Only three players on the projected 2014-15 Phoenix Suns roster will be paid more than $6 million next season. Those three - Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas - comprise a "three headed monster", coined by coach Jeff Hornacek, as combo guards rotating a two-pronged attack from both sides of the court at the same time.
Conversely, the other 12 players -- three of whom are projected starters -- will each make less than $6 million next season. Sounds like a recipe for disaster right? You can't win with such low-paid players, right? Wrong. The Suns parlayed an even more disparate mix (just two active players over $3.5 million) into 48 wins last season, only missing the playoffs to injury woes. Still, the Suns finished the season with the most wins by a non-playoff team in more than 30 years.
Can the Suns repeat their success again? Or can they do even better?
Last year, the Suns only high(ish) paid players were Goran Dragic ($7.5 million) and Channing Frye ($6.4 million). That's paltry compared to most of the NBA.
Since the end of the season, the Suns have lost F/C Frye (28 minutes per game) and PG Ish Smith (14 minutes per game), while adding Isaiah Thomas (34.7 mpg last year) and Anthony Tolliver (20 mpg), along with two more first round draft picks.
On the surface, that's a 42 mpg swap for 54 mpg, not even including either draft pick.
But even more lopsided is that big-minute player swap came from two very different positions. Can the Suns handle adding another high-minute player to the guard rotation?
Two-point-guard lineup works
The Suns implemented the two-point-guard system last year with great success, racking up a 23-11 record when Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe started in the same game. Despite playing at a height disadvantage, the 6'1" Bledsoe and 6'3" Dragic were a plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions when they played together.
In fact, Bledsoe was part of the top 5 three-man Suns lineups last season (all plus-7.6 pp100p or higher) while Dragic was in 8 of the top 13 three-man lineups (all plus-3.2 or higher).
But unfortunately injuries took a toll, as the pair only played 884 minutes together, just 22% of the possible minutes in 2013-14. Bledsoe missed 39 games with two different injuries, while Dragic missed six but was hobbled with ankle woes in a number of other games.
When one of the pair was out, the Suns started 6'8" shooting guard Gerald Green. Green had a career year (15.8 points, 1.5 assists per game), but is not a primary ball handler. With only one guard capable of running an efficient offense, the Suns went just 25-23 causing them to miss the playoffs in the tough Western Conference.
Enter Isaiah Thomas
Thomas played point guard for a really bad Sacramento team last year, but his name is dotted all over the Kings best lineups per 100 possessions. Thomas was not the Kings' problem last season. He put up Dragic-esque numbers of 20.6 points and 6.3 assists per game with an overall plus-9.4 points per 100 possessions (that's versus the times he wasn't on the court. In pure terms, the Kings were plus-0.2 points versus opponents with him out there vs. minus-9.6 with him on the bench. Yes, the Kings were bad.)
He now joins a Suns team as their (likely) third highest-paid player without an obvious starting spot waiting for him. Is that a problem though?
Not if you consider that the Suns needed a second point guard to execute their attack the 78% of the time one of Dragic or Bledsoe were unavailable last year.
With the three guards at Hornacek's disposal, it will be much easier to sustain success.
"We feel it just gives us another weapon if something happens with Eric or Goran with injury, and not lose a beat," coach Jeff Hornacek told me after the press conference.
Let's see how that shakes out.
Game of Minutes
"We talked about it," Hornacek said. "We talked about how it was going to affect peoples' minutes, how we would play it. But again we still go into training camp with the guys that are here and are going to play."
If Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas play all 96 guard minutes, that's 32 minutes each. Each of Dragic (35.1), Bledsoe (32.9) and Thomas (34.7) played more than 32 minutes each game last year. Just by numbers, none of them can play the same minutes in 2014-15 as long as they take the court as a threesome all year long.
For Dragic, that may be a blessing as he got run down by the end of the season with all the minutes. But he won't need to drop too many though. He played a solid 33 per game in 2012-13 and finished stronger than he started, scoring 16 points along with 9.5 assists in 36 minutes per game in the second half.
Bledsoe clearly had never played so many minutes per game before - never exceeding 22 per game as a backup in LA - but he's arguably the best returning player for the Suns and will get plenty of minutes as the starting point guard. But he missed half the season with a knee issue and finished with only the 8th-most minutes on the team.
