This is a big, big summer for the Phoenix Suns, and potential free agent Channing Frye is right smack dab in the middle of that uncertainty. The Suns want to acquire a star, preferably on the front line, to accompany rising All-Star talents Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
Short term vs. long term
Frye has a player option for the 2014-15 of $6.8 million that he must pick up by June 23 - three days before the 2014 NBA Draft - or become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Frye has said that he wants to remain in Phoenix. He grew up in the valley, won a state title with St. Mary's in high school and then won big at UofA in Tucson and went 8th overall in the NBA Draft. After a fitful start, playing for the Suns has been the highlight of his professional career. The Suns supported Frye throughout his bout this heart issues, and welcomed his back with open arms when he got healthy.
Frye is certainly a fan favorite and one of the most recognizable Suns of the past half decade. But at 30 years old, this summer or next will be Frye's last chance at a long-term contract. He certainly wants some stability and might opt out to get that stability right now instead of waiting until next summer. As he learned two years ago, the future is unknown.
If Frye leaves, the Suns will need to replace his unique talents in order to be as successful next season. Luckily, he has to make that decision before the draft. If Frye opts out, the Suns could decide to take Adreian Payne at the 14th or 18th pick to ensure that they have the stretch-four skills on the roster in 2014-15 no matter what happens.
Frye has the perfect game for the two slashing guards - nicknamed here the Slash Brothers last December - as a stretch four who can open up the driving lanes by being a major threat behind the three-point line. The Suns offense hummed last year when Frye, Dragic and Bledsoe were healthy together. Defensively, Frye is not fleet of foot but he is an effective low post defender and nearly always makes the smart play as a team defender.
If Frye opts in (impact pre July 1)
If Frye opts in by June 23, he becomes trade eligible immediately. Frye and his $6.8 million salary, second highest on the team at the moment, can be traded for salary matching purposes if the Suns acquire a high-salaried player in the draft. Prior to July 1, the Suns have a mere $5 million in cap space to absorb salaries without trading players on the roster.
Frye's talents are relatively unique and in high demand in today's NBA. The stretch four is difficult to defend for any team, even the best defenses the league has to offer. He would be solid trade bait.
If Frye opts in (post July 1)
The Phoenix Suns have a very young roster, with 9 current players tied up to guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season, including Frye, plus three first round draft picks. Only Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker are restricted free agents.
That's 14 players under the Suns' control for the 2014-15 before free agency actually starts.
With Frye under contract for 2014-15, and factoring in all the cap holds, the Suns will have $19.7 million to spend on July 1 when the free agency period opens. That's a lot of dough to spend on an underwhelming free agent class, though it all depends on LeBron James' comfort with Miami's future.
Once the Suns match offers to Tucker and Bledsoe, that cap space could drop in half. But before that, it's certainly possible that the Suns could convince a big-name free agent to sign a contract first, and then Bledsoe/Tucker's contracts could exceed the cap thanks to Bird Rights.
However, the Suns will most likely use that cap space to absorb higher salaried players through trade, since there's little room for free agent bodies on the roster anyway. And again, Frye and his salary will be good trade bait in any trade for a star.
If Frye opts out (pre July 1)
If Frye opts out, he cannot be traded. And, his salary remains on the books until June 30, so there's no benefit to the Suns prior to July 1.
If Frye opts out (post July 1)
Frye's cap hold as of July 1, if he opts out, would be $9.6 million (150% of his last salary).
That would drop the Suns' available free agency money to $16.8 million on July 1. Still a huge chunk of change, and not likely enough of an impact to affect the Suns decision-making.
But if the Suns do see an opening to spend big on a free agent, they could renounce Frye's Bird Rights and free up the whole $9.6 million as cap space.
For example, let's say the Suns made no trades during the draft and took all their picks (including Payne) after Frye opts out. The Suns renounce their Bird Rights to Frye and free up $26.5 million in cap space while still having 13 players under their control.
That's enough money to slide a LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony right onto the team without giving up any talent at all. Or, they could sign a pair of free agents to $10+ million deals before matching any offers to Bledsoe and Tucker. In each case, Frye would be expendable anyway.
The Suns might renounce Frye's Bird Rights no matter what their free agency plans. There's no way Frye will get a contract in excess of $9.6 million, and there's no way the Suns would offer a fifth year or a bigger raise than any other team could offer. Frankly, in Frye's case, in this summer of cap space, the Bird Rights don't matter.
You could make the case that the team needs Bird Rights to do a sign-and-trade with Frye if he wants to sign with someone else, but I see that as unlikely. Still, it's one thing to consider if a playoff team over the cap wants Frye. The Suns might be able to snag a future asset in exchange for tying up their cap space for a few weeks.
The timing of Frye's decision is very advantageous to the Suns. As you can see there's a lot of possibilities out there and he is the lynchpin on many of them.
Opt in, and he's trade bait for a superstar. Opt out, and the Suns are swimming in cap space big enough to sign a superstar if they want.
If you ask me, I hope Frye stays with the Phoenix Suns for the rest of his playing career, just at a lower cost. My ideal scenario has Frye opting out, which he needs to do to get a long-term contract, and re-signing with the Suns in mid to late July to a smaller three-year deal (say, three years, $15 million) in which the guaranteed money declines in year three.
The Suns will still have plenty of room to sign or trade for whoever they want. Frye can be a starter or backup at PF or C and will be happy with any of those roles. He will continue to provide about 10 points, 5 rebounds on 25-28 minutes a night with 40% three-point shooting. He will continue to be a great locker room presence, a great stabilizing influence on and off the court. You want players to emulate him. He's like Udonis Haslem in Miami. Like Nick Collison in OKC.
Channing Frye IS a Phoenix Sun, through and through.
Opt out and re-sign for less money over more years, Channing. Please. That's my perfect solution.