Our offseason plan for the Phoenix Suns
While we’re all gearing up for the playoffs, there are 14 teams who have nothing to do but sit at home and dream about next year.
With them in mind, we’re going to start an Offseason Blueprint series to make suggestions for their offseasons. We did this same exercise around this time last year, and even recommended the Suns draft Josh Jackson to pair with Devin Booker. (Whether that was good advice may still be up for debate.)
Obviously, this is very early to talk about the offseason, but I wanted to start early in order to hit all 30 teams over the course of the exercise. So let’s get going!
(1) Find new leadership
Predictably, Earl Watson was not destined to be the long-term answer in Phoenix. Going forward, the Suns need to find a coach with a clear vision and a modern sensibility, but also enough experience to achieve that vision. Given their young roster, an up-and-coming coach makes sense as well.
Fortunately for them, there are a host of rising star assistant coaches that may fit that bill: Nick Nurse (TOR), Stephen Silas (CHA), Nate Tibbetts (POR), David Vanterpool (POR), Chris Finch (NO), Jerry Stackhouse (TOR org) etc.
The one that I gravitate towards for them is a little under the radar right now: James Borrego from the Spurs. Borrego’s best known for a short stint as the Orlando Magic interim coach after Jacque Vaughn got fired in mid-season, but he’s mostly a Spurs lifer. He’s risen up from video coordinator to top lieutenant. On game day, you can see Gregg Popovich usually conferring with two assistants: European legend Ettore Messina, and Borrego. That speaks well of the 40-year-old assistant, an opinion that’s confirmed by most insider articles written about this subject. He’s a higher profile name in NBA circles than he is with fans.
Your hope with Borrego is that he’s learned from his (brief) head coaching experience, and will be better served to implement the Spurs-style system into this young Suns team on both offense and defense. And while it doesn’t really matter from a basketball perspective, Borrego is also from the general area — having grown up in New Mexico and gone to college in San Diego. Borrego’s in a nice situation with Popovich right now, so perhaps he’d only jump over (or only interview) for a job that fits him like this.
In fact, let’s take this idea of new leadership a step further. Right now, Suns GM Ryan McDonough has a mixed track record. The Devin Booker pick was a home run, but he’s also had some questionable picks in the draft and with his coaches. Still only 37 years old, it’s possible that McDonough was in over his head to begin with. At the very least, he could use some help in the role.
With that in mind, I’d recommend the team hire former New Orleans coach Monty Williams as a “Team President,” either to replace McDonough or perhaps to assist him. After the death of his wife, Williams has taken a step back from the daily grind and now serves as a vice president in the Spurs’ front office. Presumably, he’d be well suited for a similar but elevated role in Phoenix. He can provide experience and leadership without the extensive work required of a head coach. Better yet, he has extensive experience with my coach Borrego. The two work in the same Spurs organization now, of course, but Borrego actually worked as a coaching assistant under Williams back in New Orleans as well. In theory, the two should have a similar basketball vocabulary and vision in mind.
A new era of leadership and a partnership of James Borrego + Monty Williams may establish the type of culture that the Suns need for the long haul.
(2) Draft BBA (best big available)
Right now, the Phoenix Suns are in the catbird seat with the # 1 draft slot. Of course, that’s unlikely to stay at # 1. The lottery odds only give the team a 25% chance at # 1, and only a 64% chance of staying inside the top 3.
But that’s okay. This draft class happens to be rich with “bigs,” be it Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, Duke PF/C Marvin Bagley, Michigan State PF/C Jaren Jackson Jr., or Texas C Mohamed Bamba. ANY of those bigs would fit well onto this roster and help balance the Booker-Josh Jackson wing positions.
There’s even a karmic connection with some of the prospects. DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley both lived in Arizona as high school stars (and even played on the same team for a bit!). Obviously, Ayton played for a local university as well. They’d be more than happy to come back to town and be an immediate impact scorer down low. Ayton and Bagley have that type of potential to be a major scorer at the NBA level, while with Jackson and Bamba we’re talking more about a modern big who can complement the offense by stretching some, but would serve most of their impact on the defensive side with their length and shot blocking.
The team can certainly consider super Euro Luka Doncic as a “best available” pick as well, with an eye to play him as a de facto PG, but I’d be wary of a Doncic – Booker pairing on the defensive end. The idea of giving Booker a big to form an inside-outside 1-2 punch makes more sense to me. They’d also have a great mentor in house in Tyson Chandler to help them get up to speed defensively. That hasn’t fully worked with Chriss or Bender, but all four bigs we’re talking about are more productive and less of speculative projects.
(3) Don’t force a big splash signing yet
Although the Suns have a young roster, they don’t have a boatload of cap room at the moment. They’re on the books for $78 million next season already, a figure that drops all the way down to $29 million the following year.
With that in mind, I’d recommend the Suns do NOT force a big splash signing in free agency this summer. They’re still too young. Still too far away. Their goal should be to add another stud in the draft and try to improve internally, at which point their potential growth may entice a legitimate star to come their way in 2019 or 2020 to help push them over the top.
Given that, prudence may be the key word. There may be some interest in going after former Arizona product Aaron Gordon, who would slide neatly into PF for the team. In theory, a Gordon – DeAndre Ayton frontcourt would have a nice balance to it, and make Chriss and Bender’s development more of a luxury than a necessity. I’d consider the idea of going after Gordon now, but I still believe it makes more sense to see how this young core comes together next season and THEN go after a star the following year.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that the team doesn’t need to force the issue regarding a potential hole at point guard either. McDonough traded for Elfrid Payton, but it’s still unclear if Payton is a “winning” point guard in this league. As a restricted free agent this summer, his future is still unclear with the franchise as well. If I ran the Suns, I’d only offer him a short-term, “prove it” deal, rather than commit to him for the long haul.
Similarly, I’m not too high on another PG in the class, Marcus Smart. There’s going to be a natural interest there because Smart is the type of defense-first guard who should theoretically pair well with Booker. That said, Smart’s still a huge liability as a shooter, and not someone that I would overpay based on intangibles alone. Recent Celtics haven’t exactly thrived away from Brad Stevens either.
Rather than chase bigger names like Aaron Gordon or Marcus Smart, the Suns may consider value plays elsewhere. Toronto PG Fred VanVleet is a restricted free agent who plays like a pro’s pro, while San Antonio PF Kyle Anderson is sort of the opposite of Marquese Chriss; he’s not a good athlete, but he’s a high IQ player. If the team does go Spurs-heavy with their new power structure, Anderson may be a nice addition.
But again, I don’t think the Suns need to make a “splash” this summer. I’d eye 2019 as a time when the team should think about a move to push them over the top, perhaps at the PG position. Two of my favorite young point guards in the league are Delon Wright (TOR) and Tyus Jones (MIN), both of whom will be restricted free agents that summer. If their current teams don’t commit to them as starters, the Suns could easily swoop in there and snag one of them away. Both Wright and Jones have solid offense+defense games that may be the perfect match for a developing Suns team.
The bottom line
The moral of the story here should be: patience. For now. The Suns have the blueprint in place with a few young studs and another to come in the draft. They don’t need to rush production on this house prematurely. Hire the right architect and allow him to develop it piece by piece.