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Suns’ hopeful season ends in first-round sweep. Now what?

The Phoenix Suns began this season with Mat Ishbia saying they have the ‘best team’ in the NBA.

‘Obviously, we’ve got to play it out,’ the Suns team owner said on their media day back in October at Footprint Center. ‘We’re really excited.’

On Sunday, their season of championship expectations ended much sooner than planned.

The third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves completed an impressive sweep of the sixth-seeded Suns, 122-116, in Game 4 of this Western Conference first-round series. The T-Wolves are younger, played with more force and physicality and Anthony Edwards has put the league on notice.

The Suns have now been eliminated from the past three playoffs on their home floor.

All things Suns: Latest Phoenix Suns news, schedule, roster, stats, injury updates and more.

  • 2022 – Game 7 conference semifinals: (4) Mavericks 123, (1) Suns 90
  • 2023 – Game 6 conference semifinals: (1) Nuggets 125, (4) Suns 100
  • 2024 – Game 4 first round: (3) T-Wolves 122, (6) Suns 116.

After last season, they changed head coaches, moved Chris Paul, dealt Deandre Ayton and spent over the second league tax apron with a new-look roster led by their Big 3 of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal only to fall drastically short of bringing Phoenix its first NBA championship after a 49-win regular season.

The Suns remain one of 10 NBA teams to have never won title.

So, what’s next for a franchise that’s projected to have a team salary of $206 million and $104 million in luxury tax, both league-highs, and go more than $16 million over the second tax apron next season?

The first year of Grayson Allen’s four-year, $70-million extension he signed right before the playoffs will cost the Suns $79 million in payroll and luxury tax for 2024-25.

Change in front office, another new head coach?

When a team that was supposed to compete for a championship with a ginormous team salary of $188.5 million needed help to avoid the play-in tournament and got swept in the first round, change would seem imminent in moving forward from such disappointment.

Monty Williams was fired after coaching the Suns to the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. The Suns reached the 2021 NBA Finals, won a franchise-best 64 games the next season when Williams won NBA Coach of the Year and lost to the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets in the second round of the 2023 playoffs, but how they were eliminated those last two years, with bad home-court losses, made Williams expendable.

Ishbia was just four months into being the team owner before making that huge decision. The idea of letting general manager James Jones go at the same time would’ve been a complete cleaning house. Jones and Williams were a tag team in Phoenix, but Jones remained with the task of generating a roster that was top heavy with Booker, Durant and Beal making around a combined $130 million.

They pulled off a trade before training camp to move Ayton and acquire Jusuf Nurkic and Allen after a disappointing season. Jones, even with roster restraints due to being over the second tax apron, may now be expendable.

The Suns wanted Ty Lue to replace Williams, but the Clippers didn’t allow teams to talk with him and guaranteed the final year of his contract for the 2024-25 season, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Nick Nurse was a finalist, also coached a team to an NBA title with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, but he took the job with the Philadelphia 76ers. Ishbia has said Frank Vogel was the ‘obvious’ choice.

‘We went through a very grueling interview process with many candidates,’ Ishbia said. ‘Frank Vogel emerged as the obvious choice in every aspect. From culture building to winning a championship, past credentials to defensive mindset along with team building. Being able to coach superstars, which we have three now in Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal. He checked every single box. He was the obvious choice.’

Sounded confident about returning, but just for the sake of argument, say the Suns move on from Vogel.

If that happens, Phoenix’s hiring process could easily be considered a failure. It’d be the second Suns head coach let go within a year and further stamp a win-now-or-else atmosphere a coaching candidate may have trepidation entering.

Signed to a five-year, $31-million deal, Vogel has been saying more and more as of late this is their first year together in terms of him and his coaching staff in Phoenix. Kevin Young was the only holdover from Williams’ staff as he will head to BYU as a head coach after being in the running for NBA head coaching jobs in recent years.

Fans have been calling for Ishbia to fire Vogel, who coached LeBron James and the Lakers to an NBA championship his first season with that franchise. He didn’t have nearly the same success in his first year with the Suns as they were inconsistent, had too many stagnant moments on offense for a team with three prolific scorers in Booker, Durant and Beal and were turnover friendly all season long.

Their defense improved over the course of the season, but the Suns looked disconnected in giving up open looks to the T-Wolves throughout the series. The rotations and in-game adjustments were also a problem and they came up small in some critical must-win games.

The Suns dealt with injuries that greatly led to having 24 different starting lineups. The Big 3 only played 41 regular-season games together. Phoenix went 26-15 with Booker, Durant and Beal in the lineup.

