The Phoenix Suns will need to make a lot of improvements to the roster if they want to avoid another season at the bottom of the Western Conference.
After finishing 2013 with just 25 wins, it is clear that there is a lot of work to do, and the Suns will not be able to rebuild in just one or two seasons. However, if there is one priority for new GM Ryan McDonough to focus on this offseason, it is shooting guard.
One huge problem for the Suns is that they never really had a consistent starter at shooting guard. Shannon Brown, Jared Dudley, Wesley Johnson and P.J. Tucker all took turns playing the position, and while some performed better than others, the Suns lacked a true go-to scorer on the wing they could count on in the fourth quarter of close games.
In fact, the team's best scorer was Goran Dragic, who put up a measly 14.7 points per game.
Clearly, that has to change if Phoenix is to become an elite team again.
This offseason, the front office will have the opportunity to potentially fix the team's shooting guard situation. Wesley Johnson is a free agent, the future of Shannon Brown is unknown, and the Suns will have the chance to target multiple draft prospects and free agents to pair with Goran Dragic in the backcourt.
Now, here is a plan of action for the Suns to fix their shooting guard problem this offseason.
Re-Sign Wesley Johnson
At first glance, it does not look like Wesley Johnson was much of an impact player for the Suns this season. After all, he played just 50 games, and didn't even crack the rotation before Alvin Gentry was fired in mid-January.
However, once Lindsey Hunter became the head coach, Johnson took advantage of the extra minutes and blossomed. He started 21 games at the end of the season, putting up an average of 13.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while shooting 43 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep as a starter.
Unless Johnson surprises everyone and becomes an All-Star as he continues to develop, he should not be the starting shooting guard of a team with playoff aspirations.
But that doesn't mean he can't play a significant role in Phoenix as they rebuild.
Johnson had several games with over 20 points this season. Despite questionable shot selection, he has proved he can be a scoring spark off the bench. Additionally, he has the length and athleticism required to make him an above-average rebounder and sufficient defender.
Johnson is going to be a free agent this summer, but the Suns should strongly consider bringing him back for two or three years as a sixth man, or at the very least a role player.
Of course, it all depends on the price tag.
Johnson is making $4.3 million this season. If he demands more than that amount per season for his next contract, perhaps the Suns would be better suited looking elsewhere for bench production.
However, if Johnson can settle for $3 or $4 million each season on a contract two or three years long, the Suns should pull the trigger on a deal.
Release Shannon Brown
Shannon Brown just had the worst season of his career since 2007-08, and it may be best for both parties if the athletic 6'4" guard is released.
Brown lost his rotation spot completely under Lindsey Hunter due to a number of reasons. The most obvious is that the Suns decided to go with a new "youth movement," and therefore cut playing time from players such as Luis Scola and Shannon Brown in order to give more minutes to Kendall Marshall, Wesley Johnson and Markieff Morris down the stretch.
Another factor was Brown's poor play. Brown managed to put up 10.5 points per game and shoot 42 percent from the field, which is the same number he produced in 2011-2012 with Steve Nash on the court.
And yet, a closer look at the statistics reveal that this was Brown's worst season in several years. He shot just 28 percent from behind the arc—a new career low—and the graph below indicates that Brown's field-goal, three-point, effective field-goal and true shooting percentages have all steadily declined in the past several years. Even his free-throw percentage dipped below 80 percent for the first time since 2008.
Brown has always been known for his poor shot selection. But now he is becoming one of the more inefficient offensive players the NBA has to offer—and Suns fans are not pleased.
But, more importantly, Brown is not pleased with his current situation either.
He has grown impatient with his role as a bench warmer. He feels the Suns lied to him and cut his legs from under him despite the work he put in as a starter.
Now that both parties are dissatisfied, perhaps now is the best time to release Brown before this becomes a more toxic situation. Brown has enough talent that he should be able to find another NBA team that will give him a chance to play.
For the Suns, they might just be able to save a bit of money too. They can use the stretch provision on Brown, a rule that allows Phoenix to pay his remaining contract over three years instead of one, thereby decreasing the annual sum they would have to pay.
Brown is set to be paid $3.5 million next season, but only $1.75 million is guaranteed. If the Suns stretch his contract, they will be spending about $583 thousand each year for the next three seasons.
