During one of the most relentless summers in NBA history, many teams made drastic, franchise-altering transactions that have changed the landscape of the league for the 2019-20 season. While the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans stand out as clear winners this summer, the question now stands: who had the worst offseason?
There were a lot of teams in miserable situations at the end of last season and this summer didn’t change that.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have an unbalanced roster and decided to draft point guard Darius Garland, which made no sense, considering their team seemed to be rebuilding around last year’s pick and other point guard, Colin Sexton.
Over in Charlotte, the Hornets lost Kemba Walker for nothing and replaced him with Terry Rozier for almost $60 million over three years. Nuts.
In Washington, the forlorn Wizards lost some useful pieces and remain prisoner to John Wall’s gargantuan contract.
And then, there’s the New York Knicks. Their legions of fans were sold on hope throughout the entire 2018-19 campaign, only for it to end in relative disaster. However, the new (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant-less) forward-filled roster still has potential to support their rebuild, if handled correctly.
The award goes to…
Now, there is certainly competition for the title of ‘worst offseason’, but after analysing all the dud-trades, overpriced contracts and downright incompetency of certain NBA front offices, the award can only go to one team, which I have not yet mentioned: the Phoenix Suns.
Despite the name, things have rarely looked bright in Phoenix recently, with their best season in the past nine years being their ninth-place finish in the Western Conference in 2014. It feels like the team has been stuck in tank-mode for the better part of a decade with no end in sight.
It’s not all negative. They have the talented Devin Booker, who, remarkably, is yet to make an All-Star team, despite having a better statistical season than Bradley Beal last year. The Suns also have two 2018 lottery picks in Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, alongside other talented roleplayers such as Kelly Oubre Jr, Aron Baynes, Dario Saric and rookie Ty Jerome. So, why are they stuck in a cycle of failure and irrelevancy? Why are they the real losers of the off-season?
The Suns’ plan should have been the same as I proposed for the Knicks: to go on an all-out rebuild and collect as many assets as possible, as quickly as possible. Phoenix is arguably one of the least desirable free agent destinations, having a clueless front office similar to New York, but without the pull of a large market. Their stars, therefore, have to arrive through the draft or via trades.
Their tragic summer began on draft night, a few hours before the first pick was announced.
Indiana has traded for Phoenix’s TJ Warren, league source tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 20, 2019
The Woj notification arrived; TJ Warren was traded to the Pacers. In the moments following, fans awaited the news of what Phoenix had received in return for the wing, who was a proven scorer and an improved 3-point shooter (18 points, 42.8 percent from three, last season). But nothing came. In fact, not only had Phoenix handed away Warren for free, they gave up their 32nd pick in the draft to make it happen.
Fast forward an hour or two and the Suns traded away their sixth pick to the Timberwolves for number 11 and Dario Saric. While ‘Super Dario’ is a solid role player, the move seemed bizarre as there was almost no chance of a much-needed floor general point guard (as written about by our own Ross MacLeod back in January) remaining on the board, with Ja Morant, Darius Garland and Coby White all predicted to go in the top eight (as they did). Many analysts believed the draft was fairly level after the top three picks and Phoenix clearly felt they could get similar value at 11, taking Saric for the opportunity in the meantime.
The 11th pick arrived, with the highly-touted three-point shooter Tyler Herro, the potential-filled Sekou Doumbouya, electrifying guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and the super-athletic Brandon Clarke (who would later take Summer League MVP) all on the board, among other big names. Instead, the Suns took Cam Johnson, much to the bemusement of NBA Twitter. While regarded as a talented shooter, Johnson was the oldest player in the draft at 23-years-old. He is already older than Devin Booker and had potential to fall into the second round, per draft expert Jonathon Givony. The pick even took UNC teammate and sixth pick Coby White by surprise.
On 3 July, it was announced that the fourth pick in the 2017 draft, Josh Jackson, and young guard DeAnthony Melton were traded to Memphis. Jackson had his struggles on and off the court during his first two seasons, failing to live up to the hype surrounding him at the draft. Despite his shortcomings, in the right situation it is possible he could find his feet and become a solid, high-effort player on a good team. Wings are highly desired in the modern NBA and if Jackson improves his three-point shot, he could develop into a starter in the 3-and-D role.
— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) June 24, 2017
Would the Suns finally bring back a pick in return for giving up the young wing and guard? Unsurprisingly, no. Phoenix brought back Kyle Korver (later waived on 8 July) and Jevon Carter, a defense-heavy guard who will struggle for minutes on any NBA roster. Yet again, Phoenix handed away assets yielding no return, other than cap space. Surely, then, they had a plan to complete their roster using the newly created cap space to bring in young players or tradeable assets (like New York).
So, who did they sign? They finally filled their hole at point guard, albeit at a premium, giving Ricky Rubio $51 million for three years. Rubio had seemed destined for Indiana, but the Suns stepped in and outbid the Pacers to fill their void with the experienced Spaniard. There’s no doubt Rubio is a talented facilitator (averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 assists with the Jazz last season) and the Suns will be hoping his playmaking will free Devin Booker up to do what he does best: score.
Rubio is not the calibre of player to take Phoenix into playoff contention, and $17 million a year is a lot of money for a team that still lacks ambition and direction. Perhaps Phoenix could have found a point guard at a cheaper number whilst their rebuild continues.
Patrick Beverley re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers for $13.3 million per year, George Hill re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks for $9.5 million per year. Even Jeremy Lin and Frank Mason III (who is now on a two-way contract with the Bucks) would have given the Suns better minutes than last year’s starters, who could have likely signed at the minimum.
They are not at Rubio’s level, but they wouldn’t be paid as high either. The real question comes down to why they didn’t keep the sixth pick and add an exciting point guard prospect, who can grow with the team on a rookie-scale contract (which would have started at only $5,813,640). With Rubio, the Suns make a small improvement towards achieving mediocrity, which could be the worst place to find themselves in a league embracing the title-or-tank mindset.
Phoenix continued its free agency, handing Kelly Oubre Jr $30 million and Frank Kaminsky $10 million, both over two years, during which Kaminsky will compete with Ayton and Baynes for minutes at center. Neither player has tremendous trade value, unless they make a significant jump next season.
The Suns are in no-man’s land. They have a confusing roster with a lack of upside and made moves to improve in the short-term, while still being lightyears from competing in the coming season.
Add this year’s woes to a decade of incompetency. You only have to look at recent drafts: 2018; taking Ayton ahead of Doncic and Trae Young, 2017; taking Josh Jackson (now traded) ahead of Fox and Mitchell, 2016; taking Dragan Bender (released and signed with the Bucks) at number four ahead of Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray.
Devin Booker will enter his fifth season with his fifth head coach as the Suns try to find an answer by turning over their staff almost as much as they turn over the ball. It’s clear that their main problem is owner Robert Sarver, who continues to direct the team’s moves without any knowledge of how to build a successful franchise.
There were undoubtedly multiple teams who had a poor offseason. For the Suns, however, their summer showed that they continue to have no clear direction or ambition, making moves that hurt the franchise in the long run, rather than set it up for a successful future. With stars increasingly wanting to play in winning situations, one has to wonder when Booker will become the latest star player to join the trend and demand a trade elsewhere. Who knows? Perhaps the Knicks will have cap space in 2024 when he becomes a free agent.
Featured photo –Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington