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Should the Suns Offer Josh Jackson in a Kyrie Irving Trade?

Phoenix’s no. 4 pick might be the only thing holding up a blockbuster trade with Cleveland. Whether he’s worthy of being the dealbreaker is subject to debate.

Portrait of Josh Jackson with Kyrie Irving in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been nearly one month since news broke on a seemingly quiet Friday evening in late July that Kyrie Irving, weeks prior, had requested to be traded from the Cavaliers. Nothing has happened yet. But training camp is sneaking up on us, and there are only 62 days until Cleveland’s October 17 season opener. Basketball will be back before we know it—hooray!—which means if the Cavaliers trade Irving, as ex–Cavs GM David Griffin predicted they will, then something could happen soon. Time is ticking before Irving rumors go from summer speculation to training-camp commotion. The big question is what the Cavs can get.

Adrian Wojnarowski reported in late July that “approximately 20 teams” inquired about Irving, with the Suns, Spurs, Clippers, Wolves, Knicks, and Heat making “legitimate proposals.” Multiple front-office executives told The Ringer the list of teams offering for Irving could be longer at this point. “[The Cavs] have options,” said one league executive. “But deals for stars can take a while, which is why we haven’t seen anything yet.”

It seems like a lot has happened, but it’s mostly been white noise. Miami’s Dion Waiters, who clashed with Irving during their time together in Cleveland, recently said of the Heat-Irving rumors: “Just know there’s an alpha male over there too in myself,” though he also said they can “boogie together.” Cool, Dion. And Spurs legend David Robinson said San Antonio would be "crazy” to not want Irving. For the most part, publicly, at least, the rumor mill has been quiet for all but one of the teams: Phoenix.

Shortly after Irving’s trade request leaked, Arizona Sports 98.7 Phoenix’s John Gambadoro reported that the Suns came close to acquiring Irving on draft day, and the Cavaliers wanted Eric Bledsoe and Josh Jackson, plus more, but the Suns won’t include Jackson “in any trade” for Irving. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that the Cavaliers want a haul for Irving: “one or two” veterans, “a blue-chip young player,” and picks. Names and faces have since trickled out; a league source told cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon that the deal would be “done by now” if it included Jackson, Bledsoe, and Miami’s top-seven-protected 2018 first-round pick.

Jackson seems confident he’s staying put. “I think if that was going to happen, it would’ve happened by now,” he told Sirius XM’s Justin Termine and Noah Coslov when asked about rumors. “I was kind of in the dark a little bit. But I got a feeling that the trade wasn’t really going to happen.” When Jackson was pressed on if the team outright told him he won’t be traded, he admitted: “Those words were never said.”

Jackson is probably safe in his assumption; it’s a lot harder to pull off a blockbuster trade than it is to stand pat. The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of leverage, so naturally the Suns wouldn’t put Jackson on the table to start a negotiation. But should they be willing to include Jackson with Bledsoe and the 2018 Heat pick for Irving?

You know, I’m not sure. Half of my heart knows Irving would accelerate their rebuild; half of my heart knows it’s better to play the longer game. Let’s take a page out of the Shea Serrano playbook and play Good Cop–Bad Cop, with Good Cop arguing not to include Jackson, and Bad Cop arguing to toss him in there and get Irving:

Good Cop: I ranked Jackson sixth in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide and I stand by it. But this draft class was stacked, and, in any normal year, he’d be a no-duh top-two or top-three pick, so he should be viewed as such despite slipping to the Suns at no. 4. I’m not nearly as high on Jackson as a lot of you reading this are, but he’s still a terrific prospect. My real holdup with including Jackson for Irving is … where does Kyrie even get you? Do Kyrie Irving and Devin Booker make a championship-caliber backcourt? Is it even a playoff backcourt over the next two seasons in the loaded West? Not on defense. Irving defends like he’s straining water. Even if Booker were to become Klay Thompson (or even better) on offense, his defense is still weak both on the ball and off the ball. They’d make a leaky backcourt without any support at the rim, like another version of the Blazers. Is it worth it?

