The Déjà vu summer for the Suns


BY KEVIN BERTRAM, Couchsideshow.com blogger     

The Phoenix Suns have acquired a handful of players this offseason perhaps lef by former Houston Rockets power forward Luis Scola. Photo by: Jeff Balke / Flickr

For Phoenix Suns fans, the way this offseason has played out has to feel somewhat familiar: a superstar leaves Phoenix for a larger market, and the front office uses nearly all the cap space to sign decent-to-good starters to “affordable” contracts. This was how things played out in 2010, and it is how things are playing out in 2012.

Of course, the superstar then leaving Phoenix was PF Amare Stoudemire, who picked the New York Knicks after they offered him a max contract with no injury clauses (The Suns, hesitant about what the state of Amare’s surgically-repaired knees would be at age 34, when his contract expired, refused to sign him to a contract without stipulations on how many games he could play in the final years of the deal). The front office letting Amare go was a hard move to understand at the time. The Suns had just come off of a brilliant postseason where they nearly toppled the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the NBA Finals. To replace their All-Star forward would be an impossible task that was made harder by the resignation of then-GM Steve Kerr and the transition to a new management team, headed by Lon Babby and Lance Blanks. 

In the eyes of many fans, Phoenix panicked. They resigned Channing Frye — a bench player in the Amare era — to a five year, $30 million deal. They went out and courted Hakim Warrick — who had played only 28 games the previous year with the Chicago Bulls — to the tune of four years, $18 million. They signed Josh Childress — who had been playing in Greece — to a five year, $34 million contract. And, to finish their moves, they traded Leandro Barbosa to the Toronto Raptors for Hedo Turkoglu and his remaining four year, $43.8 million contract, arguing that Barbosa’s minutes were in the way of then-backup PG Goran Dragic’s development and that Turkoglu could play as a stretch PF.

Just like that, the Suns’ cap space vanished in a matter of weeks. The Phoenix brass justified this by unveiling their new vision for building a winning team. It is nearly impossible, they said, to build a team through the draft without risking falling into an abyss of losing for years. Babby and Blanks argued that by collecting “affordable” and “attractive” contracts like they had in the summer of 2010, teams could better facilitate trades to bring stars to their city, all while being competitive at the same time.

In every possible way, this plan failed. Not only did the Suns fail to use their new players to facilitate a trade for a star to pair with Steve Nash, but the players they signed did not live up to their massive contracts (Turkoglu), were bad fits for the team’s style of play (Childress) or weren’t all that good to begin with (Warrick).

It is telling that, as of today, only Frye looks to be in the team’s rotation next season. Turkoglu (traded to Orlando only months after being acquired by Phoenix) and Childress (recently amnestied) are gone. Warrick, with a team option on his final year, has turned into an expiring contract.

The summer of 2010 was nothing short of disastrous for the Suns. Which brings us, of course, to this summer.

Like in 2010, the Suns allowed one of their superstars to go: they facilitated a sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Steve Nash. While this transaction with a division rival is hard for fans to swallow, the trade did net the Suns four future draft picks from the Lakers — two first round picks and two second round picks. There’s very little chance that any of those picks turns out to be in the top 20 of its round, but picks like these are useful as “sweeteners” in trades with other teams or to pair with the Suns own picks and move up in future drafts. And, it’s important to note, this was the best the Suns were going to get out of a sign-and-trade for Nash without having to take on salary.

 

The Suns signed free agent forward Michael Beasley, but he hasn’t lived up to the hype since being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Photo by: Danny Bollinger / Flickr

I detailed the Suns drafting of Kendall Marshall last month, and I still think that he is the PG of the future in Phoenix. However, he is certainly not a NBA starter at this point in his career (few rookie PGs — short of superstars like Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving — are) and it’s clear that he’ll need to be brought along at a more reasonable pace.

With this in mind, the Suns signed a player very familiar to them: Dragic, who they had traded to Houston for Aaron Brooks after a shaky start to the 2010-2011 season — a trade that always mystified me, since Phoenix didn’t seem to have any interest in Brooks as their future PG and Dragic had just come off of a very productive and promising 2010 postseason run. His deal is four years, $30 million, with $4 million promised in bonuses should he make a certain number of All-Star game appearances.

Dragic had a very productive time in Houston, where he came off the bench for most of the season and averaged 11.7 points-per-game and 5.3 assists on 2.4 turnovers. However, in the 26 games to close the season that he started in place of the injured Kyle Lowry, he showed glimpses that he could be much more, averaging 18 points and 8.4 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.

