The Suns’ curious handling of Jae Crowder creates more questions than answers

Once the opening lineups have been introduced this preseason, you can find the Phoenix Suns’ players bunched on their side of the court. A group of larger-than-life bowling pins, joyfully rattling and ramming against each other, all bouncing off the hardwood. Never mind the team is up for sale, following the exposure of Robert Sarver’s long-rumored behaviors. Never mind that debut defeat at the hands of the … Adelaide 36ers?

The giggliest Sun might even be the tallest, starting center Deandre Ayton, who has since reversed course from his loud media day comments about strained communication with head coach Monty Williams following their Game 7 flameout against the Dallas Mavericks during the playoffs and an icy standoff during Ayton’s restricted free agency.

“Everything is back to normal,” Ayton told the Arizona Republic on Monday.

Maybe all these vibes are simply the result of addition by subtraction. There is one noticeable lynchpin absent from the Suns’ core that came two wins shy of the 2021 NBA championship. The day before training camp, Phoenix announced the franchise and Jae Crowder agreed to the 10-year veteran remaining away from basketball activity while both sides worked towards finding a suitable trade for the 32-year-old swingman.

Three weeks later, and now days before the regular season tips, Crowder still stands as the main transactional domino front offices across the league are waiting to see fall. The Lakers’ flirtation with trading Russell Westbrook has seemingly dissipated for the time being. The trade deadline garage sale that’s expected to free impact veterans like Myles Turner and Jakob Poeltl from rebuilding teams is a ways away.

Word of Crowder’s availability has circled among league decision-makers since June’s draft. The understanding among NBA personnel is that Crowder has since requested a trade from Phoenix, and the Suns have been happy to oblige. With Crowder’s three-year, $29.1 million deal expiring at the conclusion of this 2022-23 campaign, the Suns, sources said, are unwilling to offer an extension of similar value that Crowder is once again commanding. It’s akin to the deals of fellow mid-tier rotation players Maxi Kleber and Larry Nance, who — at 30 and 29, respectively — signed three-year, $33 million and two-year, $21.6 million extensions this offseason.

Instead, Phoenix has aimed to supplant Crowder in its starting group with Cam Johnson. During the team’s trade pursuit of Kevin Durant this summer, sources said, Suns officials remained steadfast that Johnson was off limits. Johnson is extension-eligible himself, and early indications suggested the Suns had hoped to re-sign the 26-year-old sharpshooter in the ballpark of four years and $72 million. Every dollar more will add to Phoenix’s already pricey luxury tax bill, which is surely coloring the Suns’ ongoing trade talks regarding Crowder.

The Suns have a lot to figure out regarding Jae Crowder’s next destination. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

But moving Johnson into the starting lineup, with Crowder missing, has left a gaping hole in Williams’ contending rotation. Johnson sustained a right thumb injury last week and is currently inactive. How much longer will the sun shine on Phoenix’s pregame mosh pit if the regular season begins and a potential championship piece remains in the shadows?

Phoenix has informed inquiring teams that it only wishes to move Crowder for a player or combination of players who can help win now. If the Suns simply priced Crowder for a first-round pick, he’d likely have already been moved as swiftly as Brooklyn sent a 2023 selection to Utah for Royce O’Neal.

But the Suns, rather famously, may spend less resources than any rival on draft scouting and evaluation. Phoenix is ​​curiously the only team in the NBA that does not owe any outgoing picks from previous trades or have any incoming picks on the horizon. This Suns’ front office appears to operate on one-year schedules, where each campaign is its own trip around the Monopoly board, with its own set of resources to reach “GO” once again in prosperity. That way, you’re never asset-strapped, with only distant first-round picks to upgrade your roster.

It’s therefore difficult to essentially find another Jae Crowder waiting in the wings. Healthy, two-way veterans with proven playoff clout aren’t typically dangling on the trade block, unless there’s some true reason bubbling beneath the surface. Crowder’s personality has been said to particularly clash with that of Williams — in addition to questions about Crowder’s role and contract.

There are plenty of teams that would love to acquire Crowder, that would embrace who he is and how he’s won, yet either don’t have the talent they’re willing to part with or the contracts that make sense for Phoenix when the Suns stand $15 million into the tax. The Suns have ample bench depth to win games in the regular season, but failed to escape the second round last spring.

