Markieff Morris played like NBA starter-material in summer league this past week.
After missing out on every early shooting-guard target (draft prospects Dion Waiters, Austin Rivers, Terrence Ross and Jeremy Lamb plus veterans Eric Gordon and O.J. Mayo), the Phoenix Suns implemented a safe fallback plan with a flexible two-year deal to Shannon Brown.
While Brown gets a reasonable $3.5 million for this season, what makes the deal a slam dunk is the structure in year two. The second year is under the Suns' control: keep Brown again at $3.5 million OR release him and have only $583,333 count against the cap in the next three years, thanks to the new "stretch" provision on released players. That's a great insurance policy right there.
After the Brown signing, the Suns have about $47 million committed to 2012-13, but only $42 million committed to the 2013-14 salary cap (before including draft picks). Warrick and Telfair come off the books, and as stated above Brown can count as little as half-million. That leaves at least $16 million to spend next summer on draft picks, amnesty claims, lop-sided trades or straight free-agent signings.
So it makes sense for the Suns to save their bullets. All the best free agents this summer are gone - at least, the ones deserving multi-year deals.
Now the Suns have a great deal of flexibility, this year AND next.NBA teams are already feeling the pinch of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement - particularly the increasingly punitive costs of exceeding the luxury tax threshold ($70 million this year) that start ramping up a year from now. At that point, teams over the luxury tax are severely limited - inability to receive signed-and-traded players, smaller exceptions, increasingly higher luxury taxes and even a hard cap for those above the "apron" (four million over the luxury tax threshold).
The New York Knicks already declined to match offers to 23-year olds Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields and the Chicago Bulls just may do the same with Omer Asik, all because the third year of those deals would cost the tax-paying team as much as $45 million apiece in salary plus taxes in the third year!
That's just the trickle before the dam blows. Soon, many of the best NBA teams will be walking a tightrope between spending-to-contend and abandoning ship. Salary-dumping will happen. Under-the-cap teams like the Suns will get draft picks for taking on bad contracts, and some of those deals will include highly coveted players.
The Suns are in the driver's seat, as long as they maintain their patience. The Houston Rockets are staying as flexible as possible (to the extreme), and even the Dallas Mavericks are following the same model. Just like the Suns held onto Steve Nash as they turned over the roster around him, the Mavericks are swapping players all around Nowitzki.
The Suns, Rockets and Mavericks - and any teams like them - will struggle to win games as they wait for the big-spenders to start purging. Then it's an arms race to get the stars as they shake loose.
The Suns have 10 draft picks in the next three years. Even the second rounders are valuable, because a team taking on a salary in a one-sided trade has to give something back to make the trade legal and often that's a terrible draft pick.
The Suns also have $8 million in expiring/non-guaranteed deals at the moment (Sebastian Telfair, Hakim Warrick and Shannon Brown), soon to be $11-12 million once the Suns sign a couple of fringe players to round out the roster.
Depending on the final roster, the Suns will likely also have $7-8 million unspent cap space, perfect for a trade partner who wants to lower their own cap number this year.
The Suns have good contracts - midlevel players on midlevel deals - who can produce on any team in the NBA for several years. In particular, Marcin Gortat, Goran Dragic and Luis Scola are all arguably more valuable than their contract.
And finally, the Suns owe nothing to nobody. After years of having to reconcile their heads with their hearts (Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Amare Stoudemire), the Suns can operate as a business from now on. Make trades when and where they are good for basketball reasons, without worry of community-wide repercussions.
So we can spend all summer projecting the win total of the 2011-12 Phoenix Suns, but that's secondary to rebuilding this team to a title contender.
The Suns need to get lucky.
As a wise person told me once: good luck is simply the intersection of preparation and opportunity. The Suns are preparing themselves. Let's hope they recognize the right opportunity when it presents itself.