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Even for a team near the top of the standings like the Phoenix Suns, there are always opportunities to get better. So when The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz reported on Tuesday that the Indiana Pacers are open to trade talks on Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, it was only natural to wonder how Phoenix might get involved.
According to the report, the 10-16 Pacers are veering toward a rebuild. With the worst home crowd attendance in the NBA, this franchise can’t afford to completely blow it up and undergo a painstaking rebuild through the draft. That means they won’t be making deals just to make moves, but several noteworthy players could be available soon.
From Indiana’s perspective, Chris Duarte has made LeVert expendable. The Pacers want to rebuild around Duarte, draft picks and young but established talent that can help Indiana remain competitive enough to put butts in the seats.
The question is, can the Suns take advantage of Indiana’s change of course? And which Pacers should they be targeting anyway? To sort it out, let’s break down each possible target, what the framework of a potential deal would look like, and the obstacles to each hypothetical offer.
As a two-time All-Star who’s still only 25 years old, Sabonis is obviously the biggest prize here. In a “down” year, he’s still putting up 17.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 57.2 percent from the floor. Even though he’s only making 27.9 percent of his 3s, it’s tantalizing thinking about his passing in the Suns’ 0.5 offense, as well as what he’d look like next to Deandre Ayton.
At the same time…isn’t that the exact issue the Pacers are dealing with, pairing Sabonis and Turner in the frontcourt to middling results? Ayton and Turner have different skill-sets, but even taking fit out of the equation, Sabonis will cost the most on the trade market compared to the other available Pacers:
To get close to Sabonis’ $19.8 million salary, the Suns would have to send out a package starting with Jae Crowder ($9.7 million) and Dario Saric ($8.5 million), but that alone isn’t attractive enough to entice Indiana. Throwing in Cam Johnson and a first-round draft pick or two would probably change the calculus, but at that point, Phoenix is giving up more than this swap would be worth. Convincing the Pacers to toss in Torrey Craig makes it a little more acceptable, but it’s still a major blow to the locker room and an unnecessary shakeup.
For the Suns, that probably makes this a nonstarter. Sabonis is a great player, but breaking up a core that gets along this well would represent a substantial risk with no guarantee he’d even raise their championship ceiling. If the Suns are going to dramatically alter this roster, it needs to be for a sure thing, and preferably without having to outbid a handful of other suitors.
Phoenix could try to swing something like Crowder, Saric, Jalen Smith ($4.4 million) and a pair of first-rounders, but as perpetually underrated as he is for his leadership qualities, Crowder is 32 years old He’d want no part of a rebuild, and it’d be cruel to dump him after he helped build Phoenix’s culture. It’d be even more cruel to move Saric after he tore his ACL in the Finals, but his salary and likely absence for the entire season makes him expendable from a salary-matching standpoint.
Unfortunately he has little trade value for this kind of deal. Stix somehow has even less trade value, and those first-rounders wouldn’t amount to much coming from a Suns team expected to remain competitive for the foreseeable future. Because Phoenix owes the Oklahoma City Thunder their first-rounder in the 2022 NBA Draft (top-12 protected), the soonest they could offer up a first-round selection would be 2024. That doesn’t help Indy much, and other teams will be able to offer better picks, much sooner.
Sabonis is fun to think about, but his defensive fit is questionable, and it’d probably require Cam Johnson just to start a conversation. Given the cost of losing both Johnson and Crowder, the blow to the Suns’ wing depth would take away one of their greatest strengths. This one’s a pipe dream.
I get the impulse to want to add a two-time league-leading shot-blocker, and Turner’s 39.5 percent shooting from 3 this year is obviously attractive. But Ayton is simply a much better player playing the same position. Shaking up such a cohesive group just to pair those two together in the frontcourt would be moronic.
Turner can spread the floor with his shot, and on the other end, Ayton is more mobile on the perimeter than most bigs, but playing them together would be putting them both in positions to fail. Each one is most effective at the 5, and we need to kill any and all “DA getting minutes at the 4 again!” chatter with FIRE.
Like, would this make any sort of tangible sense?
Of course not. We’re not even going to discuss this. Shame on you for even thinking about it!
True enough, LeVert doesn’t look like the same rising star that he was last year. His numbers are down from 20.2 points, 5.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night to just 14.9 points, 2.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game this season, and while he’s playing about five fewer minutes these days, he’s only shooting 42 percent from the floor and an anemic 25.9 percent from 3.
That’s probably enough to scare off most fans’ interest, because the sad truth is LeVert may not be the same player after having a cancerous mass surgically removed from his kidney in January.
With that being said, LeVert is still only 27 years old. He’s under contract until 2023, and he’d provide the Suns with a secondary ball-handler, playmaker and scorer. Even if a change of pace to a winning environment didn’t ignite his play back to near-All-Star levels, he’d bolster Phoenix’s wing depth and is a terrific defender who’d fit right in in that respect.
The question is, what is LeVert’s trade value right now? More than likely, the Pacers would push for a deal like this one, with a talented youngster (Cam Johnson), salary filler (Saric) and a first-rounder coming back in return:
That should be too rich for the Suns’ blood. LeVert is the better player at his best, but pegging his current on-court value is tricky. Johnson is still only in his third year, he’s well-liked on this team, and he’s far more reliable as an efficient 3-point shooter and floor-spacer.
