The Phoenix Suns made the first big splash of the NBA offseason ahead of Thursday’s draft trading for Bradley Beal in exchange for Chris Paul, Landry Shamet and future second-round picks/first round-pick swaps.
The trade was largely a salary dump move for the Wizards. While there are questions about whether Paul’s salary will continue to be guaranteed moving forward, there’s almost no way to estimate what the Wizards will look like next season without knowing where Paul, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma will play.
Meanwhile, the Suns have completely revamped their franchise from top to bottom over the past six months. Matt Ishbia became Phoenix’s owner in February and made his first big move acquiring Kevin Durant in exchange for Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. After failing to reach the Western Conference finals, the Suns fired Monty Williams and replaced him with Frank Vogel. Now Phoenix has four max-level players in Durant, Devin Booker, Beal and Deandre Ayton with the prospect of low-cost role players to fill out the roster.
That being said, I still feel like Phoenix is not done making moves. The NBA’s new CBA will make it difficult for franchises to create super teams and the Suns are almost guaranteed to trigger a punitive clause, called Second Apron, which will make it difficult for them to sign free agents or trade for future draft picks. Part of the Suns’ issues last postseason were because the team was too top-heavy and thin and this deal makes their situation even worse.
Booker will likely assume the point guard role. He had great success playing on-ball over the past two seasons and that culminated in the postseason as he averaged 33.7 PPG (58.5 FG%) and 7.2 APG with a career-low 2.9 TO/G. Booker and Durant showed outstanding synergy when on the court together, routinely scoring 30-plus points with Booker as the primary ball handler. This pushed Paul, one of the best floor generals in the NBA, into an off-ball shooter role that didn’t fit his skill set.
Enter Beal, who fits perfectly as an off-ball scoring threat who can create his own shot at a high level while still being efficient as a finisher. As Kevin Pelton pointed out, last season Beal had an effective field goal percentage of 52% with at least two seconds of touch time beforehand (e.g. estimate for self-created attempts) that improved to 61% on attempts with less than two seconds touch time. Beal has averaged 25.5 PPG (47.3 FG%, 36.3 3P%) over the past seven seasons as the primary scoring option for the Wizards, never averaging fewer than 22.6 PPG during that stretch. He will be the third option in Phoenix, which means fewer shots and a dip in scoring volume into the low 20s or perhaps even upper teens. His efficiency should go through the roof and that may be enough to keep his volume over 20 PPG. And after averaging 5.5 APG over the past five seasons, Beal will likely regress as a distributor.
Durant has played almost his entire career next to two volume scorers, from his early days in OKC with Russell Westbrook and James Harden to his championship runs in Golden State with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to his time in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving and Harden. Durant is one of the most efficient volume scorers in NBA history and that should continue next season. His volume may be a bit capped compared to what it was with the Nets the past few seasons, because injuries and absences left Durant as a primary scorer without at least one of his superstar teammates. For that reason, Durant’s averages with the Warriors might be most predictive for his expectations next season. In those three seasons from 2016-17 through 2018-19, Durant averaged 25.8 PPG (52.4 FG%, 38.4 3P%) with 5.4 APG. His scoring efficiency has also improved, up to a 50-40-90 shattering 56.0 FG%, 40.4 3P% and 91.9 FT% last season. Playing alongside Booker and Beal should help him reach or even eclipse those incredible efficiency marks.
Ayton would be the odd man out as his shot volume fell through the floor after Durant’s arrival last season. Ayton averaged 18.7 PPG on 13.8 FGA in the 53 games before Durant joined the team and only 12.5 PPG on 9.9 FGA in the eight games he played with Durant during the regular season and 13.4 PPG on 11.1 FGA in the playoffs. Ayton is not a dominant defender/rebounder at center, so he almost has to be a scorer to make an impact. It is difficult to see him getting more shots, or even as many shots with Beal in the fold this season.
It’s hard to estimate the Suns’ outlook for this season without knowing what their future moves might be. Opinions vary wildly among analysts, from Kendrick Perkins claiming the Suns are the best team in the NBA with Beal to Pelton estimating they might struggle to make the Play-In Tournament. I understand Pelton’s concerns, because each of the Suns’ three best players have a track record of missing significant amounts of time because of injury and the team doesn’t have the depth to survive them. While Phoenix has three of the most potent shooter/scorers in the league, the team still lacks the team defense, rebounding and athleticism necessary to compete at the highest level. If they make no other moves, I project them as a 50-ish win team that might compete for home court advantage in the playoffs, but I wouldn’t have them as championship favorites.
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