It isn't much, but that does allow the Suns to save some cap space that can be used on free agents. Right now that seems like the best option, not only for the Suns but for Brown as well.
Find A New Starting Shooting Guard
The Suns need a real long-term option to pair with Dragic in the backcourt, and that means they will need to actively pursue some above-average players this offseason. Whether that is through the NBA draft or through free agency is their choice.
Let's start with the draft.
If the draft were today, Phoenix would have the fourth overall pick. They could use that selection to take a guard and avoid spending money this offseason with the intention of having another high draft pick to use in a much stronger 2014 class.
But before dreaming about the possibility of selecting Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker next year, the Suns would first have to make a decision about who to select with their top-five pick in just a couple of months.
Ben McLemore is widely considered to be the best shooting guard of the 2013 draft class, and he would be the Suns' best shot at finding a go-to scorer. The problem is, most mock drafts have the freshman guard out of Kansas being taken in the top three picks.
Unless the Suns get lucky in the lottery and move up a couple of spots, they will likely have to settle for someone else.
In that case, perhaps the best option is Victor Oladipo, the versatile 6'5" guard out of Indiana.
Oladipo is not the go-to scorer that the Suns crave. It simply isn't in his nature to score 20 points per game. However, he has a wide array of skills, and in a best-case scenario perhaps his career will emulate that of Andre Iguodala or Luol Deng.
Oladipo is quite explosive, and his athleticism allows him to get out in the fast break and perform emphatic dunks. He almost always takes smart shots, as evidenced by his crazy 60 percent field-goal shooting, and his 6.3 rebounds per game is fantastic for a guard.
He may not isolate on offense, but he is a great option to catch and shoot in the corner, do a backdoor cut and finish a play off the pass, or thrill the crowd with an exciting alley-oop on a fast-break play.
However, what really makes him a potentially special player is his elite defense.
Oladipo led the Big Ten with 2.2 steals per game and a defensive rating of 86.9. He has enough defensive potential to come into the NBA and immediately draw comparisons to other lockdown defenders such as Tony Allen, Avery Bradley or Iman Shumpert.
But the Suns do not have to go this route.
They could take a player such as Nerlens Noel or Anthony Bennett with their pick and then find a new shooting guard in free agency.
In that case, Monta Ellis is a name to look out for. The Bucks guard is expected to exercise his early termination option and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Ellis has scored over 20 points per game four times in his career and he could be the go-to scorer that the Suns are looking for—even if he is not a franchise player.
Yet another option is to make a trade this summer. A great candidate to target would be Eric Gordon. The Hornets (Pelicans?) are open to trading Gordon even though the 24-year-old shooting guard does have a history of knee issues.
Regardless, he still has the potential to develop into an All-Star player and the Suns are equipped with the training staff to deal with his concerning injury history.
Either of those two options could form a great backcourt with Goran Dragic. The Suns need a go-to scorer first and foremost, and as the graph below shows, both Ellis and Gordon can score much more per 36 minutes than the average shooting guard (who plays at least 15 minutes per game).
They may score more, but cost and efficiency have to be accounted for as well.
Monta Ellis shot 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range this past season—numbers way down from his time with the Warriors. He is notorious for taking questionable shots, and could turn into another Shannon Brown situation if the Suns do not proceed with caution.
Gordon is not particularly inefficient, but he is coming off a season in which he shot just 40 percent from the field—a new career low. That number appears to be an outlier compared to his other seasons, but it is still a bit concerning.
Being a scorer and being an efficient scorer are two different things. The Suns need someone to score at least 20 points per game. At the same time, they don't want him to have to take 20 shots to get there.
If Ellis and Gordon are incapable of scoring efficiently, do the Suns really want to throw so much money at them? Gordon is signed to a max contract, and signing Ellis would require at least $10 or $11 million per year.
It is all McDonough's decision now.
For a rebuilding team like Phoenix, patience is most likely the smarter move. Signing borderline All-Stars to max contracts may get them the 7th or 8th seed, but it would also almost guarantee a first-round playoff exit.
Phoenix will be a contending team again soon enough if they continue to add assets in the form of young players and draft picks while waiting to sign great free agents for a couple more years.
It's a long process, but it is also a much easier path to a title.