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Essay: What Are The Suns Doing?

Here’s a promise: I’ll give you $5 if you can tell me off the top of your head who the general manager of the Phoenix Suns is. One guess. Five dollars. Give up? According to the team’s official staff directory, it’s a man who goes by the name “Lance Blank”. I’ve consistently followed NBA basketball for the greater part of the past 15 years and I can honestly say I’ve never heard this man’s name said aloud.

By a slight margin, the more recognizable man in Phoenix’s front office is Lon Babby, President of Basketball Operations and once an agent to the players. Behind them both is Suns owner Robert Sarver, the evil Oz, cloaked in his castle. Between these three fine gentlemen, the Phoenix Suns have had one of the strangest, most frustratingly head-scratching first week of free agency in recent memory. Very few transactions are making a lick of sense, including, to a minor degree, their biggest decision: trading Steve Nash, the most important player in franchise history, to a division rival for four draft picks (only one of which—a first round pick in 2015—holds any significant value). 

Letting a 38-year-old Nash go was probably the logical move and somewhat of a foregone conclusion. But everything else they’ve reportedly done escalates that devastating loss and crushes an intelligent fan base. Every move has the smell of desperation—”win now” transactions for a team that shouldn’t consider themselves anywhere near doing so.

  • Suns extend a maximum four-year, $58 million offer sheet to Eric Gordon. Despite Gordon’s overwhelming public approval of this offer, and the fact that the Suns are showing some sort of effort in trying to stay relevant, let’s not get too confused with what this probably amounts to. Eric Gordon, arguably the third or fourth most skilled shooting guard in the league, is a restricted free agent for a New Orleans Hornets team that’s on the cusp of building something special. Once Phoenix’s offer sheet was announced, several highly respected NBA reporters tweeted that the Hornets were wisely planning to match the offer, keeping Gordon in New Orleans as the team’s primary scorer (alongside Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers) for the next four years. When we look back at Phoenix’s offer, what we’ll probably see is them lowering the contract’s ultimate price and doing New Orleans a favor. (As was pointed out by SI.com’s Zach Lowe earlier this week.) However, the chance of Eric Gordon ending up on the Suns isn’t impossible. For all we know, a contract that averages $14.5 million a year for an injury prone player who’s never even made an All-Star team might cross the imaginary line of sensibility for New Orleans’ new owner. Maybe they elect not to match and allow Gordon to play where it is his heart supposedly resides. Still, then the Suns are the ones stuck with paying a guy who’s never made an All-Star team $58 million for the next four years (the actual salary for next season will be $12.9 million with a 4.5% annual increase). Obviously this is something Phoenix is prepared to do, and worse contracts could be handed out to worse players (more on this later) but is it wise to do so knowing you have very little cap space to attain the appropriate pieces that’ll allow Gordon to truly flourish? For the record, I’d be shocked if New Orleans doesn’t match the offer, so that question might not be one worth me taking the time to answer.
  • Suns sign Goran Dragic to a four-year, $30 million deal. Two years ago Goran Dragic was Phoenix’s speedy up and coming heir apparent to perennial All-Star Steve Nash. He was hyper frenetic score first point guard who stylistically speaking played the position in a completely different way, yet he was smooth and efficient (for the most part), and had an ability to make teammates better. In short spurs, including big time playoff moments, Dragic showed he could play against the NBA’s best. His most notable performance came in the 2010 playoffs against San Antonio: 26 points in 17 minutes. He also had an eight point, eight assist, four rebound mini-gem against the Laker in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix won both of those games. Granted he was a flickering flame at only 23-years-old, but Dragic’s potential was clear and on display. The Suns responded by packaging him alongside a first round draft pick at the following year’s trade deadline for Aaron Brooks. Colossal mistake. Now, two years later, thanks to Kyle Lowry’s freakish bacterial stomach infection, the door of opportunity was opened for Dragic in Houston and his price tag on the open market drastically increased. Phoenix is now likely paying Dragic more money than they ever would have imagined possible, and, ironically enough, will have to renounce their rights to Brooks, who spent last season in China but is expected to make a return to the NBA this season, to make it all fit under the cap. Dragic showed some glimpses of amazing in the second half of last season, but as the starting point guard in a full-time capacity with raised expectations and very little talent around him, it’s uncertain how effective he can be. Oh, also, the Suns just spent their first round pick on Kendall Marshall, arguably the best pure point guard prospect in his draft class. So I’m not so sure point guard was the position $30 million should have been directed towards. This signing amounts to the type of move a team rebuilding on the fly would make, not one looking to do so from the ground.
  • Suns sign Michael Beasley to a three-year, $18 million deal. Why? Beasley may still be a pretty good offensive player in this league, and at roughly $5.7 million in that first season Phoenix would be grabbing him at a reduced rate of about $2 million from what he was scheduled to earn next season in Minnesota (before they opted not to offer him a qualifying offer). Then again, maybe his career amounts to more promise than production. Last season, Beasley made 37.6% of his field goal attempts while averaging a little under one shot per minute. Not too good. Also, the Timberwolves were nearly four points better with him off the court when we measure their offense on a points scored per 100 possessions scale. According to NBA.com’s stats database, the Suns scored 103.5 points per 100 possessions this season, making them the ninth best offensive team in the league. That ranking will probably plummet now that Nash is on the Lakers, but I’m not so sure paying an oft-injured malcontent somewhat significant money over the next three years is the best way to repair it.

The bottom line here with Phoenix is that their entire offseason strategy has revolved around poaching a subpar free agent market instead of re-signing their own guys. In effect, they’re trading a rotten apple for a slightly less rotten peach. They’ve replaced Steve Nash (and possibly Sebastian Telfair, who’s future is currently unknown) with Kendall Marshall and Goran Dragic. They have likely replaced Grant Hill and Shannon Brown with Michael Beasley. Their highest priced/best player right now is Marcin Gortat, but if they land Gordon there’s a possibility he’s shipped to New Orleans by way of a sign and trade.

Instead of taking a step back, building with the combination of draft picks they acquired from L.A., their own future lottery picks, and a bundle of cap space, the Suns have decided to take a horizontal step to the right instead of one back or forward. It’s the worst thing a franchise can do, and instead of wearing the hat of either a contender or one of the worst teams in the league (the two most desired positions an organization can ask for) if all these transactions go down they’ll be mediocre yet again; a few games away from making the playoffs. (It’s no surprise that Beasley and Dragic were let go by two teams—Houston and Minnesota—that are currently trying to avoid that hazy, purgatory area.) So far, Phoenix just doesn’t get it. And as long as Robert Sarver is the man heading it all, it’s probable that they never do.

Categories: Essays
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