However, Phoenix got a healthy, All-NBA level season out of the 35-year-old Durant. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer averaged 27.1 points in 75 games, the most he’s played since he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the 2019 Finals with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant called Vogel the team leader after Saturday’s practice. The Suns could run it back with Jones and Vogel to continue continuity with roster decisions knowing that won’t satisfy a fan base that expected much more from this team this season.

What to do with roster as Big 3 is due $150M

Booker’s supermax contract of four years, $224 million kicks in next season, when he’s due $49.3 million. Durant will be in the third of a four-year, $194-million deal that will pay him $49.8 million and Beal’s five-year, $251-million deal is set to pay him $50.2 million next season.

That’s a whopping $150 million tied up with three players.

The Suns find themselves over the second NBA tax apron that presents roster limitations: Can’t use pre-existing trade exception but can use a trade exception from a new trade; can’t take money in a trade; can’t aggregate contracts; can’t send out cash.

Booker, Durant and Beal have been viewed as untradeable. Booker is the franchise player who stuck with the Suns through the rough years, Durant is the team’s best player and Beal has a no-trade clause. Would the Suns be bold enough to move one of those three to get back rotation players to complement the remaining two and add a draft pick for the future?

Allen led the league in 3-point shooting percentage in having a career year, but he has a tradeable contract. The Suns can’t move him until next Oct. 16.

Jusuf Nurkic averaged a double-double of 10.9 points and 11 rebounds in his first season with the Suns, but he struggled to finish inside and the T-Wolves big Rudy Gobert got the better of him in this series.

Phoenix acquired him and Nassir Little from the Portland Trail Blazers in the three-team deal right before training camp that sent Ayton to Portland, a move that has been more debated as of late. Nurkic is in the middle of a four-year, $70-million deal that’ll pay him $18.1 million next season.

Booker, Durant, Beal, Allen and Nurkic make up the most-used starting lineup that went 21-12 in the regular season. That’s less than half the season with that group.

Royce O’Neale essentially became the team’s sixth man as the Suns landed him in a three-team deal before the trade deadline. He’s an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Suns have limited roster flexibility and are heading down another year of going with veteran minimum guys again as they did last season to fill out the roster. Plus Eric Gordon, Drew Eubanks, Josh Okogie and Damion Lee, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, all have player options going into the final year of two-year deals.

Phoenix could’ve used a point guard to share the facilitator duties with Booker, Durant and Beal. Suns legend Charles Barkley called for the Suns to grab one and an additional big man.

The Suns do have a first-round pick (22nd overall) in this year’s draft. They maybe can address one of those needs with that selection, but the Suns appear locked to run it back with a Big 3-led roster in their win-now mode.

The West is only getting stronger

The Suns managed to land the sixth seed because they owned the head-to-head tiebreaker over the New Orleans Pelicans. Looking ahead, the Suns will face an even more formidable Western Conference next season.

Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Denver aren’t going anywhere. They have young cores with depth led by three of the game’s best players in two-time MVP Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder), who with Jokic is an MVP finalist, and Edwards, a rising superstar.

Dallas has MVP finalist Luka Doncic paired up with Kyrie Irving and an improved, athletic front court.

The Clippers can’t seem to get a healthy Kawhi Leonard, but they went 3-1 against the Suns this season. They exploded to a 35-4 advantage on the Suns in that third win without James Harden and Leonard in Phoenix’s final home game of the regular season.

The Pelicans have flopped in the postseason, but they didn’t have Zion Williamson, who dropped a 40-piece on the Lakers in the play-in before suffering a hamstring injury that’s sidelined him for the playoffs. If healthy, Williamson gives the Pelicans a chance to compete.

The Kings have one of the league’s best 1-2 punches in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. The Warriors can’t be counted out as long as Stephen Curry is there and if LeBron James can continue to defy age and miles on his 39-year-old body, he and Anthony Davis can keep the Lakers in contention.

Don’t forget about Memphis. Ja Morant will be back healthy and suspension-free next season for a young, talented squad with one of the game’s best coaches in Taylor Jenkins. The Rockets are on deck after a strong finish to the regular season and Victor Wembanyama has lived up to the hype.

If San Antonio can surround the rookie phenom with the right complement of players, look out. Only Utah and Portland seem further away, but they have good young, talent to build around, too.

That’s what awaiting Phoenix next season, but this offseason will greatly determine if the Suns put themselves in good position to take on those conference challengers.

Have opinions about the current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, at @DuaneRankin. Support local journalism. Start your online subscription

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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