Of course, this is a small sample size, and Dragic’s play has been known to go through peaks and valleys before, as his confidence in his game waxes and wanes — a problem that his newly-inked contract and guaranteed position as a starter might help alleviate. At the very worst, he’ll be a standby while the Suns prepare Marshall for the role. At the very best, Dragic will help integrate all of the Suns’ new pieces while maintaining the run-and-gun style of the offense in the hopes of making a playoff push.

One new piece who might need such help integrating himself is Michael Beasley. The former no. 2 overall pick of the 2008 draft has thus far failed to establish himself as the dominant player he was in his one year at Kansas State. Last year was particularly difficult for Beasley, as he watched his averages plummet to career lows of 11.5 points-per-game on 44 percent shooting. He only added 4.4 rebounds-per-game. Much of this can be attributed to Beasley losing his starting role and playing time to Derrick Williams, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. Much of Beasley’s struggles at the professional level can be attributed to his ambiguous position on the court (as a classic “tweener” between the PF and SF position), his lack of efficiency (in his “best” season in 2010-2011, Beasley averaged 19.2 points — but had only a pedestrian PER of 15.5) and his off-the-court issues and immaturity.

Beasley is by far the riskiest pick-up this offseason by the Suns, but is also potentially the most profitable. Should he be able and willing to put his past behind him, “Beas” can be a versatile scorer and an asset on defense. Much of the Suns’ faith in Beasley stems from this hope, as there is very little to be found in his first four seasons that would lead a front office to believe he will ever be a high-efficiency scorer. His contract gives him $18 million over three years.

A surprise pick-up off the amnesty wire for the Suns was Luis Scola, who Houston had dropped because of the length of his remaining contract. Getting Scola, 32, is a puzzling move by Phoenix. A back-to-the-basket PF who likes to battle under the rim, Scola will have to co-inhabit the lane with Marcin Gortat. He’s also an aging veteran who may emerge as the oldest player on this rebuilding Suns team next season, and the Suns may eventually regret having to play Scola over the rapidly-improving Markieff Morris.

Those, of course, are the only negatives that can be said about this deal. The bottom line is that Scola, at $12 million for three years, is an absolute steal for the Suns — especially considering that the third year has a buyout option for less than $500,000. Scola’s numbers took a step backward in Houston last season, but he should still be a major upgrade over Frye at the starting PF position, and playing with a center of Gortat’s caliber might help him get easier looks. Both Scola and Gortat have the versatility to hit mid-range jumpers, and I expect that the Suns will utilize this skill to add some additional spacing for Dragic to operate and drive into the paint.

Of course, it’s necessary to temper one’s optimism. This team, as currently constructed, should be in the hunt for the 8th and final seed in the western conference playoffs if everything goes according to plan. Many Suns fans were also optimistic about the 2010 signings, only to watch their team saddled with middling, overpaid talent. There’s some positive signs that history is not being repeated. Scola, while set for a decline like Turkoglu was, is making many millions less. Beasley’s scoring game, while inefficient, fits the Suns offense more than Childress’s defensive-minded approach (and terrible-looking jumpshot). Dragic, at worst, will be an average, so-so starting point guard — not a terrible asset to have in the NBA.

There are few holes still on this team that need to be sorted out, including the search for a starting SG now that the New Orleans Hornets matched Eric Gordon’s max contract and O.J. Mayo signed with the Dallas Mavericks. More to come on that later this summer.

SUNS CURRENT DEPTH CHART (NOT COUNTING CURRENT FA, RFA):

PG: Dragic – Marshall – Telfair 

SG: Dudley – Dragic

SF: Beasley – Dudley – Warrick 

PF: Scola – Frye – Morris – Warrick 

C: Gortat – Frye 

RECENT SUNS ACQUISITIONS:

Goran Dragic, PG/SG — $30 million / 4 years / Player Option on Year 4

Michael Beasley, SF/PF — $18 million / 3 years

Luis Scola, PF — $12 million / 3 years / Only $500k guaranteed on Year 3

Kendall Marshall, PG / Drafted, 13th overall / Terms not disclosed

Lakers 1st Round Picks, 2013 + 2015 (via Steve Nash sign-and-trade)

Lakers 2nd Round Picks 2013 + 2014 (via Steve Nash sign-and-trade)

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