After the Phoenix Suns’ shocking end to the season, Empire of the Suns will roll through a number of questions the team has to answer this offseason.
First up was Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency and Devin Booker’s potential supermax extension. Next is how Chris Paul’s end to the postseason changes how Phoenix thinks going forward.
To set the tone here before we even back out of the driveway, if you’re expecting to see the Earth scorched and set ablaze with a rage that knows no bounds, I suggest keeping it moving.
The answer to the headline you clicked on is a lot. Yes, the Suns should still rely on point guard Chris Paul a lot, even after how he broke down in the team’s second-round exit against the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul is coming off his third straight All-Star and likely All-NBA season. The rapid decline in his powers some foresaw five years ago when his stint with the Houston Rockets began going sour is not quite what we are seeing unfold in the present times.
He proved capable of brilliance through the first-round series against New Orleans without Devin Booker while battling an apparent left hand injury he said was fine and was never cited as a thing on any injury report. After two strong performances in wins over the Mavs, the same could not be said for a reported left quad issue that clearly slowed him down and denied him the extra gear he needed to create the required space against an excellent Dallas defense.
This follows his right shoulder, right hand and left wrist injuries that came up last postseason, as well as a stint with COVID-19 before the Western Conference Finals that couldn’t have helped matters.
The now-37-year-old has shown not only for these last two years with Phoenix but through large stretches of his career that problems can flare up at this point in the season.
And so now the Suns have no choice but to operate like that is a certainty. They can’t risk Paul’s inability to be Chris Paul costing them as much as it did again and tanking a chance at a championship.
To start with what some of the fanbase is unfortunately discussing, the Suns should absolutely not trade Paul. Beyond his stellar play when healthy, he is right atop the leadership quartet of this franchise with face of the franchise Booker, general manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams. That type of shakeup registers far too high on the magnitude scale.
A lot of what has gone so incredibly right the last two seasons has to do with Paul. Just like Williams, he deserves credit for how young players like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have improved so much in the last two seasons.
Paul’s contract is in a good spot as well. Unless Paul’s basketball abilities completely nosedive, his $28.4 million on the books next year is more than fine and then it’s a partially guaranteed $30.8 million followed by a fully non-guaranteed $30.0 million for the last year.
In the words of the great Roman Pearce, if it’s time to “ejecto seato” from Paul’s deal in his age 38 and/or 39 seasons, they’ve got some flexibility.
For Paul himself going forward, the Suns have got to put a lock on his minutes and delve into the dark trade of load management. The blueprint for both series showcased what the Suns will see in the first round next year: Full-court pressure and Paul getting hunted defensively, so his body has to be in the best possible state for that.
Phoenix is one of the few teams in the NBA that does not sit players in situations like second nights of back-to-backs, four games in five days and so on. Williams often jokes that load management is more of a trucking company in Texas than a basketball term.
I know the Suns have their data that points them in the right direction on these types of decisions but Paul’s gotta be reconsidered. On top of that, he played 35 minutes or more 25 times in the regular season, including over 37 on eight different occasions. That can’t happen anymore.
With that in mind, Phoenix must shore up its depth and expand its offense to make this more possible.
Three months into the season in mid-January, Cam Payne and Landry Shamet were both not playing well. I wrote about not taking a chance on this becoming problematic as the title favorites and being aggressive at the trade deadline. I also wrote my gut told me the Suns could trust both of them and good ol’ continuity. My gut, along with the front office’s, was wrong. They both underperformed this postseason.
No more of that. An Eric Gordon-esque move for someone who can command the offense on the ball for stretches while being enough of a threat off the ball to play with Paul or Booker for long stretches should be No. 1 on the offseason wish list.
This will be more difficult to do now.
Nailing draft picks becomes important once you’re a contender because teams over the cap (and in the luxury tax) have fewer resources in free agency and less room to maneuver in trades. They do not have any to nail in June because of the trades involving Paul and Torrey Craig.
The Suns whiffed on Jalen Smith in 2020 with the 10th overall pick, missing on Tyrese Haliburton (and Cole Anthony and Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley and Payton Pritchard and Desmond Bane) as someone who could have helped with that depth guard problem.
As usual, Jones’ foresight was money and he acquired a guy for this job last offseason in Shamet. The three problems with that are Shamet showed no indication of being that guy this season, was dealt for Phoenix’s 2021 first-round pick that could have been one of those guards like Chicago’s Ayo Dosunmu and Shamet was signed to a four-year, $42 million extension that complicates the Suns’ books.
Can Shamet’s deal for $9.5 million next year be involved in one of these hypothetical deals? The expirings of Jae Crowder ($10.2 million) and Dario Saric ($9.2 million) are also the right type of size to help facilitate something but both have proven they are important pieces for Phoenix.
Jones is one of the best executives in basketball and cleaning up the depth around Paul and Booker this offseason will be his toughest task to date.
There’s also what the Suns can do with what they have to maintain a top five offense without Paul’s presence being as consistent.
If Ayton re-signs with the Suns, it’s time for him to become more of a part of the offense beyond his ball screens for the backcourt. Take an L on the rhythm getting bogged down for a touch or three on the block each quarter, even if Ayton’s tentativeness in those situations and the lack of connectivity we’ve seen plague this everlasting request continues.
Bridges has the ability to average 20 points per game. Yeah, I said it. He more than doubled his attempts from the midrange this year and improved his stellar 50% efficiency to 51%, per Cleaning the Glass. His instincts for attacking the basket get better each year and, again, dude is awesome at converting there with a 79% knockdown rate around the rim. More sets for him and more of a score-first mindset from him, please.
Both could be much, much better about getting to the foul line too. Ayton never getting to at least three attempts at the charity stripe per game in his career has to change. Bridges is capable of reaching that as well.
Is Johnson becoming a reliable scorer a realistic ask? I think so! His 16.3 points per game as a starter indicate as much.
These developments with Paul do not slam the Suns’ title window shut. It’s just going to take a bit more of a fight to keep it open still.