Phoenix Suns: Underwhelming Trade Deadline A Small Step In The Right Direction

Mar 25, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) smiles with Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) after Booker fouled Cousins on a shot during the second quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns had an underwhelming 2017 NBA Trade Deadline, but here’s why it was actually a good sign for the franchise moving forward.

The contingent of Phoenix Suns fans hoping for drastic changes at the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline were probably disappointed when the team’s biggest move was sending P.J. Tucker up to Canada for a package of Jared Sullinger and two second round draft picks.

While teams like the New Orleans Pelicans landed DeMarcus Cousins and the Boston Celtics engaged in talks for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, Suns fans were left wondering what general manager Ryan McDonough was working on behind the scenes.

After all, their GM had always preferred to operate in the shadows, waiting until right before the deadline to finalize his move. This year, with a number of teams allegedly taking calls on their superstars, McDonough — a man who historically has gone all in on those types of players — stayed silent.

It may not be easy for a fanbase facing its seventh straight year without a playoff appearance to understand or accept it, but the Suns’ underwhelming trade deadline was actually a small step in the right direction.

While Phoenix is used to success as the fourth winningest franchise in NBA history, it’s also the longest-tenured team in the league to never win a championship. Approaching their 50th season in 2017-18, the Suns have also never won the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

The curse of the Lew Alcindor coin flip is very real, and though the Suns (18-39) will never catch the Brooklyn Nets (9-47) for this year’s best odds at the first overall selection, even that minor P.J. Tucker trade helps ensure they don’t fall out of the tank race’s No. 2 spot.

The Los Angeles Lakers just traded their leading scorer and best overall player. The Sacramento Kings gave up a top-10 player and got virtually nothing in return. The Orlando Magic shipped off Serge Ibaka and were terrible with him. The Philadelphia 76ers are missing an injured Joel Embiid and also sent away their leading active scorer, Ersan Ilyasova, and Nerlens Noel.

The Suns didn’t choose to capitalize on Eric Bledsoe‘s career year or his sky-high trade value. They couldn’t move Brandon Knight, try as they might, and a Tyson Chandler deal never gained traction either.

Despite everything he gave the franchise and his desire to win here — a trait that hasn’t been common in these parts over the last half-decade — P.J. Tucker and the Suns needed to move on. Now he can give his patented 150 percent nightly effort to an actual contender, while Phoenix no longer has to worry about committing unnecessary cap space to re-signing him as an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Suns were unable to secure a first round pick for Tucker just a year after squeezing one out of Markieff Morris when his trade value was in the toilet, but they got what they could out of him — a second round pick in a deep 2017 draft and another one in 2018.

Sullinger, the other piece of the deal, will be waived, as will Mike Scott, who was acquired in a separate deal for cash that saw the Suns send a heavily protected second round pick (which will probably never convey) to the Atlanta Hawks.

Not only do these moves improve the Suns’ cap situation, but they open up more playing time for Dragan Bender, who hopes to return from his ankle surgery before the season’s over. It frees up more minutes for Marquese Chriss and fan favorite Jared Dudley, ensures that head coach Earl Watson won’t be riding Tucker for 35+ minutes a night and yes, it makes Phoenix’s defense considerably worse.

Before the trade deadline, the Suns were already the league’s fourth-worst defense, surrendering 109.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. From the start of 2017, they ranked as the NBA’s second-worst defense. Those numbers are sure to worsen with the team’s most versatile defender and exemplary hustle guy gone.

But what about a trade for a superstar? is what you’re probably wondering. McDonough has always operated like acquiring all these assets was about pooling them together to bring the Suns their first franchise player since Steve Nash!

Perhaps that was once the modus operandi, but with the youth movement taking centerstage, a more patient approach is required. Bender and Chriss have not impressed in their rookie years, but they’re two of the NBA’s five youngest players. They were always going to be projects; none of this should surprise anyone.

Devin Booker is a dreadful defender, but he’s made significant progress on the offensive end after a slump to start his sophomore campaign, averaging 24.4 points per game on .453/.426/.830 shooting splits since the calendar flipped to 2017. He could be the next franchise superstar at just 20 years old.

T.J. Warren has been searching for consistency since his mysterious “minor head injury,” but he’s still only 23. So is Alex Len, who should get more minutes down the home stretch as Phoenix prepares for the enigma that is his restricted free agency.

Tyler Ulis is only 21, and the Suns have a potential top-three pick coming in a 2017 NBA Draft loaded with talented guards — in addition to a top-seven protected first-rounder from Miami in 2019 and an unprotected first-rounder from Miami in 2021.

If none of these assets outside of Booker does anything for you, if building through the draft and developing young players comes off as a risky endeavor, or if patience isn’t really your thing considering it takes real talent to put butts in the seats of a warm city where fair weather fandom is inherent, it’s worth mentioning that Phoenix didn’t have a Godfather offer to bring forth anyway.

The Pelicans snagged Cousins not because Phoenix’s offer wasn’t good enough, but because Kings owner Vivek Ranadive was delusional in his love for Buddy Hield. You don’t try to outbid lunacy.

Paul George was never an option because Larry Bird wound up turning down a monster deal from the Boston Celtics that would have trumped Phoenix’s offer anyway. There’s also the fact that PG-13’s two preferences are re-signing in Indiana to compete for a title, or returning home to the Los Angeles Lakers in his 2018 free agency.

Jimmy Butler could’ve been an option, but again, if Phoenix had pursued him, they would’ve had to give up the whole farm and still may have fallen short once the Celtics entered the bidding war. Decent pickups like Derrick Favors or Andre Drummond wouldn’t have moved the needle much for a franchise that’s tried time and time again to rebuild from the middle up under McDonough.

If the Suns were trading for a star, it would’ve been to pair him with Bledsoe and Booker to form a new Big Three. Unfortunately, keeping them off limits would’ve hurt the value of any package the Suns could put together, which might have looked something like Alex Len, T.J. Warren, one of Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss and the Suns’ 2017 first-rounder.

From panic-trading Isaiah Thomas for Brandon Knight to going all in on LaMarcus Aldridge in a move that angered Markieff Morris, every move McDonough has made to return the Suns to bottom-rung playoff contention has blown up in some fashion.

The ripple effects of that 48-win season in 2013-14 are still visible to this day, and it was finally time for McDonough to do what he tried to do when he first took over: Tank.

That’s precisely what the Suns are doing now, and though finding a deal for Chandler to free up minutes for Len would’ve been nice, a subtle and understated trade deadline signals the front office’s commitment to building this thing back up the right way.

If owner Robert Sarver can just give McD enough time to put all those valuable picks to use in the draft, the one area where he’s proven proficient (or at least competent) at a GM, the Suns have a chance at assembling a young core that could contend for a championship down the line.

It’s not a surefire path to to that elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. Booker, Chriss and Bender all have significant progress to make still, the Suns have to nail their 2017 selection, Knight and Chandler need to be taken care of, there’s still a logjam in the backcourt that won’t get better in a guard-heavy draft, the list goes on and on.

But at the very least, the Suns didn’t make a rash decision to blindly pursue a superstar, gutting the roster for someone who might’ve left in free agency within a year or two anyway. The path back to contention is very clear, and though it requires a bit of patience, it’s time to accept reality.

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