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Draft Strategy/Free Agent Acquisition Strategy

It is not really entirely possible to talk about one without the other, so this post proposes to tackle the problem of offseason player acquisitions. First, it'll start with an evaluation of the prospects for each player from the roster last season; then a proposition as to the teams key needs; followed by an evaluation of the available free agents this offseason; then an evaluation of the players likely to be available at the three draft spots we have this season, and finally a discussion of what I believe the overall offseason strategy should be.

2012-13 Team Evaluation

On offense, the picture wasn't particularly good. On average, the Suns shot 3% worse than their opponents, made almost 6% fewer three points, and shot a little over 1% worse on free throws; they also took almost 3 fewer free throws per game. An almost amazing stat: the Suns shot 8% worse on three point shots in losses compared to wins, despite taking almost an identical number of shots. The only bright spots offense offensively are rebounding, where the differentials come up even, and assists, where the Suns come up middle of the pack in assists per game.

On defense, the stats are somewhat more ambiguous. The Suns averaged slightly more blocks and slightly fewer turnovers than their opponents this season. However, the team averaged 2 more fouls than the opposing team, and averaged fewer steals. On the defensive glass, however, the team surrendered 2 boards. In g

Overall, then, the team was pretty bad. Combining the offensive and defensive performances, the team on average lost by 6.4 points per game. To get a better picture, its important to also look at the performance of individual players, which follows.

PG

Goran Dragic - While Dragic was not able to meet his production from last year, with a lower overall shooting percentage, part of this is likely to result of him playing about 7 more minutes per game on a considerably worse team that relied more heavily on him as a primary offensive option. Dragic's complementary stats were up almost across the board, however: he averaged more rebounds, more steals, and significantly more assists. At the same time, he averaged more fouls and more turnovers. These last two trends can be explained partly as an increase in mental mistakes as the season wore on; however, this could again be explained because Dragic was being asked to do so much more this season.

Kendall Marshall - Marshall flashed good play-making ability at times this season, and averaged respectable assist numbers. His advanced metric Assist Ratio value of 40 is off the charts good, but could simply be an artifact of a relatively small sample size. What is obvious is that Marshall turns the ball over too much, and that his shooting is abysmal. The only bright spot in his shooting is his almost acceptable 3 point rate of 31.6%. Marshall seemed like he could have used more time in the D-League.

Diante Garrett - Garrett had a pretty impressive season in the D-League, leading to hopes he would develop into a realistic back up PG option. In limited, mostly garbage minutes, Garrett shot poorly (32.7%), averaged a pedestrian 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, and didn't seem to contribute much defensively.

SG

Jared Dudley - Dudley had a somewhat disappointing season. His shooting percentage was down, his rebounding percentage was way down, and his defensive presence was reduced overall. Many thought Dudley would step up and become a strong contributor this season with the departure of Nash, but this just didn't seem to happen and Dudley began to lose minutes toward the end of the season to Tucker and Johnson. Bright spots for Dudley this season included an increased assist rate and a slightly improved three point percentage.

PJ Tucker - Tucker was arguably the biggest surprise this season. He averaged almost 25 minutes a night, and effectively became the teams 6th man and defensive specialist. He shot a respectable 47.3% and averaged over 4 rebounds. He provided the toughness that Dudley used to embody. He also played within his game, for the most part. While this limits his potential to be a game changer, it also gives the team a dependable player.

Shannon Brown - Other than a much lower 3pt%, Brown had a very similar season to last year. He continues to be a hyper aggressive player who takes too many shots. He lost minutes and was moved toward the tail end of the bench as the season progressed.

Wesley Johnson - Johnson was entirely unimpressive in the early part of the season. However, he was like a different player in the second half, shooting an almost acceptable field goal percentage and flashing the offensive talent that made him a first round pick. He failed to contribute much in other ways: he was a poor rebounder, averaged few assists, and didn't contribute much defensively.

SF

Michael Beasley - Beasley had his worst season as a professional this year, regressing in field goal percentage, three point percentage, and rebounding rate. He was a detriment to the team with his effort and attitude at times, and both Gentry and later Hunter reduced his minutes as a result. Part of the problem could be that he isn't playing at his best position, PF; however, that doesn't justify the lack of effort.

Marcus Morris - Hard to judge much on Morris, given that he only played in 23 games. He shot poorly for us, with a 40% fg rate, but he did contribute as a solid rebounder and a small ball PF.

