Solar Panel: Do the Suns Have Pieces to Contend?

Robert_Sarver_Suns

 

Welcome to the Solar Panel. A gathering of some of the most unique minds discussing topics from around Planet Orange (if that’s still a thing). These media members and super fans will breakdown whether the Phoenix Suns are headed in the right direction for the future. Here’s this edition’s panelists:

Gerald Bourguet , Assistant Editor at HoopsHabit.com

Mike Gallagher, NBA writer for NBC and Rotoworld.

Greg Esposito: Suns Columnist for Sports360AZ and co-host Suns Solar Panel

1) When you look at the Suns roster as it is currently constructed do you see the foundation of a contender or a collection of young assets waiting to be moved for something better?

GB: Foundation of a contender. None of Phoenix’s four rookies are in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, but everyone knew Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender would be projects. They progress they’ve shown alongside Tyler Ulis and even Derrick Jones Jr is encouraging, especially since they’re all 21 or younger. Devin Booker is still the centerpiece here, but add another likely top-5 pick to the equation and the Suns will be setting themselves up for long-term growth. At this point, I’m higher on Phoenix’s young core than Los Angeles’ or even Philadelphia’s when you factor in Joel Embiid’s injury history. If the Suns were to trade for a star, they’d be trying to keep Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker to create a new Big Three…but it seems highly unlikely they’d actually convince a team to accept a trade package without one of those two being involved.

MG: If the Suns are going to contend, they’re going to need both Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker to take a major step forward.

Not every young big is Karl-Anthony Towns, and most one-and-done bigs take some time to get going. Plus, Chriss hasn’t played basketball very long compared to his counterparts. He’s also been very effective in almost every facet since the break, so the 19-year-old big has seen a sharp incline in his career arc in this small sample. Plus, he’s also been solid as a center lately with his foul rate coming down, which will be important for the Suns to play the style they want.

By the time Booker and Chriss are potentially difference makers, guys like Eric Bledsoe will likely be off the roster. They do have some decent depth with T.J. Warren, but maybe he Warren is a better second-unit scorer and the Suns draft a wing with better defense — he is 79 out of 81 SFs in defensive real plus minus (Doug McDermott and Brandon Ingram). Plus, Tyler Ulis looks like a guy who will make the second unit a lot better.

Given all that youth, it’s really tough to project if they’ll be a contender. They clearly need some growth from multiple players, but it’s possible.

Espo: The Suns young core is the best in the league’s lower half right now. After years of wondering where this organization was headed general manager Ryan McDonough has plotted a true course and got owner Robert Sarver to buy into the vision.

That doesn’t mean that this young group is going to be the next great Suns team though. You have to remember that McD studied under Danny Ainge in Boston and, as we’ve seen in the past and see now, the former Suns guard and current Celtics front office wizard prefers to have assets to wheel and deal.

If you look at the Suns roster there are redundancies, question marks and great young talent. When you also look at the number of quality draft picks, there own and others they’ve acquired, they have you realize there is something more that likely will happen. It feels like the Suns are sitting and waiting to strike and until then they’ll let their young talent grow and showcase itself for the rest of the league.

Booker is the cornerstone of the current group but I’d imagine anyone else could be had if the price is right.

2) He has buzzer beaters, he has 30+ point games, he has swagger but Is Devin Booker a future super star in this league?

GB: Yes. This is one case where the hype feels warranted, especially when you remember Booker is only 20 years old and already has a Kobe Bryant-esque air of confidence that makes him adored by his fans and despised by his opponents. From his work ethic to his pure shooting form to that Mamba mentality that Suns fans used to hate, there’s too much here to ignore. His defense still needs considerable improvement, but it’s not like we revere James Harden or Stephen Curry for their two-way play either.

MG: Just about every NBA analyst picked Devin Booker to have a breakout season and you could argue he’s been slightly below expectations. To be clear, expectations were really, really high. While Booker has been solid as a scorer, his true shooting percentage (TS%) of 53.5 this season needs to come up — he is at 56.8 TS% since the break in that 10-game sample. He’s still below league average on shots in the paint and mid-range, so adding that to his arsenal will be key. Of course, he’s still just 20 years old, so he’s ahead of the curve there. He also needs more add some play-making ability because a 1.07 assist:turnover ratio won’t fly for a superstar.

Booker is smashing on all 20-and-under players for scoring this year with his 21.1 points per game. In fact, Myles Turner is second at 15.0 and is the only other qualifier in double-digit scoring. While it’s still hard to say he’s likely to be a superstar, what other under-20 guard are you going to take? We’ll see if the third-year breakout comes to fruition.

