The improved Phoenix Suns have real players and nowhere to go but up

Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images /

The Phoenix Suns have been an NBA laughingstock for nearly a decade. Despite an odd offseason, this team may actually wind up being among the league’s most improved.

For the better part of a decade now, the Phoenix Suns have been one of the NBA’s biggest jokes. They’ve missed the playoffs nine straight years, failed to win 30 games for four straight seasons, whiffed on countless draft picks and, if none of that was bad enough, every step of the way has been wrought with embarrassing headlines, unwatchable games and unending drama.

There’s been thrown towels, fired coaches and shatting office goats; trade requests, triple-point guard lineups and nail salon tweets. Making fun of an easy target like the Suns would be the best way to build up easy clout on Twitter, but they’ve actually become so irrelevant the jokes have lost their luster.

Like all good gags in the social media age, this franchise is one joke that’s been ridden into the ground. Luckily for the Suns, it might finally be time to retire as the league laughingstock and finally get this rebuild off the ground.

That, of course, is easier said than done, especially after a heavily panned offseason that saw Phoenix trade down from pick No. 6 to No. 11 only to pass up on a potential terrific long-term fit with Deandre Ayton (Brandon Clarke) for the biggest reach of the draft (Cameron Johnson); ship off a useful scorer in T.J. Warren for virtually nothing but cap space that was quickly filled on draft night; dumping the No. 4 overall pick from two years ago with a defensive-minded rookie point guard and two second-round picks as sweeteners; and, of course, overpaying Ricky Rubio.

Despite the jokes about how the Suns haven’t had a point guard for two years now, Rubio was one of the most criticized free agency signings of the summer. So too was James Jones’ prioritizing of maturity, experience and shooting over defense, athleticism and overall asset management.

However, for as flawed as the means were, the end result was a drastically improved roster that many appear to be sleeping on in order to keep a recurring joke alive. There are plenty of reasons to laugh at the Phoenix Suns. Adding legitimate NBA players to actually help this young group learn how to win shouldn’t be one of them.

Over the 2019 offseason, Jones either got rid of or let the following players walk:

  • T.J. Warren
  • Josh Jackson
  • De’Anthony Melton
  • Richaun Holmes
  • Dragan Bender
  • Troy Daniels
  • Jamal Crawford

In turn, he added a number of experienced veterans and two older rookies through the draft:

  • Ricky Rubio
  • Dario Saric
  • Aron Baynes
  • Frank Kaminsky
  • Cheick Diallo
  • Jevon Carter
  • Cam Johnson
  • Ty Jerome

It may not seem like there’s a huge difference between those lists, but win shares and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) paint a much more accurate picture when it comes to the difference in actual, winning NBA experience.

The group of subtractions — Warren, Jackson, Melton, Holmes, Bender, Daniels and Crawford — combined for just 5.7 win shares last season. Even without including the win shares of Cam Johnson (6.2) and Ty Jerome (7.2), since the NBA is a different animal from college basketball, the group of Suns additions — Rubio, Saric, Baynes, Kaminsky, Diallo and Carter — combined for 14.0 win shares.

VORP tells a similar story in the improvement for the supporting cast:

People have been quick to question Devin Booker’s impact on winning because his Suns teams have won 23, 24, 21 and 19 games in his first four seasons. There’s no question his defense still needs major attention, but take a look at the 69 teammates he’s had in that span, and you’ll notice a common theme, which the discrepancy between this summer’s additions and subtractions confirms: Most of Devin Booker’s teammates have sucked.

Seriously, look at that group. Who is the best player on that list? Eric Bledsoe, who looked like an All-Star some nights but completely went through the motions on others and only played a grand total of 93 times with Book anyway? An underrated but not quite fully realized P.J. Tucker? A way-the-hell-past-his-prime Tyson Chandler? A Keep-Gettin’-Dem-Checks Trevor Ariza? A bucket-getting, defensively inept, constantly injured T.J. Warren?

It’s not a stretch to say rookie Deandre Ayton, new point guard Ricky Rubio and maybe even midseason trade acquisition Kelly Oubre Jr. are among the five best teammates Booker has ever had.

