Suns 2009-10 Season Preview Part II: Assessing the Offseason

 

Welcome to Part 2 of 5 of our Suns 2009-2010 Season Preview: Assessing the Offseason. 

Here we will focus on front office moves this offseason, deferring the offseasons of players and competitors to Parts 3 and 4.  In Part 3, watdogg10 will review the standing the roster and the players' offseasons.  In Part 4, PanamaSun will assess the competition, including their respective offseason gambles.  In Part 5, Phoenix Stan will pull it all together and deliver his saucy insider's views regarding the keys for a successful and exciting season (he promises not to even mention the WNBA in his post).

Summary of Offseason Activities:

For the Suns, considering the options, it has been a great, great off-season.

To see that, consider that as late as August, the Suns were without Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal.  Amar'e Stoudemire was/is injured, and could have been traded for hopeless garbage and mediocre journeymen.  The only players of note were Jason Richardson and Leandro BarbosaShawn Marion had signed in Dallas (ouch!) and Richard Jefferson was traded to San Antonio for nothing (oww!). 

And we were being taunted by Warriors fans... (WTF!?!?!)

That tells you a bit about how badly the offseason could have gone.

Instead, our key players were retained at good value.  The front office traded patiently and judiciously.   Amar'e still wears the hallowed jersey.  We have draft picks for the second year in a row.  The financial condition of the team continues to improve.  This is the best Sarver era off-season yet and it was a good one.  In fact, I'm quite proud of how the front-office has handled the offseason and I look to further improvements in team management as this ownership group continues to earn its stripes.

  1. Retained Steve Nash and Grant Hill (wow)
  2. Picked Up Channing Frye (nice)
  3. Drafted Earl Clark and Taylor Griffin (we get to keep 'em??)
  4. Beefed up Coaching Staff (nice)
  5. Traded Shaq for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic and executed buyouts with each. ($$, addition by subtraction)
  6. Embarked on new revenue streams  ($$)

Details after the jump!

First, to understand the spot-on moves of the front office this offseason, I cannot stress enough the importance of context.  If you are feeling disappointment, it's because you are living in the past and are remembering the swashbuckling days when the Suns would go out and sign stars at 12:01 on the first day of free agency.  Sadly, but also inevitably, those days are over.  And they were over five years ago.  Doods, get over it!

Here, I point out the key differences in the Colangelo and Sarver eras.  I note that Sarver likely could not have pulled off a continuation of Colangelo's management style and how that has contributed to the current Suns management problems.  I observe that some of the mistakes of past offseasons appear to have been avoided this season, and this gives us hope for a management team getting better.  Alas, this management group is still a poor one, which puts the team at a severe disadvantage to the Lakers and the Mavericks.


Five Years of Robert Sarver, Managing Owner of the Phoenix Suns

 

It must have been a heady thing for a longtime Suns fan and a comparatively unknown CEO of Western Alliance Bankcorp to be ushered in as the new majority owner of the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2004.  The outgoing Don of Phoenix sports, Jerry Colangelo, had run the Suns and had tilted Valley politics in favor of his sports teams for 34 years, gaining massive influence throughout that time.  $400 million for the Suns might have been a record-breaker at the time for a team that missed the playoffs, but it was an offer Robert Sarver couldn't refuse.  In exchange, he instantly inherited celebrity, valleywide recognition and political importance on Central, something his considerable wealth and status alone did not readily provide.  One wonders if, being a fan himself with a deep-rooted desire to win, Robert Sarver didn't also believe he would naturally inherit the adoration of fans that the Colangelos had earned over decades of risk-taking and rewarding seasons. 

Sarver was spoiled with instant basketball success.  He got the third best team in Suns history, he got a giant arena, complete with cash flows continuously siphoned from the taxes of valley residents, he got the spotlight and attention of local media and politicians, he even got front row seats for his family where he could wave his now iconic orange foam finger, but he didn't get the widespread fan adoration that the Colangelos had cultivated. 