PF

Luis Scola - Scola was probably the most consistent offensive presence on the team, with a respectable 47% fg rate and averaging almost 13 ppg. He also averaged decent assist numbers and rebounding numbers. These stats, however, obscure Scola's almost entirely ineffective defense and his lack of post sync with Gortat.

Markieff Morris - Morris had a very similar season to last season, failing to progress from his rookie campaign. He continues to be a serviceable bench PF, but his play this season doesn't give much confidence that he is the PF of the future.

Channing Frye - Frye did not play this season.

C

Marcin Gortat - From an offensive production standpoint, there wasn't a whole lot to quibble with in Gortat's season. He shot better than 52% (slightly below average for centers, but not awful), and while his usage rate should have been higher, the team had trouble feeding him down low all season. However, Gortat's rebounding numbers were down and, never a defensive stalwart in the past, Gortat suffered from being paired with the defensive sieve that was Scola. At the same time, his attitude seemed to rub teammates, fans and coaches the wrong way on occassion.

Jermaine O'Neal - What can you say about O'Neal. He came in with very low expectations, and ended up being a big time contributor. He became the solid interior defensive presence that Gortat and Scola weren't. The fact that he had such low expectations mean all evaluations are through rose colored glasses: in reality, his shooting percentage was not as high as it should be for a big, and he had a much too high usage rate given that. However, altogether it was an impressive season for the veteran.

Hamed Haddadi - Something of an afterthought acquisition, Haddadi turned at least a few heads. He was a dominating defensive presence in the paint in his limited minutes, and averaged a respectable 2 pts, 2 rebs and almost a block in 13 minutes per game.

Departing Players and Team Needs

It is probably safe to say that Hamed Haddadi, Jermaine O'Neal and Wesley Johnson won't be returning next season. Garrett is somewhat up in the air, as is Shannon Brown, because Garrett's contract is non-guaranteed and Brown's is only partially guaranteed. With all five of those players departing, the team is left with 2 point guards, 2 shooting guards, 2 small forwards, 3 power forwards and a center left on the roster.

Channing Frye is a toss-up in returning: there is at least a reasonable possibility that he is medically waived because of his heart condition. This would reduce the number of PFs to 2.

It would seem that the only position without a pressing need is PG. Dragic is the best returning player, and Marshall is at least a serviceable backup.

While Dudley and Tucker are fan favorites, the SG position is one of the weaker spots on the team. Neither of those two are capable of carrying the team any given night or contributing more than 10-12 a game.

Given the production of Beasley this season, it is hard to argue that SF isn't the top need of the team. The trend in the NBA right now is toward dominant SFs: James, Durant, Marion and Pierce from the previous generation of players.

PF is something of a weakness. Scola is obviously not the long term solution, and Morris is running out of time to show he can be as well. The wild card here is really whether or not Frye is able to come back healthy and contribute.

The departure of both backup centers makes center something of a priority, because the late season tryout of Markieff as a small ball center was more or less a failure.

The seeming order of needs then goes something like this:

SF (starter needed)

SG (starter needed)

C (backup needed)

PF (long term starter needed)

PG (no pressing need, though an upgrade at backup is at least a little defensible)

Free Agents Available

If SF is projected to be our primary target, there are 6 potential free agent targets: Josh Smith, Brandon Rush, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer, Luke Babbitt and Dorrell Wright

- Josh Smith is definitely the most prominent player on the list, but also probably the player with the most baggage. Definitely the potential to be an All-Star any given season, but effort, conditioning and will have all been questioned in the past, and one has to consider whether he's committed to a long term rebuild.

- Rush, Budinger and Babbitt all provide similar play styles: dangerous outside shooters. Rush and Budinger also provide unexpectedly good slashing capabilities. These players are less experienced and represent borderline starters at this point.

- Brewer and Wright are both proven commodities: Brewer is a top flight defender, while Wright is a dangerous outside shooter. Both are established 6th men in the league; bringing them in as starters would challenge them to step outside their established roles.

At SG, the pickings are somewhat slimmer. There are really potentially 4 candidates: Gerald Henderson, OJ Mayo, Monta Ellis and Tyreke Evans.

- Henderson and Evans represent two relatively young players who could probably use a change of scenery. Both have flashed serious scoring ability. Evans has the more exciting potential, but Henderson has less baggage and seemingly a better head on his shoulders.

- Ellis and Mayo are older, more established players in the role of high volume scorers. Neither of them are particularly efficient, or contribute much either defensively or in other areas.

