Why Phoenix should be a dark horse in the AD sweepstakes.
With apologies to the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings, no organization is more dysfunctional, incompetent, and consistently willing to lock its fanbase in a perpetual state of desperation than the Phoenix Suns. Heading into Tuesday night’s draft lottery, their odds to land a top-four pick were 52.1 percent. A fortuitous bounce to the top was at 14 percent, same as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Knicks. Instead, coming off a season in which they had the second-youngest roster in the league, Phoenix fell to sixth, which was actually their most likely landing spot to begin with (they had a 26 percent chance to finish there).
At the same time, along with Los Angeles, Boston, and New York, they are the potential Anthony Davis trade partner that leaps out of nowhere.
That may seem absurd, but consider the combination of the team’s young core and lack of patience. As Suns general manager James Jones recently said, “Having stability for the sake of stability isn’t something that we’re into.”
The Suns are very young and very bad. Last year, they had a rookie coach, co-rookie general managers, won 19 games, and finished with the third-worst point differential in the league. But instead of taking lumps, learning from mistakes, and organically growing with a talented core and first-year head coach, Phoenix fired Igor Kokoskov, replaced him with Monty Williams, then hired an experienced hand (Jeff Bower) to oversee basketball operations.
The logical next step is to take it slow, right? Guess again. As Jones said: “We need to add guys in their prime. We need to raise the floor of our team. And you only do that with NBA players. Not prospects, but NBA players. So, we’ll focus on acquiring those guys via all the channels we can.”
If those words foreshadow actual personnel decisions, and the Suns re-up their subscription to the short-sighted mentality that’s stunted their progress for the past decade, then we shouldn’t dismiss Davis as a possible target, even if their current situation is not one a superstar who’s entering the prime of his career will find appealing.
Apart from their own delusion, there are reasons Phoenix should be aggressive here. On the surface, not having a sturdy infrastructure or any cultural principles to lean on is a big red flag. This isn’t Toronto trading for Kawhi Leonard or Boston going after Kyrie Irving. This is a franchise with no self awareness that’s trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Trading for Davis would potentially cripple their otherwise seemingly bright future. It sounds bananas.
But there’s also a scenario where they use that No. 6 pick, draft another player they can’t develop, and roll through the lottery until and after their rookie-scale contracts command a pay increase. There’s no certainty either way. Given the rare chance to go after someone like Davis, Phoenix really should.
Consider its assets. Phoenix has star guard Devin Booker, 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, promising young wing Mikal Bridges, former 2017 No. 4 pick Josh Jackson, dependable forward T.J. Warren, the sixth pick in this year’s draft, all their own first-round picks going forward, and a top-7 protected first-rounder from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020. That’s pretty good!
They aren’t going to package all that for any one player, of course, but lets coat the foundation of an initial offer with the sixth pick and an unprotected first-rounder in 2021. (Dragan Bender-related scars do not heal easy.) Now, the question then turns to which blue-chipper new Pelicans boss David Griffin wants more: Ayton or Booker.
The case can be made for either. With Booker, New Orleans would be getting one of the league’s best young scorers on a max contract for the next five years. He fits perfectly beside Jrue Holiday and is on the same timeline as Zion Williamson. But the argument falls apart when you look at it from Phoenix’s perspective. They aren’t moving their franchise player for one year of Davis, then plugging him beside a 21-year-old center who may not be able to share the floor with him in crunch time, sans any above-average playmakers to feed them the ball. Suns owner Robert Sarver is rash, but this would be too much even for him.
What about Ayton, then? Could Ayton and Zion co-exist in New Orleans? There’s some positional overlap, and it’s safe to say they aren’t ideal cogs in the pace-and-space era. But think about how many teams are built to stop two big men who will inevitably demand a double team? Think about how they’d crush the boards and protect the paint. It’s an experiment worth exploring, especially with Jrue Holiday making sure offensive possessions don’t go off the rails.
Is this a better package than one built around Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, whatever the Lakers offer, or New York’s third overall pick (likely Zion’s good friend and college roommate R.J. Barrett)? Everything is debatable and subjective, but combine two first-round picks, Ayton, Warren, and either Jackson or Bridges, and that’s a haul!
This would certainly be a steep price for the Suns to pay if Davis leaves as expected in free agency, but never say never. With apologies to DeMarcus Cousins, Booker will be the best offensive player Davis has ever called a teammate. There would be questions about the rest of the roster next year, but if these two can stay healthy, the Suns will be competitive, and the playoffs may even be more than a pipe dream. They can potentially form the most devastating pick-and-roll combination in the league, while Davis can resume life as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
From there, the Suns can count on a number of important connections. Davis’s strong relationship with new coach Monty Williams, forged over three years in New Orleans, could become an even more powerful selling point. (Not to simplify Williams’s ability to coach, but his connection to Davis should be more attractive to the teams that interviewed him over the past few weeks than his career 43.9 winning percentage in five seasons with New Orleans.) Booker and Davis being two of John Calipari’s most accomplished former Kentucky players is another connection, however immaterial that sounds. Williams and Booker may convince Davis that Phoenix is a place for him to build something special. (Reminder: Booker doesn’t even turn 23 until October 30th!).
Finally, don’t forget that Griffin spent over a decade in the Suns organization, knows Sarver, and was the general manager for a Cavaliers team that employed Jones. You can play six degrees of separation with Griffin and just about any trade partner, but that tangible relationship can’t hurt.
If the Suns avoid signing any long-term contracts this July and get AD to commit, they can head into next summer with max cap space and an attractive sales pitch for established veterans like Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, and Draymond Green. So much can happen between now and then and we’re really crawling to the ledge right now, but Phoenix’s books would nearly be clean.
The short-term risk here is undeniable, but so is the long-term upside. Phoenix isn’t ideally positioned to swing for the fences right now, but there are just enough reasons for them to talk themselves into making the type of bold decision that will change the NBA forever. Davis and Booker are that tantalizing as complementary franchise cornerstones.
Even if it leads to a date with doomsday when Davis is free to leave 12 months from now, going all in is defensible when this kind of opportunity presents itself.
Short term investment plans advice