We all know why.  Robert Sarver didn't manage the Suns with the same gutsy flair that the Colangelos did.   Where the Colangelos would double down, it seemed Sarver would fold.  When the Colangelos would bet the farm, Sarver seemed to be counting the chickens.  And then there were unsolicited soliloquies regarding overpaid employees  and players, how he wanted to make a fiscally responsible profit every year, etc etc.  Being a hesitant new owner might be forgiven, but being an outspoken and disciplined business man with our city's Pride and Joy could not.  A social contract was breached.  And so, Suns fans have branded him a tightwad, while rival GMs have extorted the franchise in every subsequent trade, sensing financial desperation like blood in the water during Shark Week. 

While some of these things are part true, the myth of Sarver's scroogery has gone beyond the reality.  The current ownership group PR woes stem from the fact that they manage the Suns in the shadow of the Godfather of Phoenix Sports.  How Jerry Colangelo handled the club is both masterful and completely induplicable, even if the Sarver had wanted to try.

 

Jc_godfather_medium

 

Managing in the Shadow of the Godfather

The Colangelos made offers players could not refuse.  If 5 million would get the contract signed, the Colangelos would blow the player away with 7 million, and they would do it at 12:01 am on the first day of free agency.  Famously, Dan Majerle's contract was once set in a meeting where Dan was given the list of salaries of all the players on the team, and told to pick the number where he felt he belonged (he chose the 3rd highest salary).  Signing Nash was also vintage Colangelo.  The whole party showed up on Nash's door at 12:01 with an offer so rich he couldn't refuse and so rich that even the uber-wealthy billionaire Mark Cuban blinked.  It's the only time Mark Cuban has ever blinked, before and since.

Beyond the generous salaries, the Colangelos seem to genuinely love their players, inviting them to special occasions and topping fixed contractual salaries with numerous gifts of friendship.  For example, Shawn Marion accompanied the Colangelos on a family vacation to Italy.  While the Colangelos included players as part of their family,  Sarver likened them to mid-level bank employees and wondered why they earned as much money as some of his subsidiaries.

How could the Colangelos be so generous?  Where did the Colangelos get all that money given the constraints of salary caps?   

Easy.  The Colangelos were masters of making offers-that-could-not-be-refused not only to players, but also to GMs and owners.  The Colangelos could buy players high because they could almost always sell those players higher.  When motivated to move, the Colangelos could unravel all sorts of expensive contracts, including Dan Majerle's famously negotiated contract and even Stephon Marbury's just months after giving him a max extension. 

The Colangelos relationship with GMs and owners, formed over 30 years, was their biggest asset and these trading partners understood that the Colangelos were willing to trade their best assets (Larry Nance, for example) to execute on bold strategies.  Further, the Colangelos were willing to trade away talent that came with character flaws (Jason Kidd, or any troubled soul following the Walter Davis drug era in which the Colangelos took managing ownership of the team).   Finally, trading partners knew that the Colangelos might on occasion trade away a valuable glue asset that they would later regret (Mario Elie, Tyron Corbin, Dan Majerle).   For all these reasons, and their smooth negotiating talents, the Colangelos could often unwind even the most unfavorable or overgenerous contracts.

 

Why Stingy Management is RIGHT, or at least RIGHT NOW

Coming to the Sarver era, carrying on the appealingly lavish Colangelo management style would have lead to certain disaster.

First, the current management team does not have the same relationships the Colangelos have to effect trades at good value.  As such, the current management team is unable to unwind any overgenerous bad contract.  For example, consider the Marcus Banks fiasco as a small microcosm of such a disaster.  It was such a small contract, and yet the Suns could not get rid of it for several years.   I could imagine the Colangelos possibly making the mistake to sign Marcus Banks.  I could even see them making an even bigger mistake by overpaying him even more.  However, Marcus Banks would not have been an albatross on the Suns roster for nearly as long.  The Colangelos would have very creatively found a trade out of it in half the time.

Second, an unfortunate fact of the current ownership group is that while the Colangelos, whose Suns were $200 million dollars in debt in 2004, were able to project the image of a bottomless resource of funds with the cojones to use it, the new ownership group has not been able to do the same.  Sarver's desire to be a fiscally responsible black-in-every season business tycoon came in rabid conflict with his desire as a fan to win.  Sarver quickly earned a paradoxical reputation for stinginess that persists today, despite the team having spent every year in his regime over the luxury tax.