Bad Cop: I also ranked Jackson sixth on my board, but you’re overrating potential. Irving is real. He’s a superstar, and everyone knows it. Irving is capable of being the best scoring point guard in the NBA, and he wants the chance to prove it. There’s no better situation for him than in Phoenix. He’d be the Suns’ Russell Westbrook, and Booker has already proved himself to be a dynamite scorer. Who cares about defense? Booker was a reliable defender in a winning situation in Kentucky, so it’s conceivable that his decline in the NBA is merely due to a lack of effort. And he wouldn’t have his offensive workload as an excuse with Irving in the fold. Even if Booker doesn’t get better, the league has changed. It’s getting smaller. Phoenix could play a small brand of basketball if it’s able to find a super-versatile wing who can defend guards, wings, and some forwards.

Good Cop: Like Josh Jackson?

Bad Cop: Sure. Jackson is a potentially valuable multidimensional wing, something teams have had a hard time finding in recent years. But it’s a lot harder to find a superstar like Irving, especially considering the one big intangible: He’s been a member of USA Basketball since he was a teenager. In an era when superstars are joining forces, a Team USA member like Irving could make the Suns the center of the next orbit of free agents. Even after losing seasons, they had a shot at LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, then had scheduled meetings with Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap this summer. They missed out on all three, but they at least had a seat at the table despite being a bad team. Put Irving on the roster and maybe in 2018 they’ll have Irving recruiting a USA Basketball big man like DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan, or maybe in 2019 Jimmy Butler decides Minnesota isn’t for him and he’d rather join forces with Irving in Phoenix.

Good Cop: Fair point about free agency. The Suns extended GM Ryan McDonough’s contract through the 2019-20 season, but job security is always uncertain on a rebuilding team. If he's feeling any pressure, acquiring Irving will help—both in the short term and with future acquisitions. The hardest step for any organization to take is finding one superstar. But once one is under contract, others tend to follow.

Bad Cop: Exactly. Meanwhile, there are no guarantees Jackson will ever turn into an impactful pro. You damn well know there’s a chance he’ll join the long list of overhyped draft picks who never develop reliable jumpers, including Stanley Johnson, Justise Winslow, and Aaron Gordon.

Good Cop: It’s too early to give up on any of them, and besides: Jackson entered the draft as a better offensive prospect than the lot. Winslow lacked any advanced offensive skills, while Johnson had no bounce near the rim, and Gordon lacks the dynamic ability to create for himself as a perimeter scorer. Those three scored more than 20 points a combined seven times in college. Jackson scored more than 20 seven times on his own. He’s better, period—and this is coming from someone who was super high on Winslow and Gordon, and lower than the consensus on Jackson.

Bad Cop: But that doesn’t change the fact that Jackson’s jumper is rubbish.

Good Cop: Hush. Jackson is a highflier with a quick first step who can pass the ball, too. His jumper form needs a lot of work, as I’ve written about countless times, but it isn’t mutated like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s was and still is. None of the other players you mentioned showed flashes of scoring stardom like Jackson did in college, despite the poor jumper. Giving up Jackson in a trade for Irving would mean giving up on eight years of a potential cornerstone for maybe only two years of a proven star who won’t guarantee any short-term or long-term success. Gambadoro also hinted that Irving’s unrestricted free agency in 2019 was problematic from Phoenix’s perspective, which one front-office executive reiterated to me recently. Irving isn’t giving a verbal commitment anywhere, and even if he were to, circumstances could change by 2019. Jackson wanted to be in Phoenix and even spurred other workouts to ensure it happened. Trading for Irving would be a classic save-your-ass trade by McDonough that’d end up leading to his demise as the team’s general manager.

Bad Cop: McDonough does need to save his ass, though. Suns owner Robert Sarver is not a patient man, and he’s admitted it countless times. For the Suns to be any good by the time McDonough’s contract is up, either they’ll need to acquire a star (hello, Kyrie!), or Jackson will need to develop at an extremely quick rate. Even if he does, like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, or even Irving himself did, that won’t necessarily prevent Phoenix from undergoing a regime change. Pairing Booker with Irving gives the Suns a shot at building something special. They lack any other potential stars. Marquese Chriss looked out of shape and out of place in the summer league, while Dragan Bender did nothing noteworthy. Bender is the guy the Suns are reportedly offering in place of Jackson, according to Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN Radio in Minneapolis. It's unclear if Bender has been offered, but it'd make sense if he’s the piece in place of Jackson.

