The NBA is a business, and part of that business is to swap out incumbent players for new players until you get it just right. And even then, "just right" has a very short shelf life. Turnover is king in the NBA. The further down the rotation, the more obvious that is.
In major league baseball, the trickiest position or area of the game to repeat year over year is the bullpen. One year, a player is unhittable and the next he's a pinball machine. David Hernandez of the Diamondbacks is a good, local example of this. He was acquired out of anonymity, became ultra-reliable for two seasons and then suddenly lost all of his mojo this past season.
In NBA basketball, that fleeting level of performance is the chemistry and effectiveness of a bench rotation. Make one little change and what was once a good rotation becomes suspect. Some of that is driven by impatient General Managers creating turnover that ultimately upsets the apple cart. Armed with fresh, cheap draft picks every year along with another 250 players available in free agency, it's difficult to sit there and return every player from last year's bench rotation.
This past offseason, the Phoenix Suns wheeled, dealed and drafted TEN new players for their team. Eight players still remain from last year's squad. Of all 18, not a single one should be considered untouchable in the right trade.
The Suns are still projected to be the worst team in the West. It might be an entertaining worst, but worst nonetheless. The Suns are still trying to "trade up" to the point that they have cornerstone pieces for the next great Suns team. Right now, only Eric Bledsoe qualifies as young AND talented AND ready to display that talent in the 2013-14 season.
Which players are next to go?
The likelihood of trading players is a combination of value in return (stock) and their fit with the vision of the future of the team (desire). Players acquired by previous management generally rank lower than those just acquired. Unless, that is, the new GM is starting from the bottom. In that case, even recently acquired players are considered assets rather than future cornerstones.
Given those parameters, let's group these Suns into tiers of likelihood to be traded.
In response to the immortal words of Lloyd Christmas, yes there's a chance these guys get moved in a trade. In fact, there's a very good chance. However, their inclusion would be random, based solely on the whim of the other team's GM and/or for salary matching purposes. A few of them were acquired in such a transaction this summer.
Dionte Christmas, James Nunnally, Viacheslav Kravtsov, Ish Smith and Malcolm Lee are fighting for two roster spots at best. They are much more likely to be roster casualties than trade inclusions, however it would be best for the Suns' bottom line to include them in a many-for-few trade before the season starts. Which of them and for what in return doesn't matter. They each carry a one-year deal of varying guarantees.
Gerald Green and Shannon Brown have very little trade value at this time. Each has already reached his NBA peak and is making $3.5 million this season to ride the bench of the worst team in the West. Each would provide marginal value to a playoff team, but most likely would only be included in a deal for salary matching purposes. Hence, they fit the "random" category.
Unlikely, but not for lack of effort
New GM Ryan McDonough inherited a small handful of recent draft picks upon taking over the reins this summer. None of these players were properly showcased or adequately developed during their short NBA careers to date, leaving them with almost no trade value.
Each has upside higher than their current play, though, so they would only be included in a talent-for-talent trade. But the reason to trade these guys right now is their escalating contracts, which will soon outsize their production.
Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Kendall Marshall all have NBA rotation talent. But none are coveted throughout the league. Lucky for McD, nearly every NBA team has one or three of these as well. Players from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 drafts are all still on their rookie contracts, and nearly all of them are still waiting to hear if next year's team option will be picked up.
At about $2 million each, K-Butter and the Morrii share the same trade value as dozens of other recent draft picks. The only issues are salary matching and gravitas. Every year, recent draft picks are swapped for other recent picks, but rarely are they traded one-for-one in a mutual "lemme try yours for a while" trade.
An armchair GM can envision a trade such as Kendall Marshall for Utah's Alec Burks. Both make about the same money. Both are waiting for news of their rookie option for 2014-15. Neither is a clean fit on their current team. Yet, each team's GM is likely to say "that's not worth my time", because neither is a clean fit on the other team either.
Another such trade would be one of the Morrii for Washington's Jan Vesely (this year's Wes Johnson). The 7-foot small forward has been a huge disappointment for the Bullets/Wizards and is unlikely to get his fourth year option picked up. Yet, he's a lithe runner, an elite athlete, who can do a lot of things on the court if his confidence ever resurfaces. He dominated in Eurobasket last month, so there's always a chance he could find his way in the NBA.
Would the Suns want either of those two players, Vesely or Burks? Maybe. Is either a long-term answer? Almost certainly no. Because of that, the likelihood of trading for either player is a long shot.
If the Suns trade anyone in this category, it would likely be of the "roster churn" variety.
Unlikely, because the Suns want to keep them
Some players won't be traded because (a) the Suns value them and (b) the market likely doesn't apply the same level of value. In other words, the Suns would only trade these guys in a sweetheart deal no sane person would turn down.
Alex Len and Archie Goodwin are both likely valued higher by the Suns than any other team at the moment. Len is coming off ankle injuries, while Goodwin just recently was passed over by nearly every NBA team in June's draft. Yet both have barely scratched the surface of their talent, and the Suns hope they dramatically outplay their contracts for the next four years.