All this has left rival executives questioning why Phoenix barred Crowder from the team in the first place? Was he really that much of a malcontent? It’s considered a cardinal rule that when teams declare their intention to trade a player, it intrinsically lowers his value.

“I thought the way Phoenix played the situation was strange,” one Western Conference executive told Yahoo Sports. “You’re not a super deep team. You’re a contender. Doesn’t it seem like there’s some other way to resolve this other than him sitting out and hurting your depth?”

“For Jae to hold out is pretty rare. It’s pretty extreme,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “It’s really interesting they didn’t just play hardball with him.”

Crowder has been often mentioned as Miami’s primary target to replace PJ Tucker, a fellow contending mercenary forward, once Tucker departed for Philadelphia in free agency — on another three-year, $30-plus million deal structure similar to Crowder’s purported wishes.

Heat officials have even expressed confidence that Miami is Crowder’s preferred destination. By all accounts, Crowder didn’t want to leave Miami after he contributed to the Heat’s 2020 Eastern Conference championship, but Miami balked at the three-for-30 number Crowder was seeking then, just as he purportedly is now. So, why not wait to see if Crowder ultimately finds a buyout, in Phoenix or elsewhere, and flocks back to South Beach with open arms?

Zach Lowe already detailed how it will be tricky for Miami to find a matching salary for Crowder until Caleb Martin, Victor Oladipo and Dewayne Dedmon become trade-eligible in a few months. Plus the Heat have high hopes for Martin, and Oladipo spurned a potential starting opportunity in Washington to return to Miami in free agency for an impact position. Most teams, not just the Heat, will look to evaluate their current groups through a 20-game sample or so before jumping to make any sweeping changes.

Other destinations where Crowder has had success have naturally been linked as suitors. Memphis could, in theory, send out Danny Green’s expiring contract, but sources said Phoenix does not want to acquire the injured veteran while he recovers from a torn ACL. Alas, there’s little expectation Phoenix moves Crowder to another team out West, unless said move made the Suns significantly better, and Memphis is not actively pursuing Crowder in their own right, sources said. Neither is Dallas, according to multiple figures with knowledge of the situation, another team that seemingly gets mentioned whenever a two-way wing becomes available.

Crowder found his professional stride in Boston during the start of Brad Stevens’ coaching tenure. It’s true losing Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL has left a gap in Boston’s frontcourt, but Gallinari’s deal is not tradable until Dec. 15.

There does not seem to be an extension coming for forward Grant Williams, sources said. And it’s believed the Suns have interest in Derrick White. However, Boston just sent a first-round pick plus a future pick swap to San Antonio for his services in February. The Celtics aren’t involved in Crowder’s trade situation at this time either, sources said.

Along with Miami, inquiring teams have been told Atlanta is Crowder’s other preferred landing spot. While the Hawks have made calls about injured wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, a potential framework of Crowder and Landry Shamet for Bogdanovic has made the rounds among front office personnel, although one source with knowledge of the situation claimed Shamet is not part of any active Suns conversations with Atlanta. The Hawks and Suns have had dialogue on Crowder throughout the summer.

Several league executives wondered whether the Hawks would be willing to part with De’Andre Hunter amid his ongoing extension conversations with Atlanta, but Crowder alone would seem far too little compensation for the Hawks to consider. The Hawks told rival teams Hunter was unavailable for trade this summer.

Perhaps there’s a three-team framework with Atlanta in which the Hawks could send a young player and salary, such as Justin Holiday’s contract, to Phoenix, which the Suns could re-route and obtain a different player on their wish list. Rockets forward KJ Martin, another forward known to have interest in playing elsewhere, is one player the Suns have held ongoing talks about obtaining, sources said. Portland and Miami have two other known teams with interest in Martin.

In recent transaction cycles, Phoenix has explored adding greater ball-handling depth behind Chris Paul and Devin Booker. And Jordan Clarkson, one of the many veterans thought to be available in Utah, is one dynamic guard the Suns have inquired about landing in exchange for Crowder, sources said. Would Phoenix be willing to attach draft capital in that scenario? That outcome would seem to result in Crowder securing a buyout from Utah, and then his choice of destination, albeit at an unknown salary.

All that’s left is this situation’s inevitable conclusion in which a team decides the price for Crowder is affordable and it has the appetite to match his future contract desires.

“You would have to really think he takes you over the top,” one assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports. “Phoenix either has something in its pocket, that they know is good enough for them, or they’re bluffing. We’ll see what happens come D Day, come opening night.”