Good Cop: Chriss’s struggles were certainly concerning. His pick-and-roll defense was about as bad as the latest Chainsmokers album, and he still hasn’t proved he can shoot 3s at a passable level. Chriss is 20, but he often plays like he’s still in high school. I would absolutely trade Bender in a package for Irving, but what’s your issue with his game?

Bad Cop: In your 2016 NBA Draft Guide, you lauded Bender as a potentially “super versatile defender” with “tremendous lateral quickness for his size” giving him the ability to switch screens. Does this look to you like a player who can switch screens?

Dennis Smith Jr. roasted Bender. The league is loaded with stellar point guards miles better than Smith. If Bender can’t switch on him, what good is he? The whole appeal of him predraft was his versatility. He was supposed to be a 7-foot-1 big who could defend multiple positions, handle, make plays, and shoot 3s. But he hasn’t done any of it in the NBA. Bender stinks. You and many others overrated him predraft. It’s time to pull the plug.

Good Cop: I did overrate Bender, but the clips you’ve shown come after a long injury absence. Bender had a bone spur removed in his right ankle in February, then played only light minutes over the last five games of the season. To expect him to contain a lightning-quick point guard after missing so much live basketball is unfair. Bender doesn’t turn 20 until November, while Jackson turns 21 in February. He’s still young, and it was a known fact that he was super raw. Be patient.

Bad Cop: Be patient, then get fired. Best of luck, dude. You act like the Suns can’t both compete and develop their young talent by doing the Jackson-Bledsoe–2018 Miami first–for-Irving deal. They’d still have a ton of youth in Bender, Chriss, Davon Reed, Tyler Ulis, Alan Williams, their own picks, and Miami’s 2021 first. Since they’re aiming to be more competitive, maybe they can flip those players for proven vets that can plug the gaps. Bender isn’t the blue-chip prospect the Cavaliers need. It’d be a joke if they settle for him. They’re right to demand Jackson. The Suns should give in.

Good Cop: Irving will still be a free agent in 2019 though, and once he is, every single team that needs a point guard will chase him. How confident could the Suns be that he’ll re-sign? The deal is maybe even more about Irving’s future than Jackson’s upside. If I’m Phoenix, I’d rather tank the hell out of the 2017-18 season for a shot at another cornerstone in the 2018 draft.

Bad Cop: Good God, that’s Mr. Blow It Up’s music!

Good Cop: OK. I wrote last week about how potentially loaded the class is, and now that Marvin Bagley III has reclassified and committed to Duke, there are at least five players who could be the no. 1 pick. Luka Doncic is a basketball genius. Michael Porter Jr. has superb scoring potential. DeAndre Ayton and Mo Bamba are high-upside centers. Returnees Robert Williams and Miles Bridges could end up being nice consolation prizes, too. The Suns would be better off staying patient, tanking, and adding another high pick. This route would give them even more flexibility moving forward since, with another high pick in a strong class, they’d be in a prime position to make a deal for another star player who might pop up on the trade block. Irving would be a tremendous addition, but the timing isn’t perfect right now.

Bad Cop: We’re not going to come to an agreement on what Phoenix should do. But I do know something we agree on.

Good Cop: What’s that?

Bad Cop: Whether it’s Bender or Jackson, the deal stinks for the Cavaliers. There has to be a better haul available for a star of Irving’s caliber. Cleveland, with two years left on Kyrie’s deal, should do better than a top-seven protected first-round pick in a draft that falls off after the top five, a wing with a shaky jumper or a big who struggled as a rookie, and an injury-prone point guard.

Good Cop: They should be able to do better. You’re right. I don’t view these two teams as a match, at least on paper. But neither were the Thunder and Pacers, yet Paul George is now teammates with Russell Westbrook. Weird stuff happens in the NBA.

Bad Cop: And that’s precisely why Phoenix should jump all over this deal when it has the chance and just include Jackson, before other teams start making acceptable offers. Take advantage of a dire situation for Cleveland, and make out like bandits with a superstar.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that The Ringer was able to confirm the report that the Suns are offering Dragan Bender to the Cavaliers in place of Josh Jackson; it’s unclear whether Bender has been included in trade talks for Kyrie Irving.