After winning Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery, how quickly can the Phoenix Suns return to the playoffs?
Phoenix hasn’t reached the postseason since losing to the L.A. Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference finals. And since trading Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas at the 2015 trade deadline, they’ve averaged nearly 60 losses over the past three seasons.
Despite passing on spending big money in free agency last summer, the Suns have made no secret of their desire to see a return on their lengthy rebuilding process. Can new head coach Igor Kokoskov and the No. 1 overall pick help propel them into competitiveness next season?
Path 1: Phoenix takes Ayton
My ESPN Insider colleague Jonathan Givony has the Suns using the No. 1 overall pick on center Deandre Ayton from the nearby University of Arizona. Ayton would slot smoothly into the Phoenix lineup given that starting center Tyson Chandler will be 36 in October and has predictably declined since joining the Suns. Chandler is the only Phoenix center under guaranteed contract, with 2013 lottery pick Alex Len an unrestricted free agent (Len told Azcentralsports.com in March he expects he’ll “probably” end up elsewhere) and Alan Williams‘ $5.5 million salary non-guaranteed.
Adding Ayton to a group that includes promising shooting guard Devin Booker, lottery representative Josh Jackson (last year’s No. 4 pick) and 2016 lottery picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss would give the Suns young talent at four of the five positions, leaving point guard as Phoenix’s biggest weakness.
The Suns will have a decision to make on restricted free agent Elfrid Payton, whom they acquired from the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline for a second-round pick. Payton started all 19 games he played for the Suns after the deadline, averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 assists. Phoenix probably isn’t ready to commit big money to Payton, but given the cool market for his services at the deadline, the Suns might be able to re-sign him relatively cheaply.
If Phoenix re-signs Payton, the team would probably be better off staying over the cap this summer and using the non-taxpayer midlevel exception (worth an estimated $8.6 million) instead of cap space. The Suns will also add another first-round pick, No. 16 overall from the Miami Heat via the Dragic trade, and they have the top pick of the second round.
The trade market could be an interesting option for Phoenix if the team is willing to take on long-term salary. Chandler, making $13.6 million in the final season of his contract, could be attractive to teams in need of a veteran center. The Suns also have veteran forward Jared Dudley ($9.5 million) on an expiring deal, allowing them to add an expensive (and overpaid) player who can help the team more than Chandler and Dudley.
While the Atlanta Hawks would surely want some of the Suns’ store of future picks, Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder would be a possible target if Phoenix believes he can coexist with Bender and Jackson on the perimeter. At 24, Schroder would work with the timeline of the Suns’ young talent.
Path 2: Phoenix takes Doncic
Alternatively, the Suns could surprise us and take Slovenian forward Luka Doncic with the No. 1 pick. Nobody will have a better idea of what to expect from Doncic than Phoenix, given Kokoskov coached him as part of the Slovenia team that won last summer’s EuroBasket.
In all likelihood, Doncic will make more of an immediate contribution to winning than Ayton. He has played against tougher competition in the Spanish ACB and Euroleague and excelled against it. Doncic’s projected rating as a rookie in my draft projections is best of this year’s prospects by a wide margin.
Though Doncic doesn’t fit a need for the Suns in the same way as Ayton, adding him to Booker and Jackson would make for an intriguing perimeter trio. None project as primary ball handlers but all are capable with the ball in their hands, giving Kokoskov the opportunity to utilize a system similar to the one the Utah Jazz ran with Kokoskov as an assistant prior to this season. With relatively limited playmakers at the point, the Jazz relied heavily on wings Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood to create out of pick-and-roll opportunities.
Instead of addressing its weakness at center through the draft, Phoenix could look to free agency. By renouncing the rights to Payton and waiving Williams before his contract guarantees on July 6 (as well as the non-guaranteed contracts of young guards Shaquille Harrison and Tyler Ulis), the Suns could create up to $20 million in cap space. Only a handful of teams, most of them still in the rebuilding process, will have so much flexibility.
Last week, USA Today’s Rockets Wire reported that a source indicated Phoenix plans to make a max or near-max offer to Houston Rockets center Clint Capela, a restricted free agent. Capela, who turns 24 later this week, would give the Suns an ideal pick-and-roll partner for their young perimeter players.
While Houston would probably match any offer sheet for Capela, the Suns would have limited competition for the remaining young centers in free agency, who will come cheaper. Julius Randle could be left out if the Lakers land stars in free agency, while Montrezl Harrell is a value option after a strong season playing both forward and center for the LA Clippers.
Kokoskov’s task: improving defense
Whoever Phoenix drafts, the team is likely to improve on this season’s 30th-ranked offense. Another year of development, plus better health for Booker (limited to 54 games in his second season), makes that overwhelmingly likely. However, Kokoskov faces a greater task upgrading a defense that was also last in defensive rating by a wide margin. The Suns allowed a full point per 100 possessions more than the next worst defense during the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers — nearly as large as the gap between the Cavaliers and the 22nd-ranked New York Knicks.
That’s maybe where it becomes clear that Phoenix is too far away from competing to realistically get there next season without sacrificing long-term competitiveness. We’ve seen dramatic turnarounds before — the Milwaukee Bucks improved by 26 games in 2014-15 after drafting Jabari Parker No. 2 overall, going from the league’s worst record to the playoffs — but that 15-win Milwaukee team actually had a better net rating than the 2017-18 Suns.
So whatever the decision at No. 1, Phoenix needs to maintain its focus on peaking when that pick, Booker and Jackson are entering their primes. A step forward next season is realistic to expect, and a necessary sign of progress. But if winning now hampers the Suns’ efforts to win two or three years down the road, it will be another mistake in a rebuild that has featured too many.