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Fixing The Phoenix Suns

David Yapkowitz breaks down the path forward for the Suns this offseason and into the future.

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We kicked off a new series here at Basketball Insiders this week. We’ll take a look at each team headed for the lottery and what they could do to improve next season. Spencer Davies started off with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the second installment are the Phoenix Suns.

Despite having the second-worst record in the NBA this season, the Suns do have reason to be optimistic about their future.

What Is Working

Despite having up and down success with the draft in recent years, the Suns appear to have found a few key guys that look like building blocks of the future. They ran into trouble a few summers ago when they tried to go all in on LaMarcus Aldridge and threw a huge contract at Tyson Chandler to try and make that happen.

Even if the Suns landed Aldridge, they still wouldn’t have been good enough to be taken seriously enough in the Western Conference. They were a team in the middle, not good enough to make any serious noise, but not bad enough to land a top lottery pick. They’ve since righted the ship and are firmly committed to a rebuild. Along the way, they’ve still managed to acquire solid young talent.

Devin Booker is a star in the making. Now in his third year in the league, he’s having a career season. His 25.1 points per game, 43.3 percent shooting from the field, 38.4 percent from downtown, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists are all career-highs. He’s got all the tools to become a franchise guy and multiple All-Star appearances definitely look to be in his future.

The Suns’ most recent pick, Josh Jackson, is also starting to turn heads. He’s already one of the best defensive players on the team, capable of guarding multiple positions. His offense is still a work in progress, but he’s shown encouraging signs, especially within the past several games. Just last week on Feb. 28, in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Jackson had a career-high 29 points.

They’ve also got guys like T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, and Elfrid Payton who all should be part of the Suns’ growing core moving forward. Depending on who they select with their upcoming lottery pick, they could be close to finalizing their core for the future.

What Needs To Change

The Suns could use a little bit more stability at the helm. They’ve had three different head coaches in the past five years, and there’s no guarantee that current interim Jay Triano will be back on the sidelines next season. One of the most important things a young, growing team needs is consistency and stability from the top. It doesn’t matter how talented a young group is, it won’t do them well to have a new head coach every couple of seasons.

Hopefully, whoever ends up as head coach next season brings in a strong defensive system as well. The Suns currently rank last in the league in opponent points per game, giving up 113.2 per contest. They’ve got guys on the team such as Jackson, Warren, Payton, and Chriss who have the potential to be strong defenders. They need a system to maximize their defensive abilities.

The Suns should also look to move some of their veterans on hefty contracts if they’re able to. Tyson Chandler still has another year left on his deal and could surely help a contending team in need of some additional muscle in the frontcourt. Brandon Knight, on the other hand, will be a bit more difficult to move. He’ll be coming off an ACL injury and, with the trade deadline arrival of Payton, he no longer appears to be the Suns point guard moving forward. He also has two more years left on his deal.

Focus Area: The Draft

Currently, the Suns have the second-best odds at landing the top overall pick in the 2018 draft. Even if they end up getting the second or third pick, that’s still okay as this is shaping up to be a top-heavy draft. Landing the first overall pick would be the ideal outcome here, and with just over one month left in the season, they can still pass the Memphis Grizzlies and increase their odds at drafting first.

Should they get the number one pick, DeAndre Ayton has to be their guy. When it comes to the draft, a general rule to follow is to always go with the best player available regardless of position. In Ayton’s case, he is both for Phoenix. He’s arguably the best player in the draft and he just so happens to play center, the Suns’ biggest area of need.

If they lose out on Ayton, however, Marvin Bagley III is not a bad consolation prize at all. Sure, he isn’t the big bruiser that Ayton is, but in a league that becoming less about position and more about overall skill and talent, a potential jack of all trades star like Bagley is equally valuable. Should the current standings hold, it’s likely the Suns walk away this summer with one of the two; not bad at all.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Free agency is where the Suns have struck out in recent years. A few years ago, they looked like a team that wasn’t sure what direction they wanted to take. Were they going to tear it all down and enter a rebuild, or were they going to sign capable veterans and try and remain competitive in the West? Now it appears that they’ve chosen the right path and have embraced the rebuild.

Probably the most important decision they’re going to have to make this summer when it comes to free agency is with Payton. He’s been brilliant since coming over from Orlando at the deadline. He’s put up 16.4 points on 47. 9 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.2 assists. In the nine games he’s played in Phoenix, he’s had two triple-doubles. He’s also set to hit restricted free agency.

The Suns are going to have decide if he is their point guard of the future, and if so, to ultimately pay him. His outside shooting is a little concerning, but overall, he’s got the qualities a lead guard should have.

They’ve got a few other smaller decisions to make, such as whether or not to bring back Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams, both of whom have non-guaranteed contracts. But other than that, it should be a quiet free agency for Phoenix. They shouldn’t be looking to add any major salary. If they do make any free agent moves, it should be to bring in younger guys with possibly untapped potential as they’ve done recently with Josh Gray and Shaquille Harrison. Or maybe add a couple veteran mentors on reasonable contracts like they did with Jared Dudley. Internal development is the way to go for Phoenix.

Despite multiple seasons of finishing in the lottery, the sun does appear to be rising in Phoenix. Nailing the draft and coming away with one of Ayton or Bagley would go a long way to bringing the Suns back to respectability. Prior to worrying about the draft and free agency, however, they need to lock down their next head coach. If they can accomplish all of this, don’t be surprised to see the Suns start to climb the West standings little by little in the years to come.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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