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Suns crush first hour of 2023 NBA free agency on the margins with multiple deals

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
July 1, 2023

The Phoenix Suns had limited flexibility to work with entering the 2023 offseason, but that sure didn’t stop them from being aggressive in the first hour of NBA free agency.

Within the first 90 minutes, the Suns reportedly agreed to deals to bring back Josh Okogie and Damion Lee, as well as bring aboard Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, Yuta Watanabe and Chimezie Metu.

There will be time in the coming weeks to fully break down the new guys’ games more in-depth, but for the time being, let’s take a look at what the Suns were able to accomplish in the first hour or so of free agency, which remaining players they could still target to fill their final roster spots, and how the roster is shaping up so far.

Suns steal back Josh Okogie

The Suns’ fifth starting job was already up in the air, but now they can add one familiar face back to the list of candidates. With Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton no-brainers to start, the question is what Frank Vogel will value with that fifth starting spot.

He could go with a more traditional point guard in Cam Payne, since he acknowledged at Beal’s introductory press conference that Payne will get the opportunity to earn that job. He also admitted he’s intrigued by the possibility of having a floor general to set up Booker, KD and Beal. Then again, he could go with a wing in the 3/4 mold, as the Suns just added Bates-Diop to fit that category.

Or he could go with Okogie, now that the Suns are reportedly keeping him around.

Retaining a high-end point-of-attack defender like Okogie for either the veteran minimum or using his non-bird rights — 120 percent of last year’s salary — is a major win for James Jones and Mat Ishbia. It felt likely he’d earn more on the open market.

The BBall Index rated Okogie in the NBA’s 99th percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, the 98th percentile in ball-screen navigation, the 97th percentile in off-ball chaser defense, and the 91st percentile in both deflections and steals per 75 possessions.

Having a player like that in the starting lineup spares Booker or Beal from having to facilitate, score and handle opposing teams’ best guards on the other end. As promising as Jordan Goodwin is in that regard, he’s not as close to being a starting-caliber player as Okogie, who gained experience as the fifth starter after the Durant trade.

However, Okogie remains an imperfect option for that role, largely because of his inconsistent shooting. For a stretch from January through February, he made 42.4 percent of his 3s, and it looked like he’d turned a corner from his first four NBA seasons, when he was unable to make defenses pay for ignoring him. Unfortunately, that two-month stretch proved unsustainable for the career 29.1 percent shooter, as he shot 32.1 percent for the rest of the regular season and went 2-for-14 from deep in the playoffs.

Under Vogel, however, Okogie’s defense will get more opportunities to shine, and hopefully Kevin Young has enough familiarity with his cutting and offensive rebounding to find ways to compensate for some of his limitations on the other end. Either way, bringing back Okogie on such a low-cost deal is terrific value, adding the exact type of defender Phoenix needed around its star core.

Suns bring back Damion Lee too

Damion Lee was reportedly a likely candidate to return, and the Suns will be bringing back the sharpshooter on a two-year deal with a second-year player option. Because the Suns did not own his bird rights, this is also for either the veteran minimum or 120 percent of last year’s salary using his non-bird rights.

Simply put, this former NBA champion is a well-liked and respected locker room vet who just shot a career-high 44.5 percent from 3-point range. That was the third-best percentage in the entire league, and Phoenix needs shooters to space the floor for their star trio.

Bringing back a guy who made a blistering 47 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, 40.3 percent of his above-the-break 3s and 51 percent of his corner 3s fits the bill. Oh, and Lee also finished second in the league in fourth-quarter 3-point efficiency (52.3 percent) among all players who took at least 40 attempts.

Lee doesn’t offer as much in terms of offensive creation, and his minutes dwindled after Terrence Ross joined the team. His 3-for-15 shooting from beyond the arc in the postseason was concerning. But the Suns should be able to offer him the kinds of opportunities he got earlier in the season coming off that bench, and keeping him at that price is solid move.

Keita Bates-Diop provides huge value for Suns

If the Suns feel like adding more size and length to their staring lineup, Keita Bates-Diop should be in the running. On a two-year, $5 million contract that equates to the veteran minimum ($2.4 million this season), KBD will get his chance:

The only potential downside to this agreement is that if Bates-Diop thrives in an important two-way role on a title contender, he’ll almost certainly opt out next summer to pursue a pay raise in free agency.

