Much internet angst has been spilt on the myopic squandering of draft picks during the D’Antoni era, but that isn’t the only evaporation of talent that plagues the current Phoenix Suns.
In the past few years, the Suns’ biggest names and most marketable players (Shaquille O’Neal, Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash) have left the organization for salary dumps (in the form of Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic), second round draft picks, or nothing at all.
While that may help balance the books, it did little on the talent ledger, leaving the price wars of free agency the expensive and main avenue of attracting talent. Winner’s curse anyone?
Some managers like Sarver seem to have a love for free agency, where "the market" decides a player’s value. However, free agency, compared to the draft, trading or re-signing players, is likely the worst way to attempt to accumulate talent for anything other than max contract players. For one’s own players, there’s always some desperate or wealthy team willing to overpay. For players a team would like to get, overpaying is the only way to win a player in free agency. It’s called the winner’s curse for a reason.
Alternatively, perhaps management realizes that free agency is no panacea, but failed to pull off trades when they were possible?
Wheeling and Dealing Talent
One of the distinctive features of the current management, compared to that of the bygone Colangelo years, is their reluctance to trade valuable players more aggressively. The lone exception, of course, being Steve Kerr’s gambit bringing Shaquille O’Neal to the desert at the price of Shawn Marion. We know how that went, yes. Still, could Shaquille O’Neal have been traded for talent and prospects rather than a salary dump, a deadweight loss on the talent books?
Jerry Colangelo traded Larry Nance, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle, Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd and Stephon Marbury. Those trades were made when players had trade value and were not always made in easy trade environments. Not all of those trades were great trades (Dan Majerle for John "Hot Rod" Williams, Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury), but they were either well-motivated or a fair bet on the talent ledger.
The 1995 Dan Majerle trade was similar to the 2008 Shawn Marion trade. In both cases, the Suns sacrificed a strong, defensive wing player for the lure of an illusory big man. Just a day before the Majerle trade, Charles Barkley had criticized the front office for failing to trade for dominant inside presence. Charles Barkley threatened to retire, or walk, but was traded to the Houston Rockets for decent talent prospects in Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Mark Bryant and Chucky Brown. One Rockets fan summarized:
"we traded 4 of our younger guys to get an fat out of shape old one that ended up retiring 3 years after the trade".
For declining and disgruntled talent in Charles Barkley, the Suns got great talent. Cassell was later traded for Jason Kidd and Horry for Cedric Ceballos, because the Suns didn’t sit on Charles Barkley after a 41-41 season with him in 1996.
Even the Jason Kidd – Stephon Marbury trade, motivated by the desire to remove Jason Kidd’s domestic violence embarrassment from Phoenix, wasn’t a bad trade on paper. Stephon Marbury at 24 was younger than Jason Kidd (28) and seemed to emulate Kevin Johnson’s ability to penetrate defenses.
"Marbury averaged a career-high 23.9 points last season, 10th highest in the league, and 7.6 assists; he was named an All-Star for the first time in his five-year career. Kidd averaged 16.9 points a game and a league-high 9.8 assists." NYTimes.com
Stephon Marbury with a max contract was himself traded with a broken down Penny Hardaway as soon as his talents were suspect. The Suns got back Antonio McDyess, Howard Eisley, Charlie Ward, Maciej Lampe, the rights to Milos Vujanic, two first-round draft picks and cash.
The only notable exception to the rule was Antonio McDyess in his first stint as a Sun in 1997. As a free agent, he had a verbal agreement with the Denver Nuggets but was reconsidering the Suns and invited Jason Kidd, Rex Chapman and George McCloud to an Avalanche hockey game at McNichols Arena. Dan Issel never let the Suns players into the building, and McDyess became a Nugget. Again, cruel free agency.
In summary, some of the trades were good and some were awful. But most of those trades retained talent or acquired prospective talent. No one walked.
Except for Antonio McDyess. Twice, in fact.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
I’m sure that it may look like sour grapes that now the talent has walked, that I write a post wishing that the front office had pulled the trigger on trading players when they had market value. We enjoyed their play for as long as we could hold on to them, after all. I fully admit that. I want my cake and eat it too. Welcome to fanposts, yo.
Still, I wonder about the current management’s style of letting talent walk for nothing.
With the brightsiders that talk so much about trading Marcin Gortat while he has value, I wonder what readers think about letting other talent age past their use-by dates on the roster and letting talent walk for cash considerations, only to take that cash back to the free agency market, where other teams are just as desperate to land a star.