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Best Case, Worst Case: Phoenix Suns

The no. 25 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has finally established a respectable young core. But is their newly paid star ready for his new role as a primary facilitator?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers — the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018–19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 25
Last Season: 21–61
Notable Additions: Trevor Ariza (free agency), Deandre Ayton (draft), Mikal Bridges (trade), Ryan Anderson (trade) De’Anthony Melton (trade)
“Notable” Subtractions: Brandon Knight (trade), Marquese Chriss (trade), Tyler Ulis (waived — sorry, Devin Booker)
Vegas Over/Under: 28.5
Team MVP: Devin Booker

Best-Case Scenario: Booker stays healthy and makes a leap on the heels of his new contract, Ayton’s size and athleticism translate immediately, and the young Suns give good teams a hard time on any given night.

This offseason, Phoenix checked every box off its to-do list. With the no. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, they selected a star big man in Ayton to pair with their star wing, gave Booker a five-year, $158 million max deal, and got rid of every traditional point guard they had — from Knight to Booker’s good friend Ulis. Their offseason made it clear that they envision their dynamic scorer as a James Harden–like figure in their offense. How Booker adjusts to the role could determine the Suns’ ceiling.

Booker has the talent to grow into a Harden type. He’s earned a reputation in his three NBA seasons as a knockdown shooter with Kobe Bryant elements in his game — you don’t get to 70 points in a single game without that mentality. The next step in his evolution, however, will be in the growth of his point guard skills. His ball handling, passing, and decision-making will be under serious scrutiny: Booker has a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.2-to-1, which isn’t good enough for the lead playmaker of an NBA team. Booker’s success as a lead playmaker also depends on the talent around him; there’s a lot of potential, but not a lot of evidence. Although he got off to a slow start, Josh Jackson averaged 18.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.6 steals a game in the second half of the season; for a team that isn’t quite built to be an elite defense, Jackson is one of the few players who has the skills to hold everything together on that end. The Suns targeted perimeter players to surround Booker with. Grabbing Bridges in a trade with Philly gives them a potential 3-and-D wing, while Élie Okobo projects as a high-ceiling scoring guard. They added even more perimeter threats in the offseason when they traded Knight and Chriss for Anderson and Melton — who has tremendous upside as an on-ball defender.

The Suns might not be a playoff contender, but for the first time in the post–Steve Nash era, there seems to be a plan in place. They have young talent, a clear blueprint in place, and a new coach in Igor Kokoskov ready to instill a different culture and lead the franchise into a positive direction. That’s a win in itself.

Worst-Case Scenario: Kokoskov watches as Booker buckles under the pressure, Ayton struggles defensively, and Luka Doncic wins Rookie of the Year.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Booker would undergo hand surgery, forcing him to miss six weeks due to what was called “recent swelling.” That timetable suggests Booker will miss only about a week of the regular season, but it does set him back in trying to establish chemistry with his new teammates, something that’s imperative if the Suns intend for him to run the offense.

Though it’s still way too early to call out teams for passing on Doncic, if the young Slovenian meets the hype, it could be the Suns, not the Hawks, who regret passing on him more than any other team. The Suns had a chance to draft him no. 1 overall and reunite him with Kokoskov, his coach on the Slovenian national team, but instead chose Ayton. The former Arizona center looks the part of an All-NBA-caliber center, with all the physical tools you could ask for in a big man, but it doesn’t always come together how it should; his defensive shortcomings are well documented.

Signing Ariza gives Phoenix some legitimacy and veteran moxie — it also gives Booker a two-way player he can rely on. But aside from Ariza — plus the newly arrived Anderson and old standby Tyson Chandler — the rest of the members of the Suns’ projected rotation are all in their early or mid-20s. The Suns are in a strange position: On one hand, they’ve brought on four players from the draft, but have also acquired playoff-tested veterans in hopes of breaking their postseason drought sooner than later. They’re trying to win now and build to win later.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario for the Suns is if those two strategies cancel each other out, leaving Phoenix somewhere in the mediocre middle. Youth, in this case, could be exactly what holds them back from making a small leap from worst team in the league to middle of the pack.

TL;DR: Get healthy, Devin. The pressure begins now.