The Phoenix Suns just parted with another former lottery pick by trading Josh Jackson, DeAnthony Melton, and two future second-rounders to Memphis for Kyle Korver and Jevon Carter. This gives the Suns enough cap room to retain Kelly Oubre Jr. and sign Ricky Rubio, which essentially solidifies their roster for the upcoming season.
The question is: what exactly is Phoenix trying to accomplish with this group of players? General manager James Jones has expressed that he thinks his team has enough youth, and he isn’t interested in asset acquisition anymore, which could explain why the Suns took the oldest player in the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft. However, it’s hard to see how Phoenix plans to compete with its current roster, and they’ve sacrificed future flexibility just to get to this point.
The Suns finally have a point guard in Rubio, a defense-first, shooting-challenged player who actually makes some sense next to a high-usage shooting guard like Devin Booker. Rubio is likely being overpaid at 3 years, $51 million, and has had injury issues in the past, but he has proven a competent starting point guard in the past, and that’s much more than Phoenix has had in recent years — and in a position like Phoenix, you have to pay extra to get quality free agents.
His backups will be the newly-acquired Carter, a defensive stalwart who’s role in Memphis last year was, mostly, “human surrender flag” in blowouts, sophomore Elie Okobo, and rookie Ty Jerome. That is not a playoff point guard rotation, but there will be plenty of developmental minutes for all three.
Devin Booker begins his five-year max extension this year and, as such, makes shooting guard the Suns best (even if not a deep) position. He is still the team’s primary offensive engine, which won’t change playing next to Rubio. Booker is the only lottery pick the Suns have kept from 2013 through 2017, and it’s for good reason. He’s an extremely efficient offensive player, and provides something for this team to build around. They just haven’t figured out how. Tyler Johnson remains after picking up his player option, and that’s about it at the two-spot considering Kyle Korver is expected to be bought out shortly.
On the wing, Kelly Oubre Jr. is a viable starting small forward, but he won’t be exactly be pouring in double-digits on a regular basis and isn’t a very efficient three-point shooter. They sought out shooting in the draft with Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges was a bright spot last year, but they’ll need a couple guys to really step up in a way we haven’t seen at the three spot to have a chance at being competitive this season. Dario Saric will probably be the starting power forward heading into restricted free agency, and is likely the best secondary scorer they’ll have on the roster. Saric isn’t shy hunting for his shot, but that’s another position where the Suns will essentially have a one-way player.
At center, Phoenix theoretically has another foundational piece in Deandre Ayton, but again, it’s unclear where the defense will come from. Aron Baynes logically could have a better two-way season than Ayton, as he certainly provides a defensive presence that the Suns are otherwise lacking. However, it doesn’t make sense for Monty Williams to prioritize Baynes’ minutes over Ayton’s development. Presumably, this also makes Frank Kaminsky a backup four, although it would seem that four years in Charlotte were enough evidence that Kaminsky cannot defend power forwards. Apparently not.
So the Suns starting lineup has three players who don’t really play defense, one true offensive creator, and a point guard who can’t shoot. The bench has lower-tier first-round picks instead of all of the lottery talent that Phoenix accumulated and failed to develop over the Ryan McDonough era. Alex Len, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and Josh Jackson aren’t the sins of this front office, but the frustrations of one failed rebuild seem to be rushing them along now. The Suns are out three second-round picks from the Warren and Josh Jackson trades, and there are no traditional locker-room veterans unless they re-sign Jamal Crawford other than Baynes.
This is clearly the 15th-best roster in the Western Conference, and the Lakers only have six players under contract. Williams is a good coach, and got appreciable improvement out of his players in New Orleans, but this seems like a task even beyond his pay grade. It doesn’t really matter that James Jones doesn’t want to say the Suns are rebuilding anymore – if it looks like a rebuild and loses like a rebuild, that’s what’s happening in Phoenix, whether they want it to or not.