For many NBA fans, the surprisingly effective Phoenix Suns were the most watchable team of the 2012-13 season. While they missed out on the postseason in the final days of the regular season, the Suns went from looking like a franchise strategically courting as many losses as possible to an upstart 48-win squad that didn't even need three first-round picks to have a bright future. Better yet, they did it with a very exciting offensive attack led by the point guard combo of All-NBA Third Team member Goran Dragic and highly regarded Eric Bledsoe, a restricted free agent this summer.
This offseason, the Suns appear to be doubling down on the success of last season by adding even more capable backcourt scorers. On Friday, they reached a deal to add another starter-quality point guard. As reported by Yahoo's own Adrian Wojnarowski, the Suns reached a four-year, $27-million agreement with Sacramento Kings restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas. Instead of matching the offer, the Kings facilitated a sign-and-trade deal with the Suns:
The Kings will receive center Alex Oriakhi and a $7 million trade exception in the deal, sources said.
Thomas, 25, had run his course with the Kings. They didn't want to make him a starter and he didn't want to stay. The Suns see Thomas as the third guard with starters Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, an intriguing trio in coach Jeff Hornacek's system.
It became very likely that Thomas would leave Sacramento when the Kings signed ex-Clippers point guard Darren Collison last Thursday. It also makes sense that they would use Thomas's departure to add an asset — the trade exception gives them much-needed flexibility at a time when the team has several needs.
Yet it was not especially predictable that Thomas would join the Suns, who seemed to have their point guard spots committed for the foreseeable future. In addition to Dragic and Bledsoe (nearly certain to return no matter the cost), general manager Ryan McDonough selected Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis, an iffy shooter but a strong facilitator, with the 18th pick in June's draft. With these players on board, the Suns wouldn't seem to have much use for a point guard coming off a season in which he averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists over 34.7 minutes per game with a PER of 20.5. (Yes, those are very good numbers, which makes Thomas's deal feel like a bargain.) Such players expect playing time and considerable on-court responsibility.
Of course, if Thomas were worried about such matters then he wouldn't have agreed to the offer sheet or tweeted this comment after the deal was announced:
We can assume, then, that the Suns signed Thomas to play major minutes for a team committed to its two-PG lineup and maybe even considering occasional three-PG groups, a setup that seems unusual even when really good college teams use it. It's a risky move, especially for the Suns defense. While Bledsoe is a tenacious defender and Dragic has improved in that area, the 5-9 Thomas is always going to be a limited contributor to any defense. For that matter, the Suns will miss the unique talents of recent Orlando Magic signee Channing Frye, a terrific shooter whose solid post defense allowed the Suns to achieve some balance at both ends of the floor. Although excellent wing defender P.J. Tucker will be back, Suns fans have reason to worry that the team is improving an area of strength without shoring up some problem areas, all while committing themselves to smaller lineups without many fallback options.
At the same time, there's reason to think that adding Thomas will make the Suns a much stronger outfit over the course of a full season. On a very basic level, that's because they've added a really good player — a 20.5 PER is considered the mark of a borderline All-Star, in qualitative interpretations of the statistic — at a reaosnable yearly rate. Beyond that, though, there's evidence that the Suns need good point guards in the lineup to make the postseason. Injuries caused Bledsoe to play in only 43 games last season (Dragic played 76), and Phoenix's splits with and without the duo in the lineup together tell a convincing story. With both in the starting lineup, the Suns went 23-11 — with one out with injury, they went 25-23. In adding Thomas, the Suns have made it much more likely that head coach Jeff Hornacek will never be without two capable point guards to lead the offense. And when all three are together, it could be possible for the Suns to never go without two of those players in the lineup at the same time. If Phoenix believes that the team will only go as far as these point guards take them, then it makes some sense to improve that area of strength as a season-long safety net. The rewards could be considerable, even if the Suns see their 13th-best defensive efficiency dip at the expense of improving their already impressive 8th-best offensive efficiency mark.
The worst-case scenario is that things don't work out, the Suns assess who fits their needs best, and McDonough deals one of three talented, reasonably proven young players for an impressive player at another position and/or more picks. Despite a successful 2013-14, the Suns aren't in a position where they have to win now. They may feel more pressure to win than they imagined they would a year ago, but it's not as if a single 48-win season has compelled owner Robert Sarver to issue ultimata. This team has room to experiment and take gambles on what could be a great future.
Regardless of the eventual efficacy of bringing in Thomas, McDonough and the Suns have made one of the boldest decisions of the NBA offseason, a move that will at least provide neutrals with a watchable product for the second season in a row. Instead of considering last season an aberration and trying to turn their team into a more classically effective bunch, the Suns have bought into their form of asymmetric warfare and decided it will serve as the core of the team's identity for at least another season. They will be a lively, speedy bunch with the potential to overwhelm teams on the right night. The Suns may not be national-TV mainstays just yet, but they could very well justify the cost of League Pass by themselves.
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