Espo: Devin Booker is good. You can’t argue how amazing his stats have been for a guy who was the youngest player in the league last season. When you add in his attitude and mentality you have a recipe for success. Heck, after a loss recently he took it upon himself to get Tyler Ulis and Marquese Chriss to join him on the practice court for an impromptu late night workout.

All that said, I worry Suns fans are like the guy in the cartoon lost in the desert. He starts to see things that aren’t there because be’s so thirsty. Suns fans have gone so long without a true star that they’re grasping at anything that gets close.

Booker will be an all-star. Likely a multi-time all-star and a fan favorite for the next decade. But will he be a super star? My guess is he’s a 1B and he’ll need a 1A to take the next step.

3) Suns owner and managing partner Robert Sarver reportedly told season ticket holders last week that the team won’t pursue any veteran free agents this summer and that the team’s goal is to be a contender by 2020. Do you think this is the right approach to return the Suns to the franchise’s winning ways?

GB: Approaching their 50th season as an NBA franchise without a title, I’d say it’s at least worth a shot! The Suns are the league’s longest-tenured franchise to never win it all and they’ve never earned the No. 1 overall draft pick either. The entire Ryan McDonough era has been plagued by build-from-the-middle attempts that ultimately failed, and as much fun as that 48-win campaign in 2013-14 was, people forget that season started with a roster built for tanking. Stay patient, let the Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs and Rockets wage their holy wars now and acquire talent through the draft to groom into a legitimate title contender.

MG: Like cargo pants and frosted tips in the 90s, trusting the process is about as trendy as it possibly could be right now. Heck, even the Cleveland Browns are living the TTP life.

If the Suns are going to go that route, that means they should absolutely be looking to deal Eric Bledsoe, who really is the only veteran asset with trade value. Brandon Knight probably has negative trade value.

The NBA purgatory of coming in at the No. 7-8 seed is no fun, so the Suns could be looking at that if Bledsoe is still on the roster and guys like Booker, Chriss, Tyler Ulis and maybe even Dragan Bender should be better next year.

They may not need to go all-out former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie mode, I think this is the right approach for the Suns because they’re not going to contend while the Warriors, Spurs and maybe even the Rockets are around. It makes sense to stack up your roster the best you can for 2020 and beyond.

Espo: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For the last 49 years the Suns have done the same thing in an attempt to build a champion. They signed free agents, won between 42-55 games and were always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It’s how you become 4th winningest franchise in NBA history and have nothing but two Western Conference championship banners to show for it.

Outside of their inaugural year, the Suns have never fully bottomed out in hopes of landing a top prospect. Committing to a youth movement and rebuilding rather than retooling is the right move. It’s the difference between Hollywood remaking the Matrix or taking a chance on a new fresh idea from a young film maker. Everyone’s better of with the latter rather than the former.

4) Is this year’s draft deep enough where falling to the 5-7 range won’t hurt the Suns as much as some fans think?

GB: Possibly, especially in a guard-heavy draft if the Suns have no intentions of trading Eric Bledsoe and rolling with a Tyler Ulis + new rookie backcourt rotation at the 1-spot. While I will say it’d be a pity for Phoenix to miss out on Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or a two-way prospect like Joshua Jackson, we should also note that if the Suns are going to hurt their draft stock now, they might as well do it the way they have been: Playing the young guys ample minutes and letting them learn how to win together.

MG: I have to admit that I’m not a draft pundit and I only watch NBA, but from what I’ve heard there is some depth — PEOPLE ARE SAYING!! Point guard seems to be the position with the strongest depth up top, so figuring out what the Suns what to do with Ulis and Bledsoe will be a huge factor. Plus, another variable will be who is ahead of them because there are likely going to be a decent amount of teams not needing a point guard. If they can come away with pick six or better, they should have themselves a player to help them out.

Espo: Ryan McDonough has found gems and future building blocks at every spot in the draft (if you ignore Alex Len). I trust that the talent pool is deep enough and the scouting staff is good enough to find a key piece to the team’s future at any slot in the early lottery that the Suns fall in.

OT) Purple or Orange?

GB: Purple. Always purple.

MG: As bad as the “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” joke is, you gotta go orange. The color is just delicious and vitamin C is good for you too! Plus, a basketball is orange, too. Who can argue with that?
Espo: Purple. Except for that Lakers purple. That color is BS.