After trading Steve Nash and ending the Seven Seconds Or Less era, the Phoenix Suns were thought to have started a complete tank.
A surprising season from Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe delayed the teardown. But after a series of missteps and a few coaching changes, the Phoenix Suns finally have the No. 1 overall pick and an opportunity to truly reset around a dynamic young core.
3.) Years after the Phoenix Suns were supposed to have started tanking, they finally landed the No. 1 overall pick. Who would you take if you were the GM?
Brandon Jefferson: DeAndre Ayton is the fail safe option here. There just aren’t many mobile, chiseled 7-foot-1, 260-pound athletes with his level of agility. If a general manager was drafting with their job on the line, Ayton would be the pick easiest to explain to upper management. However, watching this postseason, it’s been rare to see any star big man consistently impact a series— sans Joel Embiid; and I’m not ready to deem Ayton on the same tier.
That’s why I would select Luka Doncic of Slovenia with the first overall pick. Doncic, a versatile 6-foot-8 point forward with a respectable outside game who has proven himself against professionals, is much better suited for the modern NBA and this Suns roster.
Phoenix struck gold landing Devin Booker with the 12th pick in 2016 but has been unable to pair him with a running mate in the backcourt to match his talents. Booker has been tried as a pick-and-roll playmaker with average returns. Adding Doncic to go along with the developing Josh Jackson would give Phoenix multiple ball handlers capable of running the offense; Something new coach Igor Kokoskov has been accustomed to during his time in Utah (Ricky Rubio/Donovan Mitchell/Joe Ingles this year and George Hill/Gordon Hayward/Rodney Hood preciously) and coaching the Slovenian national team (the aforementioned Doncic and Goran Dragic).
The best teams in the league spread the court and load up on as many multidimensional 6-foot-6 and above wings as they can. Adding Doncic to the Booker and Jackson duo puts Phoenix that path.
Bryan Toporek: I’d take Luka Doncic over Deandre Ayton. I doubt it was coincidence the Suns just hired Igor Kokoskov, who helped guide Doncic and Slovenia to the gold medal in EuroBasket last summer, as their new head coach. If nothing else, they’ll have far more intel on Doncic than most other teams, but the preexisting relationship between him and Kokoskov could help him hit the ground running. You can’t have too many players capable of handling the ball and creating offense for themselves and others, and pairing Doncic alongside Devin Booker would give Phoenix an electric, dynamic backcourt on offense.
Ayton will be tough to pass up, especially since he spent his lone year in college at Arizona. He’s a nightly 20-10 threat who touts three-point range, which makes him sound like the second coming of Karl-Anthony Towns. But like Towns, he’s likely to struggle on defense at first and it’s difficult to build a winning team around a big man who falters as a last line of defense. Defense isn’t Doncic’s calling card, either, but playing next to a rangy wing like Josh Jackson could help cover that up. Unless Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender turn into the second coming of Serge Ibaka in his prime, there aren’t many 4s who can serve as a primary rim protector to make up for Ayton’s defensive limitations.
James Holas: Listen, the Suns finally hit pay-dirt but their elusive No. 1 pick comes in one of the oddest drafts in years. The consensus top two choices have some serious question marks, leading to a bit of a “Sophie’s Choice.”
Do you choose DeAndre Ayton, the 7-foot-1 uber-athlete built like Adonis; but with the type of subpar defensive instincts that might drive his coach to the madhouse? Or Luka Doncic, the hyper-skilled euro-swingman with gobs of game but haunted by the dreaded “euro-stigma” (aka the “Jan Vessely aura”)? By some accounts, from both sides, both prospects are either “can’t miss” or “will get a GM fired”.
The Suns have already drafted bouncy big Marquese Chriss, stretchy big Dragan Bender; do they need a combat muscled big? Both could boom (poor man’s Antonio McDyess and Dirk!) or bust (oh, no, Tyus Thomas and Bargnani). I guess I’d go with Luka Doncic.
Doncic and Booker, along with Josh Jackson, give you size and dynamic scoring, playmaking, and daring guts, the essentials for a potent trio. I’m not 100 percent sold on Doncic, but the critiques about Ayton’s glaring lack of rim protection gives me pause.
2.) What (reasonable) auxiliary move(s) do you make this summer to put the Suns on the right path forward?
Brandon Jefferson: First, with the second of two first round picks, the Suns should target a high-upside player like Zhaire Smith to develop alongside the Doncic/Booker/Jackson trio mentioned above. If Smith is off the board, other high-upside prospects include Anfernee Simons, Kevin Knox, Troy Brown, and Lonnie Walker. However, if the board shakes out in a way where the value doesn’t meet the needs, trading down or out altogether isn’t a bad back up plan.
In free agency, parking multiple Brinks trucks outside of Clint Capela’s home on midnight, July 1 isn’t exactly reasonable, but there are some potential names on the market who could fill the Tyson Chandler sized hole up front. Dewayne Dedmond has a player option in Atlanta and after the disaster of a stint with Dallas, Nerlens Noel is finally set to hit the open market again. Both players can fill the rim-running, screen-setting role Chandler brought to the offense while also providing the chance to improve the league’s worst defense from a season ago.
The outlier here is a potential chase of DeMarcus Cousins. After being penciled in for a max contract offer from some team this summer, the Achilles injury Boogie suffered this year could cool his market. If Cousins can be had on a short contract (1-3 years preferably) at a discounted rate, then the Suns could get a much needed second star to pair with Booker immediately instead of waiting on Jackson or whomever they take first overall to develop. Now, it’s highly unlikely Cousins chooses Phoenix, but having one of the best medical staffs in all of sports is a perk a star player coming off a major injury has to at least consider, right?
