In a surprising twist as free agency opened early Sunday, the young, rebuilding Phoenix Suns chose to pay up for veteran stability, signing reliable wing Trevor Ariza away from the Houston Rockets. For the last three years, Ariza was a key role player for the Rockets, who won a league-high 65 regular-season games last season and came close to unseating the Warriors in the postseason. A reported one-year, $15 million offer did the trick, the 33-year-old Ariza securing a nice payout for his recent work. The trade-off: he’ll exit a contending situation to help a rebuilding Suns team in search of an identity.
While this may not move the needle in a splashy sense for Phoenix, there were worse ways, and certainly riskier ones, in which they could have committed their cap space. Ariza takes the Suns off the board as free agency players, and they’ll have to let go of forward Alan Williams in order to create room to sign him. Early speculation had largely been whether the Suns would use their cap space to find guard help, potentially to tempt a restricted free agent like Fred Van Vleet or Marcus Smart. There may be some opportunity cost in this decision, but they opted to spend short-term, preserve cap flexibility over the next couple seasons, and add a reliable, experienced contributor to stabilize the rotation, and ideally the locker room.
On the surface, it’s easy to characterize this as a win-now move. In actuality it’s more about Phoenix keeping the long view in mind. With or without Ariza in the fold, making the playoffs will be a long shot given the Suns’ essential pieces are all in their early 20s. Rising star Devin Booker, 21, is up for a five-year max contract extension this summer in the neighborhood of $156 million. No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and fellow first-rounder Mikal Bridges are both likely to contribute early in their careers, and on affordable rookie contracts. Ideally we’ll see development from second-year wing Josh Jackson, and there’s still time for Dragan Bender, who despite a sluggish start to his career won’t turn 21 until November. Marquese Chriss is still around. T.J. Warren’s four-year extension just kicked in, and he’s improved his scoring average in each of his four NBA seasons to date.
It’s accurate to say that there are now too many cooks in that frontcourt. Brandon Knight is still around and rookie Elie Okobo has some promise, but the Suns will likely want to look elsewhere for short-term help at point guard. While Ariza will wean minutes away from somebody, he, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley will be a useful trio of leaders in an otherwise fresh-faced locker room. The hope is that Phoenix takes an organizational step forward (following a league-worst 21–61 year, it shouldn’t be hard), and positions itself to capitalize in the two summers that follow. Rather than commit long-term to yet another young player, inking Ariza to a one-year deal looks like an intelligent stopgap: the Suns now have $40 million in expiring contracts, including Chandler, Dudley and Troy Daniels. In the meantime, the Suns are betting on their youngsters to improve, and have created a window to be players in free agency over the next two years (with the salary cap also projected to rise in addition to all their space). There are far worse players to bring in short-term than Ariza, a useful shooter, defender and known competitor who can help set the tone this season.
Losing Ariza is a blow for the Rockets, who brought back Gerald Green on the minimum and kept Chris Paul, but must now look elsewhere and get creative to fill his minutes with another competent shooter and defender to play off of their stars. Replacing his experience will pose a challenge as Houston continues to try and go toe to toe with Golden State in the West. As recent history has shown, the challenge of building around star talent on max contracts will always be retaining the pieces around them. Winning big inflates the value of every player in the rotation, and it’s hard to knock Ariza for leaping to sign this lucrative a deal in the later end of his career. He’ll still be free to join a contender next year if he chooses.