Thomas played his most minutes of his career last season, averaging nearly 35 per game, but figures to take the biggest hit in minutes behind the incumbent starters. To get a change of pace in the lineup for floor spacing, like Gerald Green, or size, like P.J. Tucker or Archie Goodwin, some minutes have to be squeezed from the three guards at the top of the pecking order.
Hornacek thinks the Suns can figure it out on a game to game basis.
"I think they will all be affected a little bit," he explained. "Like we did last year, when guys are going good they will be in there. We've explained it to them that some nights you're going to have it, some nights other guys are going to be hot and you're going to ride with them and maybe that game you don't play as much. The next game you might be the hot guy and you play some more."
Green and Thomas the most affected
Over the course of the year, if there are no injuries, you'll see a drop in total minutes from all three of the top guards. Dragic and Bledsoe will see the smallest drop, while Thomas and Green will inevitably see the bigger hit.
If you assume 30 minutes per game from Dragic and Bledsoe (60 total), that leaves 36 for Thomas and Green to share. Clearly, each has earned more than an 18-minute-per-game role.
Thomas started 54 games a year ago, playing 34.7 minutes per contest. Green just finished his best season of his career, playing all 82 games and starting 48 of them while playing 28.2 minutes per game with 15.7 points per game and making 40% of this threes.
But still Thomas, with the four-year contract and high-scoring profile, will likely take the bulk of those 36 minutes. Where does Green go? To the bench? Or to the small forward spot?
"He could," said Hornacek of the 6'8" Green taking some small forward minutes. "Or he could play the 4 with the three guards. That would be fun."
Hornacek is highlighting the tectonic shift here. Once Green is considered for some small forward minutes, what of the current glut that's already there?
P.J. Tucker is the team's starting small forward, and can't be taken off the floor without a shotgun. And, he just got a big new contract. Marcus Morris is entering his contract year and had the fourth-highest three-point percentage on a team that thrives on making threes. And then there's rookie T.J. Warren, the #14 overall pick in last month's draft.
All four of those guys, including Green, sharing just 48 minutes a night? Collectively, they played 131 minutes a night last season (Warren with N.C. State).
You have to assume Warren won't see any time as a rookie, and that Marcus Morris will shift to the power forward position on many nights. Still, that leaves a few minutes for Morris at the 4, a few minutes for Green at the 3 and Tucker getting the bulk of the time.
Now, on to power forward.
At PF, you have Markieff Morris (28 mpg last year) and newly signed Anthony Tolliver (20 mpg) and Marcus Morris (22 mpg). None were starters, but all were key role players last year. Squeezing them into 48 PF minutes will be difficult. All of them will make almost exactly the same money ($3 million per year) and all are in contract years. The Morrii will be restricted free agents, while Tolliver is only guaranteed for $400,000 in 2015-16 which makes him basically an expiring contract.
Hornacek knows it will be a mix and match game, and hopes that if the team stays the same they will come back with the same attitude as last year.
"Our guys were good about that last year," Hornacek said. "It makes it easier on us coaches that they understand that and respect that. They know that's the best chance we have for winning, the hot guys staying in, and they cheer for each other and that's what's great.
"As a player," Hornacek continued. "That's an environment you want to be in."
"I'm a fan of basketball and I watch a lot of basketball," Isaiah Thomas said at the press conference. "The Phoenix Suns were a team that I watched a lot last year. There was a lot of excitement. The guys, they seemed like they played for each other and with each other. They just had fun out there. Everybody counted the Phoenix Suns out and they won 48 games. I want to be a part of something like that.
"Even playing on the court against the Suns, there was really no arguing," he said. "There was just wanting to play, wanting to have fun and wanting to win. I wanted to be a part of something like that. The direction it's going is forward."
This year is not last year
"The sum was greater than the parts this year," Lon Babby said at the closing press conference in April. "But things change. Contract change, players want to demonstrate that they have improved. I always say its like another school year. It's not the same each year."
Last year, only Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker were in true contact years and they didn't have to worry about their minutes. Each played as much as they could handle. Frye ended up choosing to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but didn't have the pressure to perform because he could otherwise have picked up his 2014-15 player option.
This year will be different. Dragic, Green, Morris, Morris and Tolliver will all be fighting to earn their next contract, and yet all are fighting for minutes too. Dragic could lose time to Thomas and/or Bledsoe. And we've already covered the logjam among the other four, who all make about the same amount of money.
Let's hope next year the Suns are just as happy with sharing minutes as they were last year.