Bryan Toporek: Assuming the Suns snag Doncic at No. 1, they’d need to seek out a rim protector with the No. 16 pick and/or in free agency. Jaren Jackson Jr., Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. aren’t likely to fall to them at No. 16, but someone like Texas A&M’s Robert Williams or Louisiana native Mitchell Robinson could be a target there. On the free-agency front, the Suns reportedly “have plans” to offer Houston Rockets center Clint Capela “a max or near-max” contract once he becomes a restricted free agent in July, according to Kelly Iko of Rockets Wire. If Houston matches whatever offer sheet Capela receives, the Suns could turn their attention to Nerlens Noel, who appears to have worn out his welcome with the Dallas Mavericks over the last year-and-a-half.
By selecting Doncic, the Suns would have less incentive to re-sign Elfrid Payton unless he’s willing to agree to a team-friendly deal. Allowing him to walk would free up roughly $10 million in cap room and Phoenix would have the room mid-level exception (roughly $4.4 million) at its disposal after falling under the $101 million salary cap as well. That won’t be enough to lure anyone of import to a sub-25-win team, but if the Suns trade the expiring contracts of Tyson Chandler and/or Jared Dudley to another team with cap space, they could suddenly become big buyers in free agency. Since Devin Booker is presumably poised to sign an extension this summer (which will kick in next year), the Suns could be in smoke-’em-if-you’ve-got-’em territory when it comes to cap space. I’d love to see them take a flier on Mario Hezonja, personally.
James Holas: I did copious research (okay, like three minutes of googling) before this great-terrible idea hit me: The Suns can create about $18 million in cap space this summer.
Not many teams will have oodles of cap space and the center market isn’t exactly on fire.
DeMarcus Cousins wants a chance to prove he can be healthy and to make some moolah.
Phoenix should float a one year “prove it” offer at DMC and try to make the playoffs.
(I actually kind of hate this idea, but I’m all for chaos and intriguing storylines, so I’d LOVE this).
OK, I’d shovel money at Clint Capela. He’d be perfect with the high octane, spaced out Suns (Nerlens Noel needs a home, man. Just sayin’). I’d try to snag Seth Curry, kick the tires on how much JJ Redick or Wayne Ellington would cost, check on Anthony Tolliver; The Suns need some vet presence and to add depth.
1.) Assuming the Suns take your pick from question 1, where does this young core rate in the league and how long before they’re a factor in the Western Conference playoff race?
Brandon Jefferson: If the Suns opt to take Doncic over Ayton, I believe they’ll see a similar improvement to what happened in Los Angeles this year as the Lakers went from underdeveloped laughing stock to formidable late lottery team.
A 30-win season isn’t entirely out of the question for this group of youngsters, especially if they can add the right pieces around them via trade or free agency.
In terms of ranking them compared to some of the other young cores in the NBA today, I’d have to place them above Chicago’s Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen collective and behind Denver’s Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic. This Suns group could follow a similar path to Denver and would need to find their version of Paul Milsap to get them over the hump into potential playoff contention.
It seems to be a matter of when, not if, they turn it back around. This summer, number one pick in hand and cap space to spend, could be the first step in gaining some glory back in the desert.
Bryan Toporek: Regardless of who they take, I’d put their young core behind those of the Boston Celtics (Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart), the Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric), the Los Angeles Lakers (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma) and the Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray). Depending on what qualifies as “young,” the Milwaukee Bucks would also have them beat with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Malcom Brogdon and Thon Maker.
Doncic is thriving in Euroleague, which suggests he’s ready to come into the NBA and make an immediate impact. However, I won’t be projecting the Suns for a 2019 playoff berth unless they somehow trade for Kawhi Leonard this summer. That said, they’re in great shape moving forward, as the Bucks owe them a protected 2019 first-rounder and they still have an unprotected 2021 first-rounder coming from the Miami Heat, too. By the early 2020s, Phoenix could rise from the ashes and become a Western Conference contender once more.
James Holas: Doncic-Booker-Jackson is a formidable starting point. Chriss and Bender are still gigantic question marks. Elfrid Payton has heart and can definitely play, but is almost Rondo-esque in his enigmatic worth.
Based on sheer talent, that’s a tremendous group; ahead of the Bulls, and ahead of (remember, this is just talent, a lot which hasn’t translated to on court success) the Pacers and probably right there with the Nuggets. Booker is the crown jewel so far, but Josh Jackson’s year ending kick (he turned 21 on Feb. 10 and averaged 18.4 points, 5.9 boards, and 1.5 steals after that, a stretch of in 23 games) leaves me optimistic he was the right pick last year
The Celtics and the Warriors are stocked with long, athletic, multi-skilled players, and if you squint, you can see the framework of that taking shape in Arizona. I’m not as high on Lonzo Ball as most and like Jackson and Booker more than most, so I think I’d take the Suns’ youth brigade over Los Angeles’.
IF new coach Igor Kokoskov hits the ground running and instills a hard-nosed, fun culture; and IF Booker takes another mini-leap; and IF Chriss and Bender finally start to realize their potentials, the Suns could start making some noise as soon as in 2019-2020. Heck, a healthy Booker plus the infusion of Doncic should mean an immediate upward trend for a team that’s won 69 games in the last three seasons. There’s nowhere to go but up.