Center is a difficult area. There are really three strategies you can pursue:

- Replace Gortat with a superstar center. Targets: Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum. All of these guys bring baggage. Bynum and Howard bring injury liabilities but great defense balanced with good offense. Jefferson has fewer injury concerns, but is also seemingly a less overall effective player. He is a better offensive threat, but something of a non-factor defensively.

- Replace Gortat with a player of parallel skill. Targets: Nikola Pekovic, Tiago Splitter. These players are both more comparable to Gortat: late 20's, not among the best centers in the league but better than average. Pekovic represents a defensive upgrade, while Splitter represents and offensive upgrade.

**Note: Seemingly, both of these options would require a trade of Gortat.

- Acquire a young developmental backup center. Targets: Tim Ohlbrecht, Kyle O'Quinn. In this scenario, the Suns keep Gortat and instead pursue a developmental center to back up Gortat and perhaps become a long term solution at center. Ohlbrecht was perhaps the biggest surprise in the D-League this season with his dominant play, while O'Quinn turned heads with his immediate impact for Orlando.

If a PF is targeted in the offseason (which only really comes into play if Frye is medically waived, really), there are 5 potential targets: Paul Millsap, Andray Blatche, Carl Landry, Jeff Pendergraph, and Brandon Wright

- Millsap, Blatche and Landry you only really pursue if you intend for them to be the new starter. This likely requires finding a trade partner for Luis Scola. Millsap is probably the most desirable and polished of the bunch, but any of the three would be an upgrade over the current players.

- Pendergraph and Wright both represent backups. Wright would in essence be a replacement for Frye, with a similar play style. Pendergraph represents something different: as an old school, interior PF, he provides the defensive and rebounding presence that Scola lacks. He becomes an option only if you plan to keep Gortat, as he seemingly fits best as a complementary piece for Gortat.

The Draft and Targets

Currently the Suns possess a lottery pick that should fall somewhere between 3-7, the number 30 overall pick and the number 57 pick.

The Lottery Pick

There are two conceptions of how to draft in the lottery: draft the best available player in a position of need, or draft the best available player regardless of need. I'll try to address both.

It is in the philosophy of drafting the best overall player that discussion of Anthony Bennett comes up. Bennett, a 6'7 PF in college, doesn't fit much of a need: he's a tweener a la Michael Beasley and Marcus Morris. However, if the Suns pick falls between 5-7, it seems likely that Bennett will be the best player left on the board, and the discussion must include him for the pick. The argument for picking a player such as Alex Len also comes from this draft philosophy, the argument being that Len, if we land pick 6 or 7, likely represents the best value because of the rarity of 7 footers with his potential.

In the philosophy of drafting to need, there is seemingly a pretty well defined hierarchy of potential picks. McLemore would be great, but barring a lottery miracle he's likely to be off the board. Following that, Otto Porter is seen as the next best wing player, followed by Victor Oladipo and Shabhazz Mohammad. Any of these four players would fill the Suns' need for a starter on the wing, though questions of value could be raised when taking an of them in the Suns' projected pick range.

The Number 30 Pick

When drafting this late, you are more or less picking a player with a well established NBA caliber skill that you hope can be turned into a solid rotation player. At this point in the draft, the philosophy of drafting for need seems to hold more sway. If the Suns draft a wing player with their first pick, it seems likely that the 30th pick will be used for either a center or another wing. The most likely target for a center pick here is the lanky shot blocker Jeff Withey, though Mike Muscala's name is often tossed around as a potential late 1st target.

If the target is another wing player, the likely targets are Allen Crabbe, Jamaal Franklin or possibly Tony Snell. A player to keep an eye on is Tony Mitchell out of North Texas. Originally pegged as a sure fire lottery pick, his stock has been sliding. If he really does fall into the twenties, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that the Suns could try to put together a package to trade up, possibly with the Nets or the Knicks, to grab Mitchell.

The Number 57 Pick

At this point, picking who a team will target becomes somewhat dicey. If the Suns have yet to address the center position, it seems likely that they will use this pick as a place to potentially pick up a developmental prospect. Some mocks have Muscala lasting this long; I think the Suns would be ecstatic to see him still available. If not him, Zeke Marshall out of Akron or Colton Iverson out of Colorado State seem like likely targets given their ability to contribute in a limited role right away.

Other interesting prospects at this point that would fit a need for the Suns include James Ennis out of Long Beach State at G/F, Carrick Felix out of ASU at G/F and Adonis Thomas out of Memphis at F.

