A funny thing often happens when a once-forsaken franchise reaches a certain level of success: hope suddenly turns into expectation. No longer is the team afforded the luxury of incremental improvement or given the benefit of the doubt when coming up short — it’s either mountain top or lagoon.
Such is the case this offseason for the Phoenix Suns, who, after relinquishing a 2-0 lead to Milwaukee in the NBA Finals, are navigating free agency this is summer with the knowledge that a title was well within their grasp and carrying expectations that leave little room for much less.
Of course, the Suns know that repeating as champions of a stacked Western Conference — which includes the Lakers, who are stockpiling weaponry faster than a doomsday prophet — will require not only bringing back their most valuable free agents (Chris Paul: check, Cam Payne: check) but also filling some lower-profile gaps in the roster, particularly down low.
To that end, on Monday, the Suns agreed to sign Denver’s journeyman center JaVale McGee to a 1-year, $5 million deal.
The 7-foot McGee, who sports a 7-foot-6 wingspan, will add some much-needed defensive stopping power and a rim-rolling presence off the Suns’ bench, but his price tag could be considered a bit high, especially given that it’ll be the most he’s made in five years.
Not only that, with the Suns over the cap, they will need to use more than half of their mid-level exception to afford McGee, thereby reducing their chances at landing a more impactful player through free agency. A curious trade-off for a guy who has averaged only 14.3 minutes per game over the last five seasons.
But Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports believes he may know how and why McGee will be a Sun next season: Over six meaningless minutes last season, he impressed the hell out of Chris Paul.
McGee Turned Garbage Into Gold
On Tuesday, a day after the news of McGee’s agreement broke, Haynes recounted a conversation he had with Paul earlier in the day, during which the 11-time All-Star discussed being impressed by McGee’s garbage-time hustle in the final minutes of Game 2 of the Suns-Nuggets series. As Haynes tells it:
The game was a blowout, but [McGee] was just running up and down the floor, and that really caught the attention of Chris Paul. After the game Chris Paul pulled Javale to the side and said ‘Hey big fella, you made a huge impression on me. The way you came into this game, you were playing like this game was still up for grabs. You went hard and I respect that, bro. Keep doing that.’ That was the moment that Chris Paul knew that he wanted Javale McGee on his team.
McGee, 33, entered the game for the first time with 6:53 remaining in the fourth and the Nuggets down 25. He had three points, one rebound, one assist and two blocks.
Of course, there’s no denying that Paul has a lot of pull on the Suns, having led them to the brink of a championship in his first year as a Sun and reportedly agreeing to a 3-year, $120 million deal shortly before the team came to terms with McGee. (Teams cannot officially sign free agents until August 6.) So it’s not inconceivable to imagine that Paul was in the ear of Suns’ management about McGee.
Nor is it hard to imagine that Suns superstar Devin Booker had anything to do with marrying McGee to the Suns. At the moment, Booker and McGee are teammates on Team USA at the Olympics, and Haynes speculates that both Paul and Booker “played a role” in convincing McGee to join the Suns. But it was the end of Game 2 that got the ball rolling.
“It had everything to do with just that little six-minute spurt,” concluded Haynes, who noted that Paul and McGee were not friends before their postgame niceties.
McGee Will Provide Depth Down Low
No matter the impetus, McGee joining the Suns helps a frontcourt that suffered from a lack of depth in The Finals and were staring down the barrel of a similar situation heading into next season.
After backup center Dario Saric tore his ACL in Game 1 of the Bucks series, coach Monty Williams was forced to spell starter DeAndre Ayton with six-year veteran Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky had flashes, including six points on 3-for-4 shooting in Game 6, but otherwise was a huge liability on defense, often hunted by the Bucks. Williams frequently opted to use 6-foot-8 forward Jae Crowder at center when Ayton was out, all of which resulted in highly productive minutes from Milwaukee’s backup big man Bobby Portis.
Saric is expected to miss most if not all of next season as he rehabs from his ACL tear, and the Suns 2020 first-round draft pick, 6-foot-10 Jalen Smith, is still very raw and did not see a single minute in the Milwaukee series.
McGee, on the other hand, is a known entity at this point in his career and has been a part of three championships teams in the last five years (Warriors in ’17 and ’18, Lakers in ’20).
Drafted No. 18 overall out of Nevada by Washington in 2008, McGee became a full-time starter for the Wizards during the 2010-11 season, finishing second in the league in total blocked shots and averaging 10.1 points.
But it was clear that McGee would never develop into the kind of polished, back-to-the-basket center Washington was looking for, and so, in 2011-12, despite starting the first 40 of 41 games for the Wizards and averaging 11.9 points, 2.5 blocks and 8.8 rebounds, he was traded to the Nuggets in a three-way deadline deal that sent Ronny Turiaf and Nene to Washington, and Nick Young to the Clippers.
The trade from Washington was the first of many journeys around the NBA for McGee. Including his early years in the Nation’s Capital, the Flint, Michigan, native has played for seven NBA teams. For his career, McGee is averaging 7.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 57.1% from the floor.