Suns say goodbye to Lopez, hello to draft picks and financial flexibility


BY KEVIN BERTRAM, Couchsideshow.com blogger 

After spending four season with the Phoenix Suns, center Robin Lopez was traded to the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday. Photo by: Road Warrior / Flickr

Multiple sources are reporting that the Phoenix Suns will be involved in a three-team trade with the New Orleans Hornets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Suns will send Robin Lopez to New Orleans (where he’ll sign a three year, $15 million deal) along with Hakim Warrick. In return, the Wolves will send a lottery-protected 1st round pick and Wesley Johnson to Phoenix. The Wolves will get two 2nd round picks from New Orleans, along with the cap room to sign Andrei Kirilenko to a two year, $20 million deal.

Like with the Nash trade earlier in the summer, this deal cannot be viewed as a straight up transaction of Lopez for Johnson and a 1st. Lopez, a restricted free agent, is more or less being sent away in a sign-and-trade deal.

SENDING AWAY LOPEZ

If the price for Lopez is correctly reported, it seems to be fair-to-good market value for a 7-foot-0, back-up center. After all, Omer Asik — like Lopez, a young back-up center — received three years, 25 million from the Houston Rockets.

Clearly, the Suns just didn’t see Lopez being a part of their future core — or being content sitting on the bench behind Marcin Gortat. Lopez has shown promise in the past, though, and as much as he tends to still be his own worst enemy on both ends of the court, he’s a lengthy big man who can run the floor and make good defensive plays. Last season was the worst of his professional career: he shot only 46 percent from the field and averaged only 5.6 points-per-game and 3.3 rebounds-per-game, all while watching his minutes erode due to the great play of Markieff Morris and Gortat.

However, there is a good chance that the Hornets did pick up a great, short-term asset here. Lopez’s per-36 numbers are highly encouraging: 14 points-per-game and 8.4 rebounds-per-game to go along with 2.4 blocks-per-game. That last statistic along would have placed Robin in 2nd last season in the league. Additionally, having shot 50 percent or higher three out of four years he has been in the league, there’s reason to believe that he can return to that level. One thing that he’ll need to work on is his foul rate: at 5.1 fouls-per-game per-36 minutes, it’s unlikely he’ll even be able to stay on the court.

In other words, Lopez — who, if for nothing else, because of a lack of options at his position — will probably be a starter in New Orleans. It’s not even crazy to believe that he might be a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year.

I hesitate, however, to call Lopez a great long-term asset for the Hornets. Lopez missed over 70 games of his first four years in the league due to injuries, including a back injury, which — second only to the knees — is the quickest sort to become the death knell for NBA big men. And these injuries were incurred in limited minutes, with what is widely considered the best medical training staff standing in the background. Eventually, I think Lopez fits best as the back-up center on a team, where his elite shot-blocking abilities can better mask his lack of offensive skills.

HAKIM WARRICK HEADS TO THE HORNETS

New Orleans also gets Hakim Warrick from Phoenix. I detailed Warrick’s beginnings in Phoenix in this last post, and how, with a team option on next season, he had become an expiring contract. Warrick is an above-average offensive player, but has trouble remaining on the floor due to his lack of defensive ability — in per-36 terms, he would have averaged 16 points-per-game last season, but only 6.6 rebounds, 0.6 steals and 0.2 blocks. In terms of defensive win shares, Warrick only had 0.2 — tied with Michael Redd for the worst on a team stocked with bad (Steve Nash) to decent (Marcin Gortat) defenders.

Clearly, the Suns don’t lose very much here. Warrick didn’t figure to be a part of the big man rotation for Phoenix even before the acquisition of Luis Scola. The question now will be whether or not he can be a part of the Hornet’s big man rotation. He’ll have to fight for minutes with Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith and Lopez.

