The flexible franchise: Suns keep their options open with element of surprise
The Phoenix Suns operate with a certain organizational agility. So flexible is their operation that it's become almost impossible to predict; just when Phoenix seems to be settling in on a particular track, they'll jump into a trade based on a value proposition or meet with a free agent never before linked to the team publicly. Their intentions are rarely telegraphed and Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, now entering his third year on the job, would very much like to keep it that way.
"A lot of teams, you read the media reports and you can kind of tell what they’re doing or what they want to do," McDonough said. "I’ve got a few people telling me, ‘We have no idea what you guys are doing.’ I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not, but we do value the element of surprise."
Most recently, that element of surprise manifested in a whirlwind summer: The re-signing of Brandon Knight allowed a quick agreement with free agent center Tyson Chandler, which pushed Phoenix near the front of the line in the courtship of LaMarcus Aldridge. Three of the summer's top free agents came into play specifically because the Suns went about their business quickly and quietly enough to catch the rest of the league off-guard. What was meticulously planned somehow seemed sudden.
The roots of Phoenix's off-season moves stretch back to the trade deadline, if not earlier. At that time, the Suns were 29-25—tied with the Thunder for eighth place in the West and just a game and a half ahead of the Pelicans. They also had bigger problems than the playoff race; All-NBA point guard Goran Dragic (who had a player option for the 2015-16 season) had made clear his displeasure with a three-guard minutes share and messaged rather plainly that he would not be continuing his career in Phoenix. True to form, the Suns—while poised for a dogfight to secure the eighth seed—surprised at the deadline by dealing away both Dragic and another of the team's best players in Isaiah Thomas.
"With Dragic saying that he wasn’t going to re-sign with us and would prefer a trade, it in some ways put us in a tough spot," McDonough said. "There were a few avenues we could have taken. We thought about a few different deals and the ones we ended up making were more forward-looking, I guess. We traded Dragic and Isaiah Thomas for three first-round picks. That hurt us a little bit in the short term to close out the year but we valued the flexibility going forward. Those picks are obviously valuable and they hopefully will be valuable down the road if we use them in a trade."
The draft picks in question were a protected 2016 first originally owned by Cleveland, a 2018 first from Miami with scant, single-year protection, and a completely unprotected first-round pick from the Heat in 2021. Adding three such assets while parting with two prominent backcourt players helped to facilitate the completion of yet another deadline deal—this one to acquire Bucks point guard Brandon Knight. Dragic's compelled exit had done nothing to shake the Suns' confidence in dual-point guard lineups.
"The system is good so long as there’s buy-in from the players," McDonough said. "We value guys who can push the ball in transition, score in transition, and if that’s not there, can get into early offense and run a pick-and-roll. I think the more guys you have on the floor who can do that, the better.
"I think the issue last year was we had three pretty high-level players who all wanted the ball in their hands," McDonough said. "But again, 48 games into the year we were 28-20 despite losing a few games at the buzzer. So it’s not like [playing two point guards] didn’t work or was a disaster, as some people believe. It didn’t work as well as we would have hoped and the players didn’t accept it as well as we would’ve hoped and we had to deal with the repercussions of that."
Knight, 23, had come into his own during his lone season with the Bucks, in part because he was entrusted with so much creative responsibility. Knight had no choice but to generate offense for a Milwaukee team short on ball handlers and shot makers. He redeemed that needed role with 17.9 points and 5.2 assists per game over that extended term—a promising prelude to Knight's impending free agency.
Phoenix wasn't content to wait. Rather than make a play for Knight, a restricted free agent, through a system built to help Milwaukee retain him, the Suns negotiated a three-team deal to acquire Knight at the cost of the Lakers' protected first-round pick, Miles Plumlee, and Tyler Ennis. That was no small concession, though in Knight Phoenix saw a developing player fit for its guard-dominant system in both game and personality.