But that’s a problem for next year’s Suns to worry about. This year’s Suns should feel extremely good about the two-way wing they just added for the vet minimum.

We saved the best for last with KBD being at the very bottom of our 40 vet minimum targets list, mostly because it felt like there was little chance he’d sign for that amount. The San Antonio Spurs had more cap space than they knew what to do with, but apparently the promise of playing with Booker, Beal, KD and Deandre Ayton on a title contender appealed to Bates-Diop more than a slightly larger payday elsewhere.

The 6-foot-8 wing is coming off a career year where he averaged 9.7 points and 3.7 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game. He also shot 50.8 percent from the floor, 39.4 percent from 3 and doubled as one of the Spurs’ most versatile defenders.

He only took 2.1 long-range attempts per game, but if he proves that 3-point shot is sustainable, his two-way versatility will make him a strong candidate for the fifth starting spot.

The encouraging news is KBD was efficient from all over, making 40.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, 41.3 percent of his above-the-break 3s and 37.1 percent of his corner 3s. He was also effective inside the 3-point line, finishing 68.2 percent of his looks at the rim.

While he doesn’t rate as highly as Okogie when it comes to perimeter defense, KBD still places in the 86th percentile in ball-screen navigation and the 88th percentile in off-ball chaser defense, according to The BBall Index. Landing a two-way wing like this on the vet minimum, especially when he’s still only 27 years old, could be one of the biggest steals of the summer.

Drew Eubanks may be Jock Landale’s replacement

After it was reported the Suns would tender Jock Landale’s qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent, they apparently pulled it at the last second, making him an unrestricted free agent. This sudden change of plans didn’t definitively rule out a return for Landale, but the move that followed signaled the two sides may be moving on.

Not long after the start of free agency, it was reported the Suns had agreed to a two-year deal with free agent Drew Eubanks, which will come with a second-year player option. Eubanks’ vet minimum salary for the upcoming season is $2.3 million.

The Portland Trail Blazers owned Eubanks’ early bird rights, so it’s somewhat surprising — again — that the Suns were able to convince him to agree to a deal so early in the free agency process. The aggression of Jones and Ishbia, coupled with prioritizing veteran minimum candidates right from the start, must have played a factor for some of these guys, in addition to being able to compete for a title right away in a great basketball city.

In any case, Eubanks feels like Landale’s replacement as a backup stretch big. Landale struggled in that aspect last season, but Eubanks shot a tidy 64.1 percent overall and 38.9 percent from 3-point range. That came on admittedly tiny volume, since only attempted 18 3s in his 72 games for Rip City.

However, Eubanks was still productive when he was on the court, averaging 6.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 20.3 minutes per game. So even if the “stretch big” label is a bit of a, well, stretch, he was extremely efficient around the basket (75.3 percent at the rim). He was also a solid screener, placing in the 96th percentile in screen assists per 75 possessions and the 95th percentile in points per possessions as the roll man in pick-and-rolls.

Eubanks was a beast on the offensive glass (87th percentile in offensive rebounds per game), and on the other end, he was a stout interior defender as well. According to The BBall Index, opponents shot 5.3 percent worse at the rim when defended by Eubanks. He also placed in the 96th percentile in blocks per 75 possessions and the 99th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions.

Eubanks isn’t a starting-caliber player by any means, but he’s a great pickup in this price range for bench depth…even if it probably means saying goodbye to a fan favorite like Landale.

Yuta Watanabe adds shooting

The Athletic’s John Hollinger thought Yuta Watanabe to the Suns on a vet minimum deal was an “obvious” fit, and we were inclined to agree, including him on our list of 40 targets. It appears the Suns felt the same way:

So what does Yuta Watanabe bring to the table on his $2.3 million contract? Shooting, shooting and more shooting.

