Taking the Phoenix Suns from the lottery to the playoffs in three steps
Step 2: Free Agency
The Suns will not be far enough under the salary cap (as it stands before the new collective-bargaining agreement) this summer to be major players in the free agent market but can still address a need here if need be.
First, however, they must take care of business on the home front. Hill and Zabian Dowdell will be unrestricted free agents, Aaron Brooks will be a restricted free agent, Vince Carter has a team option for $18 million, and Mickael Pietrus has a player option for $5.3 million. If all of those players become free agents, Phoenix will still have nine players under contract for next season.
Hill will (and should) be the first priority to be retained by the team. He is one of the best defenders in the league — able to defend anywhere from point guards to power forwards — and still contributes 13 points per game on offense. Plus he is a leader on the team, and the last thing the Suns need is to have another core player depart. Of course the decision ultimately falls to Hill, and he can leave to join a team in the hunt for a championship if he so chooses. However, no championship-contending team can offer him a role like the one he has in Phoenix, and Hill has expressed interest in returning to the Valley.
After Hill’s situation is squared away, Brooks and Dowdell must be addressed. Dowdell has proven to be a reliable backup point guard since joining the team as a free agent midway through the season and can be retained for a modest sum. Brooks may be another matter. The Suns acquired Brooks at the trade deadline, in part, to have a future point guard in place once Nash hangs up his sneakers; however, Brooks has been slow to grasp the system and seems more comfortable when looking to score himself. Those are qualities more desirable in a backup point guard than a starting point guard, especially since he is a liability on defense at just 6-0 tall and 163 lbs. The Suns would definitely like to hold onto Brooks, but if another team swoops in and offers him a deal in the $7-8 million range, the Suns may let him go and look elsewhere.
If Phoenix lets Carter go and retains Hill, Brooks, and Dowdell, they would have 12 players under contract, and if Pietrus exercises his option, then the roster jumps to 13. If Phoenix keeps its draft pick, then the roster is at 14, leaving just one roster spot available for a free-agent signing or to acquire players in a two-for-one or three-for-two deal.
Step 3: Wheeling and Dealing
Quite simply, the Suns’ roster has no flexibility. The ratio of role players to impact players is greatly lop-sided towards role players, and no team can truly compete for a title with that type of imbalance. But who to trade? The most likely candidates would be Pietrus, Josh Childress, Jared Dudley and Lopez, with Frye possibly needing to be included as well. Other potential trade scenarios could see Phoenix using Brooks in a sign-and-trade deal or swapping Carter’s expiring contract for a player or two making $15-18 million.
If the Suns want to upgrade their shooting guard position, the best option is via trade. Several teams have upper-tier two guards on the market, including Detroit (either Rip Hamilton or Ben Gordon), Memphis (O.J. Mayo), and Portland (Brandon Roy).
Mayo or Gordon make the most sense for the Suns. Both players can space the floor with their shooting and have shown the ability to be go-to scorers, to create their own shots, and to take over games should the need arise. Those are the traits missing from the current Suns team and the reason why the Suns are going on vacation early.
The Grizzlies do not believe they can re-sign Mayo, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph, and they have been shopping Mayo for quite some time. Possible trade frameworks could include sending Brooks to Memphis for Mayo in a sign-and-trade, or packaging Lopez, Pietrus (who will have an expiring contract if he exercises his player option), and their first-round pick for Mayo and Greivis Vasquez.
A similar situation exists in Detroit, where Gordon and Hamilton have struggled to co-exist. The Suns would like Gordon if he can return to the form he displayed during his Chicago days. A deal with Detroit appears more feasible now with the Pistons soon to be under new management, and with the Pistons having too many shooting guards as it is, a trade could make sense for both teams. The best trade scenario would see Phoenix trading Carter’s expiring contract to the Pistons for Gordon and Jason Maxiell. This trade or one similar would offer Detroit (and new ownership) cap relief while giving Phoenix a proven scorer in Gordon and a strong, athletic power forward in Maxiell. It gives both teams something they each need, and the best trades are always win-win.
In this scenario, Phoenix would come away with a starting five of Nash, Gordon, Hill, Frye, and Gortat and have Brooks, Dudley, Pietrus, Maxiell, Lopez, Warrick, Childress, Dowdell, Lawal, and Garret Siler as reserves. Of course, this scenario assumes Phoenix’s draft selection will stay overseas next season. The trade would do nothing to address the Suns’ overabundance of rotation players on the bench (which would need to be addressed at some point, possibly through a trade for a future first- or second-round draft pick) but would make Phoenix a much more dangerous team.
Roy would be a long shot, considering his balky knees and huge contract. If Roy can return to form and good health, however, the Blazers will need to do something. Wesley Matthews has played remarkably well as a starter in place of Roy, but Roy likely would not accept a reserve role for long. Matthews is not a go-to scorer and would not fill a need for Phoenix, but a healthy Roy would — if the price was right. Portland agreeing to take any combination of Warrick, Childress, Pietrus, and Lopez off Phoenix’s hands for Roy just may be enough for Phoenix to bite. But again, this scenario is a long shot.
Another long shot would be Joe Johnson. He recently signed a max long-term extension with the Atlanta Hawks, but he has not led the team far in the playoffs since he joined Atlanta in 2005. If management decides that this lackadaisical Hawks team simply will not improve as constructed, then they may be inclined to shuffle the deck, making Johnson a candidate to be moved. Just as with Detroit, Carter’s expiring deal could be sent to Atlanta for Johnson, giving the Hawks financial flexibility to help re-sign Jamal Crawford.
Sure his return to Phoenix after a less-than-amicable departure six years ago would seem far-fetched, and taking on Johnson, who is nothing more that a great support player, and the nearly $90 million left on his contract would appear to be salary-cap suicide on the part of the Suns’ front office, but taken from a purely basketball standpoint, this would be a terrific pickup.
Of course, all this talk of building for next year becomes moot if the Suns’ brass decides to trade Nash and enter a full-fledged rebuilding mode. But the only way trading Nash makes any sense at all is if the team can somehow procure a couple good players who are in the prime of their careers. Adding players who can provide the team with a sense of optimism may be enough to lure a big free agent like Chris Paul in 2012 and allow Phoenix to stunt a painful rebuild. That was the plan in 2004 when the Suns jettisoned Stephon Marbury to clear the way for a run at Nash during the 2004 free-agency period. But if the plan is not to trade Nash for key pieces at shooting guard, small forward, or power forward, then the team would be best served holding onto Nash and re-evaluating the situation after next season when he becomes a free agent.
The Suns’ situation is not hopeless, but undeniably, Phoenix’s front office has much work to do this summer. The glory surrounding the run-and-gun Suns has faded, and they have drifted backward to become a middle-of-the-pack team. Nash and Hill only have a few good years left in them, so if the team wants to capitalize on its two best players and make one last run at a title, then it must act quick. The Suns may not have the upcoming financial freedom or flexibility of teams like the Indiana Pacers or Sacramento Kings (Anaheim Royals?) this summer, but they are not exactly handcuffed either. A good draft pick here, a smart trade there, and the Suns can be back to competing at a high level next season — that is, if there is a season.
By: Eric Lorenz
Pro Basketball Fans Staff Writer
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