayton said. “To really go by people, to really work what I want to work on. … I’ve got dudes on the team that are really certified snipers, and I’m so blessed to have so much space on that floor.”
2019-20 stats: 9.1 points, four rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 steals per game, 51/36.1/84.4 shooting splits
Bridges has solidified himself as an important piece of this young core, thanks to his outside shooting, off-ball cutting and lockdown perimeter defense. Many expect the rangy, intelligent wing to be a contender for All-Defensive honors in his third season.
“Anytime you play 1-on-1, you’ll notice his positioning when he plays defense,” Johnson said. “He never gets out of position. Just, never. I’m like, ‘How do you do this?’ So you watch what he does. You watch how he anticipates passing lanes.”
2019-20 stats: 8.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists per game, 43.5/39/80.7 shooting splits
Johnson is coming off an impressive rookie season. He lived up to his reputation as a lethal long-range shooter. He took advantage of the season’s extended hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, using the time to increase his strength and improve defensively and with the ball in his hands.
That was on display in the Bubble, starting at power forward and recording the first two double-doubles of his career during those eight games.
“The Bubble for me, personally, was really about focus and just trying to contribute in any way I can,” Johnsons said. “I’m looking forward to just keeping on taking those same steps going into (this) year.”
2019-20 stats: 10.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists per game, 47.6/35.7/84.4 shooting splits
Saric re-signed a multiyear contract with the Suns, after filling many roles during his first season in Phoenix. He most thrived in the Bubble, where he was an offensive punch off the bench who shot from beyond the arc, moved the ball as a “connector” and battled for rebounds and inside buckets while playing as a small-ball center.
“I will kind of adjust to every situation, what coaches put in front of me,” Saric said. “If they want me to come off the bench, to be productive from the bench, I will try to do that. If they want for me to start and play in the first unit, I will do that.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on me (by telling myself), ‘It’s better if you start’ or ‘It’s better if you’re coming from the bench.’ … I will just be happy to have minutes and play hard on the court.”
Saric said, as a restricted free agent, his “first wish was to stay with the Suns.” He appreciated that Phoenix traded for him on Draft Night in 2019, and wanted to build on playing for the same coaching staff and with the same teammates.
2019-20 stats: 4.9 points, two rebounds, 1.4 assists per game, 41.6/42.5/85.2 shooting splits
Carter also re-signed multiyear contract with Phoenix, saying “it just felt like family here” after the Suns traded for Carter in the summer of 2019. Carter is a tenacious on-ball defender, an improved outside shooter and one of the team’s biggest vocal leaders.
“JC’s motor, his ability to bring juice every single day is something that I value,” Williams said.
When asked about the importance of re-signing Saric and Carter, Williams said “huge is an understatement.”
“Dario and JC are culture-drivers,” Williams said. “They’re really good basketball players, and I felt like we needed continuity. … When (Jones and I) sat down and talked about the moves we had to make once we made the trade (for Paul), those two guys were at the top of the list as far as guys we had in-house.”
2019-20 stats: 10.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, three assists, one steal per game, 48.5/51.7/85.7 shooting splits (eight games)
Payne was a massive Bubble success story, joining the Suns in the summer after spending the bulk of last season playing in China and the G League. The 2015 lottery pick provided an off-the-bench “jolt of energy,” Jones said, making timely 3-pointers and nifty plays with the ball while teaming up with Carter to create a disruptive defensive backcourt.
“He gave us something dynamically that we didn’t have,” Jones said. “I look at the Bubble as being a platform for him to continue to develop.”
2019-20 stats: 9.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists per game; 45/33.1/67.8 shooting splits
After a brief departure from the Suns, Kaminsky was claimed off waivers just before the regular season began. Kaminsky was a long-range shooting threat and strong passer as a stretch-big for a chunk of last season, before going down with a stress fracture in his kneecap in late December 2019.
"Frank is a guy that knows our system," Williams said. "He knows what we do. ... We thought it would be a good idea to bring someone back that knows how we play, how we operate, just to help with all the newness that we have here. Frank was good for us before he went down last year, and we haven't forgotten that."