Sports

The Phoenix Suns Still Don't Know What They Are

Is a free agency meeting with Blake Griffin significant, or are the Suns fooling themselves once again?
June 30, 2017, 5:42pm
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns exist in a perpetual identity crisis. No team is more confused about what it is, or where it wants to go. At various times in recent years they've convinced themselves that they are an attractive free agency destination, one appealing enough to pull in an All-Star or two. In reality they're a jumbled mess of a team, a mix of bad contracts, promising prospects, a few intriguing assets, and maybe one or two pretty good players (if all breaks right) who aren't nearly good enough to lead a playoff run.

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They want to win now and build for tomorrow—we can call this The Boston Celtics Model—but they don't have enough talent, foresight, patience, or coaching to make either objective feel possible. The Suns won 24 games last season, good for worst in the Western Conference. To be fair, several healthy veterans were intentionally put on ice at the end of the year to preserve a high draft pick. Then, in the lottery, Phoenix was leapt by two teams and fell from second to fourth, a devastating development that cost them a chance to pair Devin Booker with either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in the backcourt.

But even when Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler, Brandon Knight, and the team's other veteran contributors were in the rotation, Phoenix was still a trainwreck on defense. Add it up, and they're still too young and antsy to string together anything close to a playoff-caliber team. That brings us to free agency, where Phoenix suddenly believes it can bag a prized asset like Blake Griffin.

The two sides will reportedly meet on Sunday, in an unexpected and strange development with echoes of a similar meeting two years ago, when the Suns believed LaMarcus Aldridge was on their doorstep. This situation is a little different, though. The meeting feels more like something Griffin is using to squeeze a fifth year—and maybe even a no-trade clause—out of the Los Angeles Clippers than an actual prelude to him taking his talents to Maricopa County. The same can probably be said for Paul Millsap, another Suns target, but the Atlanta Hawks would be fine to let their best player walk if Phoenix is serious about maxing a 32-year-old out.

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Is there a reason for Griffin, and the rest of the NBA, to take the Suns seriously right now? Maybe. What if joining forces with former teammate and pseudo-All-Star Eric Bledsoe, a stable veteran like Tyson Chandler, and a bunch of blooming could-be-awesomes like Booker, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss tickles his fancy?

More importantly, is Phoenix's justifiably hallowed medical staff by itself enough to convince Griffin that signing a four-year max with a player option in the final season is his smartest long-term play? That way he can opt out after three (potentially) healthy years and re-enter free agency with 10 seasons of experience under his belt, just in time for a massive payday at a higher scale down the line.

It's not that crazy, really, but to clear max space for Griffin, the Suns would first need to renounce Ronnie Price and Alex Len, waive Leandro Barbosa, and trade either Jared Dudley or Knight. Even though he just had toe surgery and is expected to miss 3-4 months, Dudley is the easiest contract to shed without attaching any valuable assets, but he's also the better player, another of Griffin's former teammates, and a complementary fit in lineups that pit Griffin at center and Dudley at the four.

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports

If the Suns are serious about cutting corners and solely focused on regaining relevance with a star-driven playoff appearance, they should have no problem handcuffing their most prized assets to their ugliest contracts and dumping them on teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, or Sacramento Kings.

With Griffin already in the fold, what's stopping them from making a trade for the next star who becomes available? The Suns have made some devastating mistakes over the past few seasons, but they still own two attractive chips from the Miami Heat: a top-seven protected selection in 2018 and an unprotected one in 2021. All their own picks are safe and sound, too.

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Just thinking out loud, what if they sign Griffin, then, pending what happens with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, strike a deal sending Chriss and/or Bender, salary filler, and a pair of first-round picks to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan? Even with non-existent spacing, a capped ceiling, and defense that would give Phoenix's fans a permanent migraine, the lineup flexibility would be enticing. And with a proven coach—related: they'll need to hire a new coach—and system that preaches ball and man movement, at the very least they would be a fun group that's hard to stop.

Way too many things need to happen for that to become reality—it's just about impossible, honestly, and also not very smart—but the point is that if Phoenix can lure Griffin to the team, they can afford to get aggressive on the trade market. They have attractive young contributors and a solid stash of picks that would interest teams looking to time their rise with the eventual decline of the Golden State Warriors/Cleveland Cavaliers rivalry.

How about Carmelo Anthony? Or a Paul George overpay? Or maybe even an absurd offer to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook? The Suns usually come off as desperate, and with enough assets to spice up trade conversations they won't worry about destroying their future to maximize a free agent splash.

Even if they don't land another star, who knows how high Booker can climb next season, and the year after, in a competitive environment where he's the second or third option. A Bledsoe, Griffin, Booker, Jackson foursome on its own could be enough to make the playoffs in 2019, and by then they should have enough room to go spending in free agency once again.

All this sounds nice, but Griffin has more enticing offers and destinations to ponder. It doesn't hurt to get a meeting with someone that talented, but the Suns' priority should be to take things slow and grow organically with the pieces already in place. Even though they haven't made the playoffs in seven years, flexibility should still to be sexier to them than a postseason appearance. Even if they sign Griffin and trade for another star, a playoff spot is just about all they're promised to get.