JOHNSON, FUTURE FIRST TO THE SUNS

Johnson has had an awkward NBA start. Drafted 4th overall out of Syracuse by the Timberwolves in the 2010 draft, Johnson was billed as an immediate pro-ready prospect after he averaged 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds his senior year. Spoiler alert: he didn’t live up to that billing. In his first two seasons, Johnson has averaged 7.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game on 40 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Already 25, Wesley is running out of time to prove he can contribute at this level, and nothing he did in Minnesota showed that he could be a rotation player — much less a NBA starter.

At first glance, however, it’s hard to figure out why exactly this is the case. Johnson has great size for either a SG or SF at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-11’’ wingspan and boasts a 37-inch vertical that allows him to rise up for spectacular finishes at the rim.

There’s reason to believe that Johnson still has something to show in this league, however. A classic slash-to-the-basket player, he was forced into a position — SG — he barely ever played at Syracuse. He may be better suited playing his more natural position, SF, while with the Suns. He has struggled as a perimeter scorer. By freeing him to make drives to the rim, Phoenix might yet be able to see Johnson reclaim his still-young career. After all, Johnson has only played two years in the league, and he spent both of those years with the Timberwolves, who have gone through a plethora of line-up and coaching changes.

Again, Phoenix has placed themselves in a position where they have acquired talent without much financial risk. Johnson has a team option on the next year of his rookie deal for a little over four million — a contract similar to that of Warrick. As a worst case scenario, the Suns have exchanged Warrick’s expiring contract — a player who has already shown what his skills are — for Johnson’s expiring contract.

The situation surrounding the 1st round pick has yet to be sorted out: some sources are reporting that it is a lottery-protected Timberwolves 1st, others are saying that the pick comes from the Memphis Grizzlies and is also lottery-protected. Obviously, the first scenario is most preferable. The Wolves look to be one of the teams fighting for the 8th and final seed in the playoffs next season, and if they make it in, the Suns will probably get a pick in the 15 to 18 range, as early as this next draft. If the pick does belong to Memphis, it is more likely to be in the 20-25 range.

Either way, this gives the Suns a great deal of options heading into next year’s draft. They’ll have their own, first round pick (probably a late lottery pick, barring a Suns playoff push), the Timberwolves pick (barring them failing to make the playoffs — in this case, the pick moves to the draft after next), the Lakers picks (a late first rounder and a late second rounder) and their own second round pick.

It’s hard to compete with this kind of flexibility. Stockpiling draft picks gives general managers a lot of options: they can float picks as sweeteners in trades, trade the picks — in addition to players — for superior players or simply use the picks to draft future prospects.

BRINGING BACK SHANNON BROWN

The Suns also resigned guard Shannon Brown to a two year, $7 million contract. The second year is only partially guaranteed.

Obviously, the Suns only turn to Brown after striking out on Jeremy Lamb (drafted a pick before them by the Rockets in June’s draft) Eric Gordon (maximum contract offered by Phoenix, matched by the Hornets) and O.J. Mayo (signed with the Dallas Mavericks). Brown is far from perfect. Despite averaging several career highs in Phoenix last season, Brown took way too many shots (10 per-game in only 23 minutes-per-game) and hit way to few of them (43 percent from the field, 36 percent from behind the arc). Brown forces shots in transition and takes contested shots in the half-court setting, and is neither a willing passer or defender. But, he did make progress in the second half of last season, and his elite athleticism and ability to make corner 3’s will make him a dangerous addition to the Goran Dragic-led fast break.

Here is a game that illustrates all of Shannon’s abilities and faults. Note the number of possessions in which a) he stops the movement of the ball and attempts an isolation jump shot or b) in which he catches the ball on the perimeter and attempts a contested three. This game, he made them all to score a career high. Other games yielded different results.

Again, this is a low-risk signing that will have no major impact on the Suns’ financial flexibility moving forward — the kind the Suns front office needs to be commended for, regardless of how many games Brown shoots his team out of.

