Have the Phoenix Suns already reached their ceiling?

Despite having three of the NBA’s most dynamic scorers — Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal — and talk of title contention by owner Mat Ishbia, the Phoenix Suns narrowly escaped the play-in tournament and summarily exited the playoffs with a first-round sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves. As big-name, high-priced rosters go, there aren’t too many that can top the 2023–24 Suns because of the disparity between expectations and actual achievement.

Complicating matters is a revised league salary cap with measures that handicap teams with already expensive rosters from spending any more money to improve them.

So, what can Ishbia and GM James Jones do to close the gap? What should they do? Those were the questions posed by FOX Sports to a half-dozen GMs, scouts and executives. The answers varied, but the consensus: the Suns aren’t as hamstrung as some portrayed them on the heels of their elimination by the Timberwolves, which is a case Ishbia made in a recent press conference.

“It’s not like they’re a bad team,” a Western Conference executive said. “They’re not a championship team because the pieces just don’t fit. Right now, they have what I call good problems.”

Solving them, however, could take several different forms. In fact, one Western Conference scout proposed two drastically different approaches. “Restructure the roster with a two or three-year window of playoff pursuit,” he said, “or tear it down and rebuild now.”

How bad is being swept for Kevin Durant’s legacy? | Speak

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Restructuring the supporting cast around Booker, Durant and Beal would essentially involve making everyone else on the roster available for trade — center Jusuf Nurkic, shooting guard Grayson Allen, forwards David Roddy and Nassir Little and shooting guards Eric Gordon and Josh Okogie. Both Gordon and Okogie have player options for next season. All but Allen are on relatively short-term, inexpensive contracts, which improves their trade value. But switching them out for the kind of role players that would be a better fit for Phoenix still won’t be easy.

The scout ticked off the pieces the Suns currently do not have that they need to acquire. 

“They are poorly constructed,” he said. “Where is their bench? Where is their rim-protecting, shot-blocking big as a starter or off the bench? Where is a decision-making point guard as a starter or off the bench? Where is their 6’7″ defensive wing? Where is a power forward who plays with size and physicality, since KD doesn’t want to play the 4?Where is their size? They are too small. All of that is essential to a winning franchise with championship aspirations.”

The Western Conference executive seconded the idea of keeping the core three intact and fitting better pieces around them.

“Because you have those three guys, you’re going to have a winning team,” he said. “Are you going to win a championship? Maybe not. I would just address the obvious needs and run it back, because if you just get rid of everybody to start over, you don’t know how long that’s going to take that. Do you have two or three years as a new owner to just watch the team grow? I think you’ve got to find a way to win back your fan base because your fan base is down on you right now.”

The Suns filled their roster this season with veterans whose strengths came closer to replicating than complementing Booker, Durant and Beal. “They foolishly cornered the market on undersized scoring wings,” the Western Conference scout said. “Why?” While Ishbia left open the possibility of making roster changes, he also indicated that he would be inclined to use Phoenix’s available draft picks — five in the next eight years — as trade assets to acquire already established players. The Western Conference executive disagreed with that approach.

“They’re going to have to bite the bullet a little bit and start playing young guys,” he said. “Put a team out there that’s going to fight and play hard. I want the fans on their feet cheering because when they leave the arena, they feel like, ‘Man, the team gave it everything they got.’ That’s what they don’t have right now. Denver hit gold with Christian Braun and that kid, Peyton Watson. That’s what Phoenix needs. They’ve got a first-round pick this year, and some people are telling ’em to trade it. They should use it and play the guy.”

No GM, scout or executive could pinpoint exactly how much improvement the Suns could hope to make by surgically working around Booker, Durant and Beal. What they could potentially get if they were willing to move Booker, Durant or Beal elicited far more detailed responses.

“KD probably gets you the Jrue Holiday Package,” an Eastern Conference executive, referring to the first-round pick and two quality role players — point guard Malcolm Brogdon and forward Robert Williams — the Portland Trail Blazers received when they sent Holiday to the Boston Celtics. “Booker gets the Mortgage-the-franchise-to-acquire-him package. Meaning you’d give up all your future assets to get him. Beal you’d need to give up multiple picks to get off of him.”

The return for Durant would not come close to what the Suns gave Brooklyn to acquire him — Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and five first-round picks — which would surely discourage the Suns from exercising that option. GM James Jones also indicated that his goal is to unlock Durant’s full potential. Despite Durant collecting four scoring titles and league MVP award in Oklahoma City, along with two finals MVP awards with Golden State, Jones said that has yet to be accomplished. 

Beal’s lack of market appeal can be attributed to a combination of his frailty (played 53 games this season), his production (18 points per game, his lowest in the last eight years) and his contract (two more years with a player option for a third worth $160 million).

Despite that, the Eastern Conference executive believes the Suns’ first order of business is to cut their losses before they’re forced into a fire sale. “Taking the swing to acquire him wasn’t without justification,” he said. “But Beal is toxic debt now. You have to move on before Book and KD demand trades and you lose leverage in the market place.”

Booker is the most attractive trade piece among the three for several reasons. At 27, he is in the prime of his career with four All-Star appearances already to his credit. He has averaged 25 points or more each of the last six seasons, shot 47 percent or better over the same stretch with a 35.7 career three-point shooting percentage and never has had a whiff of controversy around him.

Unconfirmed rumors already have floated that there is mutual interest between him and the New York Knicks. For what it’s worth, the Knicks have a surplus of first-round picks and could offer a player package that checks several of the boxes posed by the Western Conference scout without impacting their starting lineup: rim protector, Mitchell Robinson; point guard, Miles McBride; rugged power forward, Precious Achiuwa.

One Eastern Conference GM, unsolicited, asked, “Does Book want to stay in Phoenix? Unclear.”

A second Eastern Conference executive pointed to the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as other candidates who could see Booker as an ideal fit. For the Spurs it would be pairing him with rookie big man Victor Wembanyama. The Thunder already have a promising young backcourt in  point guard Shai Gilgeous Alexander and shooting guard Jalen Williams, but both being practically the same size as the 6’6″ Booker, that could make for a formidable trio of two-way threats.

“San Antonio has the assets to get him,” he said. “So does Oklahoma City. And it’s really the only way Phoenix can change course.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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