Despite Finals run, Phoenix Suns should focus on the future

Jul 20, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22), guard Devin Booker (1) and guard Chris Paul (3)during game six of the 2021 NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns had a successful season. After a decade-long playoff drought, the Suns made it to the NBA Finals and were two games away from winning it all. Despite this, the Suns would be better off long-term if they move on from the Hall-of-Fame point guard.

Maintaining flexibility moving forward

Chris Paul has a $44 million player option for the 2021/2022 season. While that is a significant amount, there are rumors of Paul opting out in favor of a three-year, $100 million deal. If Paul does opt-out, it will open up roughly $31 million in cap space for the Suns. Phoenix should use this money for long-term pieces around their franchise cornerstones.

Speaking of DeAndre Ayton, the former #1 pick has played his way into a hefty contract with his postseason play. It is believed Ayton will earn a maximum contract extension this upcoming offseason. Star role-player Mikal Bridges is also eligible for an extension. In short, this offseason is the Suns’ final opportunity to add depth around their core trio.

Committing long-term money to Chris Paul means banking on internal improvement alone. However, there’s no guarantee that Ayton and Bridges’ progress will outweigh Paul’s inevitable decline. Therefore, moving on from Paul would give the Suns flexibility to build a team that will have an upwards trajectory.

Age and injury history

At age 36, Chris Paul gathered an All-NBA and Finals appearance. Paul keeping up this level of play is nothing short of incredible. On the other hand, how long can one expect him to perform at a high level? Being a high-impact player at age 36 doesn’t necessarily mean he will be at 37-39. In fact, it is inevitable Paul will begin a steep decline. This decline could start as early as next season. To sum up, it doesn’t make sense for the Suns to spend that amount of money for a player who will depreciate in on-court value.

That’s assuming he will remain on the court at all. While he has been impressively healthy the past two seasons, Paul’s injury history is concerning. Not just that, he always seems to find a way to get injured at the worst possible time.
In 2015, a hamstring injury kept Paul out of the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals. He eventually returned but ended up losing the series in seven games. It may be nitpicky, but in a close series, that lone loss made all the difference. The following season Paul broke his hand in the opening round. We also can’t forget his most costly injury. Paul suffered a hamstring injury in 2018 while up 3-2 against the Golden State Warriors.

Those are only his postseason injuries. His injuries during the regular season only add to the concern. He missed a month of his rookie season due to an ankle injury. Thirty games in 2010. Eighteen games in 2014. Twenty-eight games across two separate injuries in 2017. Twenty-four games in 2019 due to a hamstring injury. You get the picture. In short, his injury concerns will only worsen closer to retirement. The Phoenix Suns can’t rely on Chris Paul to remain on the court long-term.

Possible replacements

As mentioned before, the Suns should use their cap space to sign quality-free agents. They should do so before extending Ayton and Bridges. Doing so will allow them to go over the salary cap to bring back the duo and lock in a core that can contend long-term. Let’s take a look at some options the Suns should explore.

Lonzo Ball

Dec 29, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball (2) against the Phoenix Suns at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
DeAndre Ayton defends Lonzo Ball

Lonzo Ball is coming off his most impressive season to date. The twenty-three-year-old guard posted averages of 14.6 points and 5.7 assists per game. He did so while shooting 37.8% from three on 8.3 attempts per game, both career highs. He should fit well in the backcourt with Devon Booker. Ball is a gifted playmaker and will help fill some of the void left by Chris Paul’s departure. More importantly, he’s young enough to ensure the Suns remain competitive for a long time.

Ball is a restricted free agent. The New Orleans Pelicans are not likely to match any significant offer sheet. If the Suns want Ball, they’ll have to be willing to open up their checkbooks. They’ll compete with the Chicago Bulls, who hope to acquire Ball as a backcourt partner to Zach Lavine. That said, Ball ensures the Suns have an upwards trajectory long-term. Did I mention he’s only twenty-three?

John Collins

Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins is another player expected to have many suitors. Like Ball, he is a restricted free agent. The Hawks will be able to match any offer sheet offered to Collins. To be blunt, prying Collins away from the Hawks is a long shot. The Hawks are fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and will likely look to run it back.

Feb 23, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) shoots over Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) in the third quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
John Collins layup contested by DeAndre Ayton

Still, the Suns should do their due diligence. Collins is an elite rim-runner capable of putting up twenty points per game. He also spaces the floor for Ayton to operate inside. Collins is the exact offense-minded player the Suns should want next to their defensive anchor in the frontcourt. At twenty-three years old, he fits the Suns’ long-term outlook. The only problem is this move will force Booker into the point-guard role.

Norman Powell

Shooting guard Norman Powell is coming off the best season of his career. This season Powell averaged 19.6 points per game on an absurdly efficient 61.8 True Shooting Percentage. In short, Norman Powell is a bucket getter. Powell is an unrestricted free agent and will have complete control over his next team. Like Collins, acquiring Powell would force Booker to slot as Phoenix’s point guard.

May 13, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) controls the ball while defended by Portland Trail Blazers forward Norman Powell (24) during the second half at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Norman Powell defends Devon Booker

Still, if Booker can take that next step in his development, Powell would be a great choice at the two-guard. He’s capable of scoring both on and off the ball, at the rim or from deep. Being able to create his own shot means sharing ball-handling duties with Booker. At age twenty-seven, Powell is entering his prime. Most importantly, he already has a ton of postseason experience. Powell has appeared in 73 playoff games in his career. This includes winning a championship with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

Lauri Markkanen

Mar 31, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (24) dribbles against Phoenix Suns forward Dario Saric (20) during the second half at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Lauri Markkanen drives on Dario Saric

Chosen seventh in the 2017 draft, Markkanen had himself a promising sophomore season. Unfortunately, Markkanen has been somewhat disappointing the past two seasons. Still, he’s only 24 and has some redeeming qualities. His 3 point stroke is elite. Markannen shot 40.2% from deep on nearly six attempts per game this past season. A center like Ayton, who likes to operate inside, would thrive next to a floor spacer like Markkanen. He is a restricted free agent this offseason. With reports of the Bulls attempting to trade him at the deadline, it’s challenging to see Chicago matching any significant offer from the Suns.

Duncan Robinson

Aug 8, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Miami Heat's Duncan Robinson (55) goes to the basket as Phoenix Suns' Deandre Ayton (22) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball at Visa Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Ashley Landis/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinso is the final option on our list. At twenty-seven years old, Duncan is an absolute sniper. At 40.8% on 8.5 attempts per game, Robinson is one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA. Unfortunately, he’s allergic to creating for himself. Another player assists a whopping 95.6% of his field goals. His lack of individual creation could be a problem for a team that’s losing its primary playmaker.

Still, he’s worth pursuing if Phoenix strikes out on the before mentioned options. He has a lightning-quick release and is not hesitant to let it fly. At 6’6″, he has excellent size for a guard and can see above defenders. His off-ball movement is a nightmare for opposing defenses. If Booker can take that next step as a playmaker, Robinson is a solid option to slot as the Suns’ shooting guard.

Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns should be commended for their Cinderella season. Many expected them to be only a decent playoff team. Instead, they earned their first Finals appearance in nearly two decades. Still, the front office would be wise to avoid being prisoners of the moment. Instead, they would be wise to look to the future and retool around a younger roster. Doing so would put them on the path towards long-term contention.

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