However, far more important than a little around town name-calling, Sarver's reluctance to ante up and go all-in with his ownership group's financial resources has created enormous problems when trading with other teams.  It's like poker - when people can easily count your chips, they start going "all in" on you at every opportunity.  The ownership's image of finite resources, financial desperation and niggardliness has caused the Suns to embarked on notoriously awful and lopsided trades.   There is no worse GM crime than desperation, and desperation explains most of the awful trades the Suns have made since ownership changed hands, including Steve Kerr's first trade: Kurt Thomas and two first round draft picks for including our first rounder in 2010 for cash and salary relief.  Ouch.

Finally, the times were different in the Colangelo years.  Generous, ever more opulent contracts had become the norm of the 90's bubble era.  Even if the Colangelos led the way, each contract would fall behind that salary curve the next year anyway.  In the Sarver era, we now see a falling tax threshold, making every overpaid contract in the past five years more expensive.  As Mike Schwartz at VotS warns, if max contracts were contracts detrimental to the team in times of rising luxury caps, they are extremely dangerous as the cap falls.

So, Sarver and Co. have been right to scrutinize every new contract.  Unlike the Colangelos, Sarver's management team would be unable to unwind any contract mistake.  Being careful and downright stingy as the present management has been, I would argue is the right way to approach contract negotiations that cannot be easily undone and that may have increasingly debilitating repercussions if the tax threshold falls further.

 

Why this Offseason was GREAT

 

For several reasons, this offseason was well-done.  Here's a few things that have been done better.

  1. Stingy, but fair and friendly, contract negotiations
  2. Drafting, and keeping, new talent
  3. Trading patiently and judiciously
  4. Improving trading leverage


1.  Stingy, but Fair and Friendly, Contract Negotiations

The front office has done much better this offseason in negotiating hard with players, but without alienating them. 

As a result of our past enjoyment (and the enjoyment by players) of Colangelo's management style, the new stingy management has been off-putting and disappointing.  Most offputting has been the steady departure of jilted players and personnel.  In the past, management's Machiavellian treatment of Bryan Colangelo and its hardline negotiations with Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Mike D'Antoni have left large rifts in morale.  Joe Johnson did not even want his contract to be matched after the front office so badly mishandled him.   It deeply hurts to see Shawn Marion playing for the Mavericks at the mid-level exception this year.   The Suns did not even have a shot at getting Marion back this offseason after he was so alienated by the front office.  As a fan, it's hard when your beloved players hate the management that much.  It's hard not to hate stingy management as well.

However, this offseason, the front office has been tough, but fair and friendly negotiators with Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Amar'e Stoudemire.  As a fan, it's shocking to follow the tough negotiations because we live in fear that our stars will leave and our next year will be spent in misery.    We'd rather start bake-sales in 122 degree summer heat than to let our millionaire basketball heroes walk. 

Therapy_balls_medium

GM Steve Kerr deserves credit for having balls of cold steel.  If anything, Steve Nash and Grant Hill had to resort to somewhat fishy bargaining tactics by disingenuously involving the jilted Mike D'Antoni and the New York Knicks.  Kudos to Steve Kerr for having the cojones to underbid New York for Grant Hill's services, and to have Grant Hill happily stay.  Wow, that's bona fide GM talent.

And how about the handling of Amar'e Stoudemire?  We don't know how it will be, but the front office has handled the situation as well as anyone can handle such a dicey situation, befriending Stoudemire but also being frank (and earnest) about the situation, be it trades, extensions or the impact the injury has on all of it.  By contrast, remember the Bryan Colangelo didn't blink in giving Amar'e a max contract while his knee was hurting. Source1 Source2

Suns president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said Stoudemire reported intermittent knee pain as far back as six to eight weeks ago - even while the two sides were hammering out his new contract.

Colangelo said the team knew of Stoudemire's knee problem during contract negotiations, but was not aware of the extent until Tuesday's surgery. Even had they known, it would not have had an impact on signing a player the Suns believe could develop into the best in the NBA.

