Suns guard Devin Booker said in 2018, “This is probably my last year ever not making the playoffs.”
That quote has loomed over Phoenix like a cruel joke ever since. The Suns were even worse the following season and again missed the playoffs last season.
But Phoenix finally looks ready to end a franchise-long postseason drought, which has now reached 10 years.
Booker, anointed too early, actually made the leap last season. Several of his young teammates – Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson – stepped up to help the Suns go 8-0 in the bubble.
And now veteran reinforcements arrive.
Chris Paul is the big addition. Yes, he’s 35 and due $85,569,960 over the next two years. But that’s the why such a good player was available for such a reasonable cost (a protected first-round pick, Kelly Oubre and Ricky Rubio). Paul also adds value as a veteran leader.
Phoenix’s long-term future still revolves around Booker and Ayton, and Paul will likely be gone/declined by the time Booker and Ayton peak. But the first-rounder sent to Oklahoma City is protected well enough – top-12 in 2022, top-10 in 2023, top-8 in 2024, unprotected in 2025 – to justify upgrading over the next couple years. If Booker and Ayton hit their upsides, the Suns have enough other ways to complement the pairing down the road.
Even acquiring Paul without opening cap space worked out. Power forwards that seemed in range of Phoenix’s potential cap space had the Paul trade been completed later – Davis Bertans (Wizards), Danilo Gallinari (Hawks), Jerami Grant (Pistons) – all got more money elsewhere. Serge Ibaka took just the non-taxpayer mid-level exception from the championship-contending Clippers, but I’m not sure he would’ve been swayed by a larger offer from Phoenix.
The Suns did well to sign Jae Crowder for three years with their non-taxpayer mid-level exception. He’ll fit right in at power forward with his physicality, defense and shooting.
That route also allowed Phoenix to re-sign Dario Saric (three years, $27 million) and Jevon Carter (three years, $11.5 million), though Carter’s cap hold was likely small enough to keep him regardless.
Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore were excellent minimum-salary signings. I’m not sure how the Suns got them so cheaply in a league where shooting comes at a premium.
Drafting Jalen Smith No. 10 looks suspect. But Phoenix general manager James Jones deserves some benefit of the after picking Cameron Johnson No. 11 last year, a selection that isn’t guaranteed to pan out but looks far more reasonable than it did on draft night.
Like with Johnson, I disagree with a frequent criticism: If the Suns liked Smith so much, they should’ve traded down, gained assets and gotten him later. It’s far from guaranteed that plot would’ve worked. Especially in this draft with evaluations varying wildly. Who was trying to trade up to No. 10? What assurance was there Smith would fall?
Smith at least has good building blocks both offensively and defensively. If he improves his mobility, he could warrant going in the lottery.
But Phoenix might be depending on him to be backup center this season, which could be a tall order. The Suns also signed Damian Jones from the Hawks, but he’s not necessarily up for the role. Saric can play small-ball five, but some matchups will give him trouble.
Still, backup center is the most easily addressable hole in an NBA rotation. The Suns figured out how to add a star in Paul, a good starter in Crowder and multiple quality reserves in Galloway and Crowder. Phoenix can handle getting another backup center if necessary.
The Western Conference is deep. Teams that would make the playoffs in an an average conference in an average year will miss the playoffs in this year’s West. The Suns could fall short.
But they could also win a playoff series.
Excitement in Phoenix is now based on genuine possibilities, not empty hype.