The Phoenix Suns already have the maximum of fifteen players under contract for the 2016-17 season, but that doesn’t mean the team can’t add one more via free agency.
In fact, it looks likely that is exactly what will happen.
John Jenkins was a passable guard off the bench in 22 games for the Suns last season, but there have been indications that he will be let go. His non-guaranteed contract was supposed to become fully guaranteed in July, but that deadline was extended to the beginning of the season. This is a clear indication that the preference of the team is to let him go in order to free a roster spot for a new player.
There are a few directions Phoenix could go when finding that last piece of the puzzle, each bringing certain advantages. Why might the Suns sign another a guard, a forward, or a center?
The Dominoes That Lead to a Guard
The Suns do not need another guard. Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and Brandon Knight should be the best three players on the team this season. However, that is exactly why bringing in a backup-quality point guard in free agency is the move with the most upside.
By adding another point guard (ideally a combo guard that leans towards a facilitating role), the team can more comfortably trade Bledsoe or Knight. While it must be tempting to roll out the occasional small-ball lineup with all three guards, putting Booker and Knight on the court at the same time is like holding opposing scorers’ hands and escorting them to the basket for easy looks, which is just part of why it would make more sense to trade Knight than Bledsoe. However, rumors have surfaced regarding both players.
Trading Bledsoe or Knight could bring in solid talent at a shallower position, a decent draft pick, or both. This would be preferable to signing a washed up big man or forward, but is dependent on the right opportunity presenting itself to the front office in Phoenix before it desired free agent point guard is scooped up by another team.
Ty Lawson is a player that has a lot to prove next season after a tumultuous 2015-16 campaign. Should playing time be made available to him (a big if, considering the lack of love he's been shown by teams in free agency this summer), there is plenty of reason to think he will capitalize. Remember, he is only one year removed from averaging 15.2 points and 9.6 assists. Getting a productive season out of him while flipping one of the current point guards for a legitimate asset or two would be the best possible use of that last roster spot.
Another potential option would be to sign Mario Chalmers, who is coming off of a season in which he played well for Memphis before suffering an injury and being waived. Assuming he has recovered well, he has proven himself to be a reliable 3&D guard throughout his career. Signing with Phoenix could be a move that pays dividends for him in the long run.
It is just about certain that trading one of its current point guards is a scenario that Phoenix has explored this summer. Should the cookie crumble another way, would it make sense for the team to sign another big man or another forward?
Forward Thinking - A Fix for the Short Term
Forwards bring much intrigue with them for Suns fans this season, as the team selected two in the draft as low-floor, high-ceiling prospects while also signing a fan favorite in free agency. While Jared Dudley is a proven commodity that should not struggle to hold down the fort, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss bring reasons for concern with them in the immediate future.
Bender comes into the league a highly touted international prospect, but the only aspect of his game that anybody lauds with much certainty is his shooting touch. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to handle himself on defense when matching up with NBA players, and there is also concern surrounding his ability to do much else beyond catching the ball and shooting it on offense.
Chriss, on the other hand, is a tremendous athlete with immense upside on the defensive end. This alone could earn him run for a team sorely needing capable defenders, and he should be useful as the offense looks to make more happen in transition this season. However, he was a poor rebounder in his lone season at Washington, and his ability to score is far from a given (not to mention that defense is the area that players most consistently struggle with when making the transition into the NBA).
It would make sense for the Suns to add a player that can handle himself well enough to earn time early on while also demonstrating a willingness to cede minutes to a rookie should one or both of them earn a bigger opportunity.
Josh Smith brings with him a history of positional versatility and strong defense, but that history also includes many hiccups (to put it lightly). Coming off of a season in which he saw his minutes cut in half, will age 31 be when humility finally enters his portfolio? Given all of his failed reclamation attempts in the past few years, signing him would be a significant risk, particularly if there are plans to show him the bench in favor of rookies at some point.
However, there are not many options beyond Smith that promise much on the court. Dorell Wright spent last season in China before joining Miami for the playoffs. He is a small forward that can do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but doesn’t project to do all that much going forward.
Perhaps the most realistic option would be Steve Novak, who brings a consistent enough shooting touch to give minutes to, but brings a limited enough skill set to justify reducing those minutes significantly once Bender and Chriss look like passable NBA players. However, it is not a coincidence that he has only played 45 games over the past two seasons, garnering more than ten minutes played in only five of them.
The free agent pool is not overflowing with exciting forwards, but bringing in a usable talent at the position would fill Phoenix’s most pressing on-court weakness for the beginning of the season. However, such a minor short-term fix may is not the option that makes the most sense.
A Center for Depth
The Suns only have three players on their roster that have shown the ability to play center, and only two of them have played more than 68 minutes in the NBA (the odd man out is Alan Williams, whose contract is also not guaranteed. However, Suns GM Ryan McDonough has stated that Williams is likely to remain on the roster, per Paul Coro of azcentral.com).
If Tyson Chandler or Alex Len suffers a significant injury at any point in the season, the lack of depth could become a serious predicament for Phoenix. Adding one more big man could provide much-needed insurance, and there are plenty of backup quality bigs left on the market.
A capable defender inside would be the most prudent addition for a team that struggled mightily on that end of the court last season. Kevin Seraphin is coming off of an impressive defensive season with the Knicks, and has enough mid-range touch to spend small chunks of time at power forward, something he did regularly earlier in his career.
Kendrick Perkins would be another player to consider for this role. He has been a fan favorite throughout his entire career and would bring another veteran voice into the locker room. The question is whether he’d be interested in a third-string center role in Phoenix, a scenario that seems unlikely (Alex Kennedy of Basket Insiders reported back in July that the Warriors, for instance, have shown interest in Perkins since trading Andrew Bogut).
Matt Bonner is not what the savvy basketball fan refers to as a “good defender”, but he brings ten years of experience playing for the best-run organization in the NBA with him. He has never been particularly spry, so it reasonable to wonder just how much running he will be good for, but his ability to stretch the floor is unique and proven.
There is a bevy of low-profile big men on the market thanks to the lessening demand for players that can only operate in the paint (thanks, modernization). Of all the routes the Suns could go with their final roster spot, this seems like the one that serves the biggest need while also providing the most options.
Should a scenario involving a guard like Lawson or Chalmers fall through, whether Phoenix decides to sign a forward or a center will be very telling of the front office's mindset. Signing a forward would indicate that the team is willing to take a risk in order to gain a few extra wins. Adding a center would mean the team prefers to play it safe and add the most valuable player available.
And if the Suns end up holding on to Jenkins? McDonough must be all-in on tanking for (at least) one more season.