Instead of Isaiah Canaan, two second round rookies, a combo guard in Tyler Johnson and the team’s nominal shooting guard, the Suns will have Ricky Rubio manning the 1-spot this season. Rubio is slightly overpaid, but his annual salary is actually fairly average and he’s at worst an NBA-average point guard. That’s lightyears ahead of what Phoenix has had for the last two seasons.

Booker is coming off a season in which he averaged 26.6 points, 6.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game on a career-high 58.4 percent true shooting … despite shooting a career-low 32.6 percent from 3-point range. Put other competent shooters around him to open up the floor, give him help so he doesn’t have to do everything by himself and account for a reversion back to even average 3-point efficiency, and suddenly, one of the game’s most promising young scorers is ready to hunt for buckets like never before.

Mikal Bridges didn’t shoot well from 3 as a rookie, but he quickly proved his defensive chops are no joke. If he can learn not to disappear on offense, he will challenge Oubre — who thrived after a midseason trade to Phoenix — for the starting job. Either way, the Suns will bring one multi-positional defender with a knack for deflections off the bench.

The Suns will enjoy another massive upgrade by replacing Dragan Bender with Dario Saric as their starting 4. Saric struggled in Minnesota, but was a promising, multifaceted youngster in Philly. At the very least, he represents a threat from deep that defenses will have to respect.

With an actual point guard to set him up, Deandre Ayton will feast in his second season. Aron Baynes should prove valuable for his hard-nosed defense off the bench and for toughening Ayton up in practice. Unlike Holmes, he’s not playing to carve out his niche in the league and can take the time to fill that mentor role.

Tyler Johnson will be better suited in a backup role as a combo guard rather than being pigeonholed into the starting point guard job, and can strengthen a surprisingly deep bench. Kaminsky, Diallo, Carter and Elie Okobo provide additional depth. Ty Jerome appears to be NBA-ready, and though Cam Johnson can really only shoot at this stage, that alone will be a boon to the league’s worst 3-point shooting team from last season.

Even if Carter, Diallo and the rookies don’t contribute much, the Suns still have about 8-9 legitimate NBA players on their roster now (depending on how you feel about Frank the Tank). That’s basically double what they’ve had in any season since their 48-win campaign in 2013-14.

While everyone laughed at the series of moves Jones made to get Phoenix here, the oddsmakers have noticed the difference in accompanying talent. Bovada has set the Suns’ win total for 2019-20 at 29.5 wins, which would be a 10- or 11-win improvement — tied for the second-largest projected jump in the NBA.

FanDuel Sportsbook projects a jump from 19 wins to 28.5 wins, which is tied for the NBA’s third-biggest jump. FiveThirtyEight‘s projection sets the bar at 35 wins, which would be a 16-game improvement in the win column. Throw in similar statistical projections and suddenly, people are sneakily high on the team everyone’s been clowning on all summer.

When Phoenix had a healthy and fully acclimated starting lineup of Ty Johnson, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dragan Bender and Deandre Ayton last year (with Bridges coming off the bench), that core ripped off an impressive 5-2 stretch in late February/early March that included wins over the playoff-hungry Miami Heat, the playoff-desperate Los Angeles Lakers, the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the admittedly terrible New York Knicks and the West-leading Golden State Warriors.

Seven games is a microscopic sample size compared to nine years of misery, but it may have given the world a glimpse of what can happen when Phoenix’s young talent has the right blend of accompanying veteran experience. Monty Williams has a tough job ahead incorporating all these new faces, but unlike the four head coaches who came before him, he actually has a roster that isn’t composed of past, present and future G League standouts.

A playoff berth isn’t happening in 2020, but coming off a 19-win season, even approaching the 30-win plateau that’s eluded Devin Booker would be a victory. A goal like that may seem laughable, like marginal progress for a perennially bad team that that should just continue tanking. But that skepticism completely belies how teams typically rise and fall in the NBA.

Next. Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25. dark

Bad teams shouldn’t just be content with staying bad forever. Not every franchise can be blessed with a leap from 23 wins to 50 like the Oklahoma City Thunder did not so long ago. The Suns don’t have a Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or James Harden. Booker and Ayton are much more flawed, but the good news is they don’t have to do it on their own. They have help now. They finally have veteran players who not only know how to win, but still have what it takes to win.

The Phoenix Suns have consistently found new and inventive ways to drill through rock bottom. Finally, there may actually be nowhere for them to go but up.