Last season, the 28-year-old wing only averaged 5.6 points in 16.0 minutes per game, but he drilled a career-high 44.4 percent of his 3s, including 45.7 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, 37.1 percent above the break and 51.4 percent from the corners, which ranked in the top 10 in the NBA. It’s not surprising he placed in the 96th percentile in points per possession on spot-up looks.

Oh, and remember how Damion Lee was second among all 3-point shooters with at least 40 attempts in the fourth quarter? Well, Yuta Watanabe was the only guy ahead of him, knocking down 53.5 percent of his 3s in the final frame.

Aside from the shooting, Watanabe is good enough off the bounce to attack hasty closeouts, which should make him a solid fit for Phoenix’s 0.5 offense. He’s also got good enough size at 6-foot-8 to be passable on the defensive end.

Watanabe was well-liked in the Nets locker room and enjoyed a breakout year, so as much as he probably enjoyed his new handshakes with Mikal Bridges, a reunion with KD and the chance to compete for a title probably made for a great free-agency pitch.

Chimezie Metu is the only questionable move

Chimezie Metu is the Suns’ only move on Friday that wasn’t immediately viewed as a win. He’ll be heading to Phoenix on a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum ($2.5 million).

Metu didn’t exactly blow anyone away on the stat sheet last season, averaging 4.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in 10.4 minutes per game over his 66 appearances with the Sacramento Kings. Though he only made 23.7 percent of his 3s, he shot 58.9 percent from the floor overall.

At 6-foot-9, this 26-year-old forward brings more size and length to a Suns squad that’s gotten a lot bigger and longer since free agency started. He’s probably not some hidden gem lying in plain sight, but he’s efficient around the basket, finishing a staggering 77.4 percent of his looks at the rim.

Metu constantly moves on offense, sets good screens (81st percentile in screen assists per 75 possessions) and finds slips when the defense overplays. He also checks out as a solid interior defender, holding opponents to 5.7 percent worse shooting at the rim and ranking in the 93rd percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions.

This is the Suns’ most underwhelming agreement of the day, but it’s not a bad one either.

Suns nab more floor-spacing with Eric Gordon

After the LA Clippers cut Eric Gordon loose to save $110 million in luxury tax payments, this long-awaited union with Phoenix simply made too much sense. Approaching his 35th birthday in December, Gordon’s opportunities to compete for a title were running out.

The only thing standing in the way of Gordon finally becoming a Sun was a more lucrative offer somewhere else for the mid-level exception. Apparently, Gordon prioritized winning and playing with Booker, Durant and Beal over the money, including offers from the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Gordon is obviously no longer in his prime, having averaged a career-low 12.4 points and 2.7 assists in 28.5 minutes per game last season. But the veteran guard also spent 47 of his 69 games with a tanking Rockets team filled with inexperienced youngsters. Once he was mercifully jettisoned to the Clippers, he became a vital role player on a playoff team. His overall numbers may have dipped to 11.0 points in 24.9 minutes per game in LA, but he shot a blistering 42.3 percent from 3-point range on 5.0 attempts per game.

The shooting, ball-handling and floor-spacing elements he’ll provide this Suns group could prove pivotal in a playoff series. He’s an experienced vet who launched 5-6 feet from behind the arc, providing an additional floor-spacing element that some 3-point shooters simply don’t bring to the table.

He’s another sniper from the corners, drilling 45.2 percent of his looks there last season, but he can also help on the ball. Gordon is a persistent driver who seeks contact and can finish in the lane, and he ranked in the 95th percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. The fact that he ranked in the 93rd percentile in iso points per possession and the 92nd percentile in spot-up points per possession speaks to his ability to function on or off the ball. Despite being a step slower these days, he’s a committed perimeter defender as well.

Getting a guy like that for the vet minimum to help bolster the Suns’ depth chart is massive value. This union has been a long time coming, but it finally happened during a stretch where Phoenix targeted established talent at a discounted rate.

What comes next for Suns?

Update: Assuming Ish Wainright and Jordan Goodwin’s deals are fully guaranteed, Sunday’s Eric Gordon news means the Suns are most likely capped at 15 players, unless they cut Isaiah Todd to free up one additional roster spot. It feels likely that Toumani Camara and Saben Lee wind up on two-way contracts. Torrey Craig and/or Bismack Biyombo could be gone unless Todd is waived.