If Indiana wants Johnson, the Suns should counter with something like this, hoping the draft compensation would make up for the complete lack of young/established/healthy talent being included:
Even so, and even compensating for Saric and Smith’s lack of trade value, two first-rounders for LeVert is a hefty price. Trading for 2020-21 Caris LeVert? This would’ve been a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the jury’s still out on what 2021-22 Caris LeVert will become once Indiana ships him elsewhere.
NOTE: It physically pains me to keep including the injured Saric here. Watching him react to Monty Williams‘ locker room speech in the Finals is an immediate pick-me-up on any bad day, and he would be sorely missed throughout the organization, even without being able to contribute anything on the court right now. But his contract is impossible not to include in most of these moves, so I digress.
Torrey Craig and Justin Holiday
Finally, the two Pacers the Suns should be targeting! While we’ve waxed poetic about a possible Thaddeus Young trade in the past, Phoenix’s roster is crying out for help on the wing. Devin Booker is currently sidelined by a hamstring injury that’s forced him to miss the last three games, while Abdel Nader has missed the last nine games with “right knee injury management.” That’s forced Monty Williams to dive deep into his bench, with Elfrid Payton and two-way contract player Ish Wainwright getting significant minutes.
It’s not just Booker, Nader, Saric and Frank Kaminsky being out with injuries, though. Even with Book healthy, Nader’s minutes have been a runaway train, and he’s shown zero signs of being able to fill the Torrey Craig role from last year. The Suns’ ability to plug Craig’s defense in at multiple positions, and even go small with him at the 5, was huge during their Finals run.
So who better to fill the Torrey Craig role than…Torrey Craig? Because of their agreement with JaVale McGee, the Suns weren’t able to afford the two-year, $10 million deal the Pacers handed Craig in free agency. But if Indiana winds up having a fire sale, could he be poachable once he becomes trade-eligible on Dec. 15?
Something tells me a guy averaging 15.7 minutes per game in Rick Carlisle’s rotation is expendable. His 3-point shooting has shriveled from 36.7 percent last year in Phoenix to just 25.7 percent this year, but even if he regresses to subpar shooting back in a Suns offense that empowered him, his defense would more than make up for that.
If the Pacers make him available, maybe a straight-up deal of Jalen Smith and a pair of second-rounders is enough to pry Craig and his $4.9 million salary loose.
If it’s not (and spoiler alert: It shouldn’t be), that might honestly work in the Suns’ favor, because looping in a guy like Justin Holiday would be a terrific, understated get. The Timeline’s Sam Cooper did a great job covering him in full detail ahead of 2020 NBA free agency, but here’s the abridged version: He’s an underrated, two-way combo guard who might also be up for grabs as Indy heads for a rebuild.
On paper, Holiday isn’t overly impressive. He’s 32 years old, has played for seven different teams in his nine NBA seasons, and his career 36.4 3-point percentage suggests a league-average shooter.
But he’s also shot better than 38 percent from deep in each of the last two seasons. He’s at 35.7 percent so far this season, but at the very least, he’s an extremely reliable sniper from the corners. Throughout his career, Holiday has made 41.4 percent of his corner 3s, shooting above 40 percent from that spot in each of the last four seasons.
He’s not just a standstill shooter though. Over the last few years in Indiana, he’s shown a penchant for putting the ball on the floor to get to his shot, making 40 percent of his pull-up 3s last year. He hit 42.6 percent of them the year before that, and he’s once again drilling 40 percent of his pull-up 3s so far this season.
On the Pacers, he’s been miscast in too large of a role, but in 10-15 minutes per game coming off the Suns’ bench? He’d be a perfect fit with his ability to score in transition, as well as the deflections, steals and smart reads he routinely makes on the defensive end with his massive 7-foot wingspan.
Because he has extensive NBA experience, can shoot and can defend multiple positions (1-3 in this case), Justin Holiday is definitely a James Jones guy. Making only $6 million this season, plus another $6.3 million next year, Holiday and Craig would both be under contract until 2023, bolstering the wings of a top-5 defense.
The question is, would the Suns be willing to throw a stick of dynamite in the pool by offering up a first-rounder for their services?
One thing’s for certain: Nobody else would be offering up a first-rounder for the likes of Craig and Holiday.
Maybe this feels like the Suns overbidding against themselves, but if a future first is too rich for Jones’ blood, would tossing in Abdel Nader and two second-rounders be enough to get the job done instead?
Sabonis, Turner and LeVert are the belles of the ball, but if the Pacers start making guys available, it’s Torrey Craig and Justin Holiday that Phoenix should be targeting, either straight up or as the third party in a three-team deal revolving around one of the bigger names.
One last note
The Suns may not trade for any of these guys, and if that’s the case, that’s okay. Even without tweaking the edge of the rotation, they’re still in a good spot near the top of the Western Conference. This group could win a championship as is, if it stays healthy enough.
The problem is, guys like Sabonis, Turner and LeVert could still find a way to swing the title race depending on who trades for them…especially if it’s a team like the Golden State Warriors.
The Dubs already have the MVP favorite in Stephen Curry, the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner in Draymond Green, a roster loaded with established veterans and hard-working youngsters, a top-five offense and defense, and they’ll be getting Klay Thompson back soon. If they manage to turn their youngster platter of James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody into an incredible passing big like Sabonis or a shot-blocking stalwart like Turner, that could be enough to tip the scales in a potential playoff battle against Phoenix.
That doesn’t mean the Suns should put in an offer just to prevent one of those guys from joining the Dubs, but Phoenix should be hoping neither one of those bigs finds his way down to the Bay Area.
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