Like most summers in the NBA, the 2019 edition was chock full of trades, free agent news and player movement. From the defending-champion Toronto Raptors to just about every other team in the league, change was the most applicable word when it came to describing team rosters for the 2019-20 season.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — in order of regular-season finish from 2018-19 — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s team: Phoenix Suns
2018-19 Record: 19-63, did not qualify for the playoffs
Key additions: Cameron Johnson (Draft), Ricky Rubio (free agency), Dario Saric (trade), Ty Jerome (Draft)
Key departures: TJ Warren, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, Richaun Holmes
The lowdown: It was dismal in the desert once again as the Suns missed the playoffs for the ninth straight season, finishing last in the West and failing to win 25 games for a fourth consecutive campaign.
This losing culture has taken root in Phoenix and threatens to harm the basketball pulse in town, Devin Booker’s youth or both. Bottom line is the Suns came up short most nights and were easy prey when the rest of the league came looking for a win. Ultimately, it cost coach Igor Kokoskov his job after only one season on the bench, marking the third time in as many years a Suns coach couldn’t make it through a full season (Earl Watson, Jay Triano). And it also resulted in a front office shuffle as well, with Jeff Bower assuming the senior VP job and James Jones promoted to GM.
Not that there weren’t a few positive signs. Booker averaged 26.6 points and, as a scorer, is on the same career arc as a number of all-time offensive greats. He stitched together five 40-point games in the final month, including 50 and 59 in consecutive games. In three of four seasons, Booker has averaged at least 22 points, although his 3-point shooting (32 percent) experienced a dip in 2018-19 as he once again played out of position at point guard.
TJ Warren was a capable co-star some nights. Also, first-round pick Deandre Ayton was fairly solid as a double-double big man; his defense, however, was a work in progress. Plus, swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. was acquired in a trade for Trevor Ariza — a veteran forward whom Phoenix signed to a one-year deal prior to the season — and became a top option in the rotation. But those were scant examples of prosperity. The Suns struggled defensively, had no rhythm overall, weren’t very disciplined, suffered an identity crisis and ultimately a confidence crisis.
Summer summary: With a new management and coaching squad in place, the Suns prepared to use the summer of 2019 to distance themselves from their past, yet the results were interesting at best, and head-scratching at worst.
For example, they signed veteran point guard Ricky Rubio: a welcome move, one that will allow Booker to shift to a more natural position off the ball. Yet Rubio is a weak shooter and possibly on the downside as a player, and they gave him three years at $51 million, a financial haul that was stunning in NBA circles.
The Suns also erased yet another draft mistake, this time Josh Jackson, who was chosen at No. 4 in 2017 ahead of De’Aaron Fox, a point guard who would’ve given Phoenix a prime young backcourt next to Booker. But the price for Jackson was sacrificing Melton and a pair of second-rounders in order to clear up salary cap space to sign Rubio. In the last several years, excluding Ayton and Booker, the Suns have little or nothing to show for choosing lottery picks, misfiring on Jackson, Dragan Bender, Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and others.
Then, the Suns cut ties with Warren, one of the few first-round picks they got right. It was essentially a salary dump; the Suns didn’t want any part of the three years and $35 million remaining which, at face value, doesn’t seem like a ton. Warren was the team’s second-leading scorer, but his defense was spotty and the Suns wanted the space to re-sign Oubre at a reasonable two years.
On draft night, however, the Suns made a move to maximize their position, trading five spots down from No. 6 to pick up Dario Saric and the No. 11 from Minnesota. That selection brought them Cameron Johnson, the only senior taken in the lottery and a versatile shooter who developed late in his college career, notably scoring 26 points against Duke last season.
The other moves were more minor and relatively cheap: adding Kaminski, who flamed out in Charlotte; sturdy point guard Jevon Carter; and tough-guy Aron Baynes. Each should figure into the rotation and maybe, in the case of Kaminski and Carter, the Suns could find surprising return on investment.
In all, Bower and Jones refused to sit back. The proactive approach makes sense for a franchise that’s fallen off a cliff. To stand still would’ve sent a bad message to an overly patient fan base that’s starting to dwindle. But were they the right moves? Johnson was projected to go lower in the draft by many experts, Rubio came with a high price tag and the Suns have three players in their early 20s (Oubre, Johnson and Mikal Bridges) at the same position. Remember when the Suns kept drafting and acquiring point guards a few years ago? Same thing here.
Perhaps the most underrated move of the offseason was the coaching hire. Monty Williams comes highly regarded and did a solid job as the head man in New Orleans, where his firing was controversial. He then took a hiatus from coaching following the car accident that claimed his wife, before resuming his career as a Sixers assistant under Brett Brown. Williams, like Brown, is descended from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and seems anxious to resume his career; that enthusiasm and professional approach to the job will be welcome in Phoenix, where chaos and instability ruled the last several seasons.
The Suns needed to make a statement this offseason and they did, sort of. The front office and coaching shuffle, along with a series of moves that will bring new faces and hope to the rotation, marks the start of yet another plan. How long will this one last?
Coming next: Chicago Bulls
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