Assuming the Suns are done for the day, they’ll soon have Booker, Beal, Durant, Ayton, Okogie, Lee, Bates-Diop, Eubanks, Watanabe, Metu and Cam Payne on guaranteed contracts. That’s 11 players, and Isaiah Todd’s $1.8 million guaranteed contract makes 12, assuming the Suns intend to keep him.

Throw in the partially guaranteed contract of Jordan Goodwin, and the fully non-guaranteed Ish Wainright, and the Suns are up to 14 players. They still have second-round rookie Toumani Camara and restricted free agent Saben Lee to consider, though at this point, it feels like those two are heading for two-way contracts.

Assuming the Suns plan to keep Goodwin and Wainright and put Saben Lee and Camara on two-way deals, they’ll only have one roster spot and one two-way slot left. They could open up an additional roster spot by cutting Todd, who spent most of last season in the G League and may not be able contribute on this roster the way someone like Goodwin can.

Either way, the Suns are amassing shooters and lengthy defenders to surround their star trio:

  • Jordan Goodwin: 6-foot-3, 6-foot-10 wingspan
  • Josh Okogie: 6-foot-4, 7-foot wingspan
  • Keita Bates-Diop: 6-foot-8, 7-foot-3 wingspan
  • Yuta Watanabe: 6-foot-8, 6-foot-10 wingspan
  • Toumani Camara: 6-foot-8, 7-foot-1 wingspan
  • Chimezie Metu: 6-foot-9, 7-foot wingspan
  • Isaiah Todd: 6-foot-9, 7-foot-1 wingspan
  • Drew Eubanks: 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11 wingspan

Not everyone in that group can shoot, but Lee and Watanabe are certified snipers, and Bates-Diop should hopefully continue to knock down open looks.

Moving forward, the Suns still own the bird rights to three of their own free agents: Torrey Craig, Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale. The Eubanks news means Landale will likely be on the way out, but Craig is a useful two-way wing, while Biyombo would be a great fit in Vogel’s defense as a shot-blocking backup.

The two sides could still be negotiating deals that stretch beyond what those players are “worth,” since bird rights allow the Suns to reward them with a payday up to $11.3 million in annual salary. A two- or three-year deal in the $7-11 million range for either one of these guys is not impossible, since it’d keep them in Phoenix, reward them for more than the vet minimum, and allow the Suns to structure their contracts for more tradable amounts.

Or, they could be trying to do both at the same time:

Craig feels like the most likely of that bunch to return, but if the Suns are still scouring the market, there are a few other attractive options that would make sense. The Toronto Raptors’ two-year, $26 million pact with Dennis Schroder took one of Phoenix’s best ball-handling options off the table, and the Miami Heat will be bringing back Kevin Love after all.

However, if the Suns prioritize extra ball-handling and 3-point shooting, Eric Gordon remains one of their best options. He’ll likely sign somewhere else for closer to the mid-level exception, but Phoenix should still try to bring a well-respected sharpshooter and floor-spacer to the Valley.

In terms of big men, Thomas Bryant still has upside despite barely playing last year behind DeAndre Jordan for the Denver Nuggets. JaMychal Green is a small-ball 5 option who has a passable 3-point shot, though he’s probably worth more than a vet minimum.

As far as wings and forwards are concerned, Stanley Johnson was reportedly going to get a look from Phoenix. Trendon Watford was a surprising cut by the Blazers that the Suns could claim off waivers using their $5 million trade exception before he even gets to free agency. Speaking of that trade exception, the Suns could also make a smaller trade for a player whose salary falls under that $5 million limit, like Danuel House Jr. or KJ Martin (both of which we covered in more detail here).

As it stands right now, the Suns are officially over the second luxury tax apron. This is how Phoenix’s roster currently shakes out:

  • Devin Booker, Cam Payne, Jordan Goodwin, Saben Lee*
  • Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee
  • Keita Bates-Diop, Yuta Watanabe, Ish Wainright
  • Kevin Durant, Chimezie Metu, Isaiah Todd, Toumani Camara*
  • Deandre Ayton, Drew Eubanks

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