The Suns are on the brink of elimination — and the future in Phoenix looks even bleaker

If I was Mat Ishbia, the fresh-faced billionaire owner of the Phoenix Suns, I would be pretty upset about the $300 million bill for a 2023-24 NBA roster that is getting smothered by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

I would also have nobody to blame but myself.

The Suns mortgaged everything but Devin Booker — every available rising talent and draft asset — to pair the All-NBA guard with future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant and three-time All-Star Bradley Beal. Their crowning achievement was a win over Minnesota on the final day of the regular season, which clinched the Western Conference's last guaranteed playoff seed and a first-round date with ... the Timberwolves.

They now trail that series, 3-0, all but guaranteeing an early exit in the big three's first season together.

The Suns will try to talk themselves into another year of this. But Booker, Durant and Beal played only 41 games together, they will say, as if health concerns will not remain. They were 26-15 as a trio, and their +6.6 net rating rivaled the West's best. Maybe championship chemistry will come with some more time.

Time is all they will have this offseason. It is hard to imagine any team comes calling for the three years and $161 million remaining on Beal's contract. (That's right: He's owed $57.1 million in 2026-27.) That leaves trading Durant or Booker as the other available options for a major roster shakeup, and the Suns should not rush to deal either of them, since the return will almost certainly represent a sharp downgrade.

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Ishbia's win-now edict left his Suns with nothing to offer free agents but minimum salaries. In July, they can pair a 2031 second-round pick with a mid-tier contract of Grayson Allen, Jusuf Nurkić or Nassir Little, but for what? Good luck building a roster any deeper around their stars, let alone one that can contend.

They need a table-setting point guard and a defensive-oriented center, and they have neither. They had Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, who at least helped them to the second round last season, but swapped them for Beal and Nurkić. Rearranging the role players around a titanic payroll does not solve the issue.

And the issue: The elite talents of Booker, Durant and Beal are redundant, and the Suns did not even take advantage of that redundancy. There is no reason those three should have headlined a team that ranked 25th in 3-point attempts. They were too busy leading the league in long 2s — the NBA's lowest-value shot. Fix that, and it's a start, but there is a chasm between losing in the first round and winning four series.

Phoenix Suns guard Bradley Beal (3) and forward Kevin Durant watch a free throw during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Friday, April 26, 2024, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Phoenix brought in Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant to compete for a championship this season. (AP Photo/Matt York)

What it cost to assemble this trio, and what it will cost to retain them, is really the problem. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, their payroll prevents them from a) signing someone to a mid-level exception; b) taking back more salary than they send out; c) trading their 2031 first-round draft pick (the only one they'll have left); d) buying second-round picks; and e) signing anyone on the buyout market.

In other words, options are beyond limited. Someone like Monte Morris might be too rich for their blood.

The Suns may have to grapple with the idea that this is as good as it gets. They may have to endure two more years of a trio that appears disinterested in its first playoff bid. Another new head coach — one who actually designs a cohesive offense around three perimeter scorers — and a fresh round of vets can buy them one more year with their fanbase, at least until they run into the same trouble next season.

Even that presumes the happiness of Durant and Booker, no guarantee. Either could request a trade. Durant turns 36 years old in September, high time to chase another ring. Booker can see the writing on the wall, just as we can. Does he really want to tie the next three years of his prime to Beal's cumbersome contract? This offseason could come down to a staring contest for all parties involved: Who bails first?

And maybe it should be the Suns. How much value Durant holds as a 36-year-old perpetual threat to leave remains to be seen. Phoenix would have to figure out how quickly whatever picks-laden package it received in return could be flipped into a contender around Booker — and whether that would ever be better than what they already have in Durant. Booker holds far more value, but trading him would almost certainly signal a full-blown rebuild. After all, what immediate upgrades could be superior to him?

The sanest path forward for the Suns could be to trade both and embrace a teardown. Except, they do not control a single one of their own draft picks for the remainder of the decade. It is also difficult to fathom a world in which Ishbia admits defeat so soon after staking his reputation to this all-in strategy.

Then again, he may not have another choice. His strategy didn't work, and now he's stuck with it. It'll only cost him $300 million more in each of the next two seasons. Is one playoff win for that too much to ask?