SIGNING P.J. TUCKER

The Suns also announced they had come to terms with former, 2006 2nd-round pick, P.J. Tucker. Tucker, 27, has been playing overseas for most of his career, most recently with an Israeli team. At 6-foot-6, the former Texas Longhorn is a classic “tweener” — too small to properly play his natural position at PF and too slow to play SF. But, he’s reportedly a hard worker who took the veteran’s minimum — only half of what was offered by some European clubs — to join the team. He’s unlikely to see any playing time outside of catastrophic losses (or, more optimistically, epic wins), but he’ll be a solid practice player and a guy who can step up in the event of an injury to one of the Suns’ wing players.

A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

To summarize some of the summer transactions, the Suns have turned two RFAs — one who wasn’t likely to return and the other who wasn’t in the team’s long-term financial plans — into five draft picks, Wesley Johnson and a ton of cap space. In other words, the Suns successfully pulled future assets from other teams for players who were leaving the team regardless. Avoid the emotional impact of Steve Nash leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers, and most Suns fans would agree that this offseason has been a success for the front office.

The Suns are no longer a contending team, and haven’t been one for two years — an uncomfortable fact that fans have attempted to ignore while watching Nash struggle to keep a mediocre, post-Amare Stoudemire roster afloat. There was no future to that team: with very few surplus draft picks or young players to push forward into the inevitable, post-Nash era, it seemed the Suns were headed for an ugly 2012-2013 season.

Time will tell if that future might have been better (it would have brought a top-5 draft pick), but this current Suns roster will at least be fun to watch. And, with a little luck, this team is capable of over-achieving and making the playoffs.

UPDATE: In the finalized version of the trade, Phoenix will receive — in addition to Johnson and the lottery-protected 1st round pick from the Timberwolves (and not the Grizzlies) — veteran center Brad Miller and second-year guard Jerome Dyson. Additionally, the Suns will send one of the 2nd round draft picks they acquired from the Lakers in the Steve Nash trade to Minnesota. Minnesota also gets two, 2nd round picks from New Orleans, and the Hornets still receive Hakim Warrick and Robin Lopez from the Suns. 

The trade had to be revised because the NBA’s new CBA agreement prohibits teams from trading nothing for something. In other words, the Suns could not be involved in acquiring Johnson from the Timberwolves without sending something back (in the revised version of the trade, a late 2nd rounder) to Minnesota. Additionally, as they were most likely “over-the-cap” after signing Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers to new contracts, the Hornets could not acquire Lopez’s cap hold without sending out nearly equivalent contract numbers in return. 

The changes are unlikely to affect the Suns long-term planning much. The Lakers 2nd round pick is likely to be so late a selection in the draft that it is nearly worthless, and there is a chance that the Suns might have attached heavy protections along with it — after all, it was only being used as a means to get the trade through, and not as an actual asset that Minnesota wanted.

 Brad Miller has previously stated that he plans to retire and focus on his other passion: the great outdoors and hunting. I doubt this trade will change his mind. If he does retire, the last year of his contract — where he is set to make a little over $5 million — does not impact the Suns cap situation. If, for whatever reason, he chooses not to retire, he will give the Suns their last big man on the roster and a handy, expiring contract to include in other trades at the deadline next season. Jerome Dyson, who went undrafted out of Connecticut in the 2010 NBA Draft, has an non-guaranteed contract and it is likely the Suns will place him on waivers. There is, of course, a small chance that the Suns will keep his contract heading into training camp and allow him to compete for the third-string point guard position on the roster, behind Dragic and Kendall Marshall. Of course, his chances of making the regular season roster will be even more slim if the Suns decide to bring back Sebastian Telfair

All-in-all, this is still a good transaction for Phoenix, although only time will tell if Lopez might have been worth the trouble to keep around at the price the Hornets got him for.

SUNS CURRENT DEPTH CHART:

PG: Dragic – Marshall – Telfair 

SG: Brown* — Dudley — Johnson*

SF: Beasley – Dudley – Johnson* — Tucker*

PF: Scola – Frye – Morris — Tucker*

C: Gortat – Frye-Miller

* New addition to the team

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