Retaining Knight instantly became a top off-season priority. The framework of restricted free agency would have given Phoenix the right of first refusal on any offer sheet that Knight signed. It never came to that. The Suns made Knight their first meeting to start the free-agent moratorium and established the framework of what would be a five-year, $70 million deal. Those terms are essentially identical (save for some difference in year-to-year structuring) to the deal Phoenix worked out with Eric Bledsoe last September, after nearly three months of on-and-off negotiation.
"I think in some ways we had a blueprint for what Brandon’s contract could look like or should look like based on Eric Bledsoe’s deal a year ago," McDonough said. "Obviously the restricted free agent tag could have helped us, but I think last year we all learned—by we I mean the team, Eric, and his representatives—that it’s probably not best for the player or the franchise to have a three-month protracted negotiation that became as public as that one did. So we learned from it and I think it helped us in a lot of ways. I think that’s one of the reasons we were able to get a deal done quickly with Brandon."
Securing Knight's commitment early allowed the Suns to move into the next stage of their free agent plans with greater financial certainty. Knight, a quality starter, would count against Phoenix's salary cap figure for just $8.9 million until his signing became official. An agreement gave the Suns a solidified backcourt and more wiggle room under the cap as they quietly arranged a meeting with Chandler.
For many teams, Chandler was a consolation piece—a nice fall-back option in case their preferred offseason designs fell through. Phoenix killed that contingency by approaching Chandler as soon as possible with an offer in hand and disrupting the marketplace in the process. The former Defensive Player of the Year aligned cleanly with the team's internal determinations of its needs: Defensive leadership, rebounding, physical post coverage, front-line length, and winning experience.
"I think when you have a guy like that that you target, you go aggressively after him," McDonough said. "And that’s what we decided to do with Tyson. It did help us that there were so many free agent big men on the market, especially high-level players—guys who have been All-Stars, All-NBA, and all that stuff. I think a few teams wanted to kind of talk to each of the guys and get a feel for them. Some of the players wanted to do visits with multiple teams, and be wined and dined a bit. Tyson really didn’t want any of that."
Chandler's eagerness might have had something to do with the financial particulars in play. The deal he ultimately struck with the Suns will pay him $52 million over four years—a contract pushing past the injury-prone center's 36th birthday. Plenty of teams would have balked at the length of that deal, if not the total cost. Phoenix accepted the risk for the sake of making its move quickly and trusting in the return of even an aging center. There is room in evaluation of Chandler's deal for both healthy, reasonable doubt and some relative long-term optimism.
"As with any draft pick or free-agent negotiation, you do a lot of projection," McDonough said. "Tyson’s a very lean, naturally athletic guy at 7-1. Our studies show that those guys age pretty well. I was part of the Celtics team with Kevin Garnett, who was then in his mid-30s and is now in his late 30s getting close to 40 and still playing at a pretty high level. I think of Dirk Nowitzki—a different player, obviously, but a long, lean body. Tim Duncan comes to mind. Those guys tend to age pretty well. So in a few years, Tyson will still be in his mid-30s, (will) still be 7-1.
"He’s got all the tricks of the trade. He knows how to rebound, he knows how to set screens, he’s got the natural leadership ability. So we projected all that and with the way the salary cap is going or looks like it’s going, over the last couple of years we really put a premium on locking up our players for as long as we can."
McDonough sees those long-term deals as a stabilizing force for the Suns. Chandler, Knight, Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, and rookie Devin Booker (who has two team options) will all be under contract for the next four seasons at least. Phoenix will have the opportunity, then, to grow a young team without much structural interference from its core players' free agency.
That framing would become an important part of the Suns' next free agent pitch: An unexpected audience with prized forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
It was in Aldridge's courtship that Phoenix's unanticipated and swiftly executed plans came to a head. With free agency not yet a day old, the Suns brought a deep contingent to their meeting with Aldridge that included both Chandler and Knight.
"Nobody knew that we were signing Tyson Chandler," McDonough said. "I think the fact that he just showed up with our group—we had heard that’s a guy that he’s always wanted to play with. Their games complement each other very well. I think that’s when it got real, that’s when it got serious."