The Offseason Strategy

So, all this exposition has to come to a point, right? Right. The end goal is to try to put together an effective model of what the offseason strategy of the Suns should be. That's what we get to now.

Now, a few assumptions are going to be made, as laid out in the following:

- First, Frye is going to be medically waived. I have yet to see any convincing evidence that his heart condition has improved, so I am going to operate under the assumption that the team isn't willing to continue to sit on that cap burden.

- Second, no players are going to be traded or traded for. Trades are notoriously hard to predict, and thus I won't participate in the trade rumor rosterbation.

- Third, Shannon Brown and Diante Garrett are going to be cut.

- Fourth, Sarver et. al. aren't willing to pay above the salary cap in acquiring new players

- Fifth, Michael Beasley is not going to be waived making use of the stretch provision.

That leaves the team at somewhere between $38-40 of contracts, with the expected cap to be around $58 million.

First, then, free agents.

When looking at the draft, there seem to be more SF and G/F prospects than true SG prospects. As such, my priority in FA targeting should seemingly be SG. This is particularly useful, because there are seemingly better targets available at SG in free agency.

My target would have to be Gerald Henderson. He's 25, a solid producer on a bad team, and lacks the baggage of a Tyreke Evans. He also doesn't seem to be someone who projects to regress terribly from current form, as he has improved every season in the league. Its something of a gamble to pursue him as he is a restricted free agent, but it also seems unlikely that Charlotte is willing to give him a large contract (likely in the 9.5-11.5 range) given the development of Kidd-Gilchrist.

If Henderson is unavaileble, Evans is the fallback, but it would seem a mistake to sign him to a long-term contract, unless it was only partially guaranteed. If brought in, he only seems worthwhile as a stopgap: if we can turn him into a dependable player, then we can ink him long term.

My other free agent target is Jeff Pendergraph. Pendergraph is a potential PF/C who seemingly syncs well with Gortat, given his emphasis on interior defense and rebounding. In limited playing time with the Pacers, he showed that he has a well-polished game, averaging 4 pts, 3 rebounds on just under 50% shooting in less than 10 minutes a game. He fits in well as a potential small ball center, and one who can take minutes while a potential center picked in the draft develops and gets reps in the D-League.

The draft is the next part of the discussion. With the lottery pick, I tend to favor picking towards need rather than best overall player. My top pick would be McLemore, followed by Oladipo, and then Porter. A previously unmentioned prospect, Dario Saric, would be intriguing if the Suns either fall down in the lottery or potentially trade back, but both seem unlikely.

With the number 30 overall pick, I advocate double dipping and going for another G/F type prospect. The need for a prominent wing player is so great that the disadvantages of double-dipping are outweighed by the greater probability of one of the two players developing. I would totally advocate the idea of trading up to draft Tony Mitchell if he dropped into the 22-24 range, even if it meant sacrificing a current player such as a Dudley. The benefit of having a young player with lottery type talent would seem to be worth the pain. That is a longshot, however. Sticking with simply the 30th pick, I like either Allen Crabbe or previously unmentioned Glen Rice Jr, both of whom provide enough size to be able to play either wing position and serious outside shooting potential.

Finally, with the 57 pick, I address the center position. If Muscala is available, he's the no brainer option as arguably the most 'polished' center in the country last season in college basketball. I seriously doubt he's available, though. I then revert to Zeke Marshall, the 7 footer out of Akron. He doesn't project as a player with a ton of upside, but does project as a good NBA rebounder and general inside presence, and should provide some depth at center.

As a final note, it doesn't seem far fetched to think that the team could pursue a third string PG in the offseason to allow Marshall time to play in the D-League and/or hedge against injury. Its kind of a crapshoot who they go after, but don't lose sight of Scott Machado, a rookie free agent from this past season who was really terrific in last season's summer league and who has been floating around the league this season.

The opening day roster, in this scenario, is this:

PG: Goran Dragic, Kendall Marshall, (Insert potential PG)

SG: Gerald Henderson, Victor Oladipo, PJ Tucker

SF: Jared Dudley, Allen Crabbe, Michael Beasley,

PF: Luis Scola, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Jeff Pendergraph

C: Marcin Gortat, Zeke Marshall

(With Crabbe, Marshall and potentially Oladipo getting playing time in the D-League)

This doesn't portend to be a great roster, but there should be some improvement. There is also some potential for trading away potentially redundant pieces (Dudley, one of the Morris') to clear room for the next draft, where we would again seemingly be drafting in the lottery.

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