"Whatever is in the best interest of Amare is in the best interest of the Suns," Colangelo said.

Bryan Colangelo claimed they knew microfracture surgery was a possibility and that they would have still given Amar'e the max contract.  That doesn't sound like good GMship to me.

Instead, management here is making the right choice by playing out the season.  They didn't trade Amar'e cheap to Golden State and there's nothing more to offer than the max, so why give out a max extension when Amar'e's health is still in doubt?

I would like to (continue to) give a lot of credit to Amar'e here.  Some fans rip on his questioning his future here in Phoenix.  However, I think that he has handled the complex situation and controversy with admirable loyalty and humility.  It's a tough situation for anyone and that he and the front office can remain on good terms professionally is a sign of maturity and worthy of respect.  As a fan, I also respect it since good front office-player relationships mean that Amar'e's trade value doesn't plummet when the trade rumors leak. 

 

2. Drafting, and keeping, new talent

It's too early to pass judgment on draft picks Earl Clark and Taylor Griffin.  Or even Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic.  The draft is a turkey shoot and we'd like to think the Suns were good at the draft in the Colangelo era.  Sure we drafted Amare Stoudemire.  But we also drafted Armon Gilliam.  We got Dan Majerle, but we also got Jerod Mustaf, Negele Knight and so on.

Even so, we can be pleased that the painfully myopic practice of selling draft picks is over.  Unfortunately, the cost of our lost draft picks will curse us for a decade or more. But that curse rests on the myopic and desperate moves of yesteryear, not on this offseason.

Picks aside, the front office learned from last year not to overhype the players, but let them develop.  Thankfully, we haven't heard "We actually think Taylor is the better of the Griffin brothers." or "Taylor was actually the number 2 player on our draft board..."

 

3.  Trading patiently and judiciously

First, the front office is establishing a reputation for patience, rather than for desperation.  That's a first!

Amid a lot of trade rumors, the Suns have sat on trades for Amar'e and Shaq for over six months, waiting for the best deals even as the trade rumors leak. The front office has remained flexible and relaxed.  Trade values have not plummeted on these players as a result of the rumored deals.  Also, despite the huge gaff that occurred as the result of the reneged deal with the Golden State Warriors, the Suns didn't cave to Nellie's absurd deals. 

I am particularly pleased that the Suns have not traded Amar'e at blue light special prices.

 

4.  Improving trading leverage - Following the Money

The Suns were patient in dealing Shaq, and saved an enormous amount off the bottom-line.  All of this goes to reduce the appearance of desperation the team has wallowed in since Sarver took over.  A strong financial position will put the Suns in a better bargaining position down the road.  

While we did save an enormous amount of money on Shaq's salary, it's a pity we did not get any talent or draft picks back in the deal.  The Suns, at great risk, have credibly resuscitated Shaq's career for another year or two such that even at 20 million he is an asset to contender like Cleveland.

Also, the team has been the first to put endorsements on its practice jerseys, paving the way for an additional source of NBA revenue on game jerseys.

 

Assessment

We don't have a billionaire owner, a large market team, a rapidly rising source of NBA revenue nor a mafioso front office that can deftly correct its mistakes through trade.  We don't have Mark Cuban and we don't have James Dolan.  We don't have Jerry Buss, but we also don't have Don Sterling.  We do have an attentive ownership group that cares about winning, is willing to speak the hard truth to players and appears to learn from their mistakes.  Obviously, the group may still make egregious mistakes, as the circumstances of Terry Porter's firing reminds us.  The ownership group is still new, but getting better each season.

We can never go back.  The Godfather, who nearly bankrupted the Diamondbacks to bring us a World Championship, is gone.  We are still paying for the noob mistakes of the new ownership team and have several more years of paying.  Sarver and Kerr are learning the ropes and rebuilding their tarnished trading reputations among GMs and owners. 

We still have a lot to be thankful for, as this offseason shows.  Our key players were retained at good value.  The front office traded patiently and judiciously.  We have draft picks for the second year in a row.  The financial condition of the team continues to improve.  This is their best off-season yet and it was a good one.

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