The pitch itself came in waves. First Aldridge met with Suns owner Robert Sarver, followed by a big-picture meeting with McDonough and senior adviser Lon Babby on the team's basketball operations. Then came a talk with head coach Jeff Hornacek and assistant Earl Watson, who had played the last season of his career with Aldridge in Portland. Chandler, Knight, and Bledsoe then met with Aldridge independently to make their case before the full group reconvened.
The feedback from Aldridge's group was positive enough that the Suns began to pursue the logistical means to sign him. Tyson Chandler's acquisition would eat up most of the team's existing cap space, even after accounting for Knight's more accommodating cap hold. A max contract for Aldridge, then, would require that the Suns shed enough salary to squeeze in both deals—along with those of the other core players and prospects on the roster—under the cap.
Phoenix could have waited. The very first day of free agency, however, had already seen cap space around the league dry up as teams pounced on their primary targets with huge, long-term offers. Each passing day would reduce the number of trade partners who could potentially absorb Suns players into their salary cap space, thus increasing the chance that Phoenix would have to give up a valued asset to make the numbers work.
So began talks between the Suns and Pistons on a deal that would send Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, and Danny Granger to Detroit while clearing an additional $8.4 million in salary from Phoenix's books.
"We decided it was a deal we would have done independently of whether we got LaMarcus or not, just for roster balance and future flexibility reasons," McDonough said.
Built into that trade calculus was the opportunity cost of keeping the Suns' better prospects buried in the playing rotation. Second-year forward T.J. Warren—who dominated in a short D-League stint and was one of the top scorers at the Las Vegas Summer League for two years running—played all of 614 minutes for Phoenix last season to Marcus Morris's 2,045. A trade would cleanly create opportunities for Warren without sacrificing any crucial players while clearing salary for Aldridge in an especially volatile market.
Aldridge ultimately signed with San Antonio as many thought he would. Phoenix, however, had improbably leveraged the timing and stealth of its free agent priorities to make one of the best players available think twice. Even relative to an incredible opportunity with the Spurs, Aldridge had real interest in joining the Suns and what they were building.
"I feel great," McDonough said. "We were in the final two. It’s a bit disappointing to end up with a silver medal or get second place or however you want to put it, but I feel good about the effort that we did all we could. Hopefully it’ll put Phoenix on the map as a place that the elite free agents want to look at. And hopefully, one of these years, we’ll land one."
Phoenix rallied well, too, in using the cap space that had been earmarked for Aldridge. Fitting in another max deal would likely have required the Suns to unload even more salary at the cost of depth. Instead, Phoenix was able to keep those players while building out its bench further—including the addition of floor-stretching forward Mirza Teletovic.
Teletovic was born to play in Phoenix. His size and shooting ability make him an ideal fit as a stretch four, where he'll clear lanes for Chandler's rolls, Morris's post-ups, and the drives of Bledsoe and Knight. That Teletovic was even available at all, though, is a stroke of good fortune; Phoenix was able to sign the 29-year-old forward to a one-year, $5.5 million contract due to the fact that the Nets eventually rescinded their qualifying offer and made Teletovic an unrestricted free agent. Rather than sort through the tangle of potentially overpaying Teletovic just to discourage Brooklyn from matching their offer, the Suns were able to present more agreeable terms.
"That made it a lot easier to negotiate a deal," McDonough said. "We’ve been looking for a stretch big ever since Channing Frye left to go to the Orlando Magic. Mirza’s a guy who had a hip injury this past season and had the scary incident with the blood clots but if you look the year before that he shot 39% from three on a high volume of attempts. That’s kind of how we play in Phoenix. We try to get up and down and score a lot in transition. Then if we can’t do that, we try to space the floor and shoot a lot of threes and we feel like Mirza checked a lot of boxes for us."
That Teletovic does so at no long-term cost whatsoever fits the team's build. Phoenix is in a position, cap-wise, to be as pliable as ever: Flexible enough to make a deadline move to enhance its playoff contention, able to play the long game with developing players, and set to make significant moves next summer without giving up many (or any, if preferred) of its projected rotation players. Even as the roster improves, the Suns' capacity to surprise endures.