P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee are low-salaried, high-effort players worth keeping around, making them unlikely to be included in any deal as a salary-match throw in. The Suns have a half dozen other guys who can suit that purpose (listed in the 'random' group).
Goran Dragic fits in this "unlikely" category for two reasons. On one hand, the Suns love his attitude, production and reasonable contract. Of all the players on the team, Dragic exemplifies the team's new direction - fast and furious. On the other hand, Dragic is still undervalued throughout the league. His trade stock is likely a lot lower than the Suns' own value on him.
Dragic is going nowhere, unless he gets on shooting hot streak AND a playoff-caliber team loses their starting point guard AND that team has something of real value to give back that the Suns simply cannot turn down.
If the Suns trade anyone in this category, it would be a clear "trading up" scenario with some measure of angst attached.
Likely, as part of the rebuild
That leaves three NBA-quality rotation players on the Suns current roster that are "most likely to be traded" this season. If any of these guys are traded, the Suns will be getting back something of real value. The definition of real value here is one or more assets with a lesser 2012-13 outlook but a higher NBA ceiling than the outgoing player.
Marcin Gortat is still considered a viable starting-caliber center with a high-value deal (expiring) - perfect fodder for playoff contender that needs someone to man the pivot due to injury or lack of performance but doesn't want to break their cap situation. The potential landing spots are few right now, but injuries can change that entire landscape.
The Suns' asking price for Gortat is likely a young asset with a higher ceiling than Gortat ever reached. If you count Gortat as having been top-15 at his position for at least one season, that's a pretty good prospect. #NBARank gave Gortat a grade for the past two seasons equivalent to that of a top-three player in any team's rotation.
Channing Frye is another of the most likely players to be traded. You could put him in the Dragic category, but I just don't see it yet. Channing Frye is such a good guy, overcame such adversity, is the best shooter on the team and reminds us of the glory days of the 2010 playoff run.
But good-shooting stretch fours are valuable in this league, and Frye has already proven he's ready to contribute this season in that role. But he's got two seasons left on a deal that outsizes his production as a bench shooter - a contract that fits a contender's bench much better than a rebuilding team's bench.
The asking price for Frye would be lower than Gortat. Again, if the Suns require someone with a higher ceiling than Frye, that would be a player who can eventually make a playoff team's rotation off the bench. Someone who could be a 6th-8th man for a winner within the next couple of years.
Likely, depending on contract demands
Finally, we reach the one player with the highest combination of value and desire.
I am sure you agree that Eric Bledsoe is the Suns' most valuable trade chip (not counting future lotto picks), but you may be surprised that he is also most likely high up the Suns' "desire to trade" list. Bledsoe does a lot of everything on the court, and has already shown a better court vision than the Suns expected. But is he worth a max deal ($13 million, then 7.5% raises)? And, would anything less than a max offer secure Bledsoe's services ahead of next year's restricted free agency?
I've already written that the Suns must avoid overpaying Bledsoe. Given his contributions to the league so far, he compares most favorably to a $8-10 million starting value contract.
That's the problem for the Suns. There's no reason for Bledsoe to accept a "good deal" right now. He's expressed no real affinity for the Suns other than a starting opportunity. It's not that he doesn't want to play here, but that he's already tasted life on a contender. At this point, he simply wants Chris Paul's job - to quarterback a highly talented and exciting team deep in the playoffs. He won't get that right away in Phoenix, so of course he's not hitching his wagon quite yet.
Given those conditions, unless the Suns want to offer $12+ million and Bledsoe takes it, he becomes a very likely trade candidate this season. Bledsoe is still the best trade asset in the NBA. There is a small rub: the acquiring team knows it has to pony up a lot of cash on Bledsoe next summer.
What is that ransom, then? What could the Suns get for 24-year old Bledsoe?
Applying the rule of returning a young asset with the potential to exceed Bledsoe's value, the question is Bledsoe's current value. Is he better than Dragic, who currently fits in the 15-20 range among the league's PGs, along the lines of Ty Lawson or Mike Conley? Is he better than Deron Williams or even, gasp, Chris Paul? Or, is he a poorer shooting Brandon Jennings? Depending on the answer, that could change the Suns plans for the future.
If the Suns just don't envision getting Bledsoe to agree for less than max, they might decide to flip him. Maybe a guaranteed lotto pick in 2014, one that's possibly top-ten. Maybe a fellow 2010 draftee who can't agree on an extension with his current team but is arguably deserving of a $10+ million contract (Greg Monroe, Derrick Favors, etc.). Maybe a 2011 or 2012 guy still under control for a couple years who could explode on the NBA in the near future.
Either way, the Suns are in good shape with Bledsoe. He might become the Suns centerpiece of the future. Or, he might bring that centerpiece back in trade.
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