The Phoenix Suns roster can be considered a bit lopsided. They have gone all in on collecting a wide range of guards while the front court has remained steady despite needing a talent upgrade if the Suns want to contend in the Western Conference.
With the targeting of Zoran Dragic this weekend, the Suns would be acquiring their fourth new guard this summer for a team that already employs three guards who play big minutes - Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green.
But all three are on track to be free agents in 2015. So when the Suns could not acquire a star this summer to go "all in" on 2014-15, they decided to improve their depth and hedge their bets against what could be a bad summer in 2015 without proper planning.
Playmakers vs. Point Guard
The Phoenix Suns do not use the point guard position in the traditional sense.
When you consider point guard, you think of Steve Nash - a single player who starts 90% of the team's possessions, calls the plays and makes sure the offense runs smoothly. If the point guard fails, the offense fails. In that sense, having three starting caliber "point guards" is pointless.
But Phoenix's offense is something different. Jeff Hornacek came to the Suns last summer with a dilemma. His team's offense was one of the worst in the league a season ago, and his two best individual players were "point guards". So he adapted. He created an opportunity for both of those players to share the offense, and he went on prove that his two-playmaker system works.
In any Suns lineup, there is no one player around which the success or failure of the offense is dependent. On each possession, ideally, coach Jeff Hornacek has two playmakers on the court who can take turns initiating the offense and finishing the plays.
Goran Dragic had the best season of his career, becoming one of only four NBA players to EVER put up 20+ points and 5+ assists while shooting 50+% overall from the field and 40+% on three pointers. Add in about three rebounds and 1.5 steals, and you've got a borderline All-Star who ended up making third-team All-NBA when it was all over.
Eric Bledsoe, his running mate, put up great numbers himself (17+ points, 5+ assists, 5 rebounds) and the Suns went 23-11 when the two played together (23-8 when both started and finished the game healthy).
With those two in the lineup, the Suns were 10.1 points better than their opponent - holding up both on the offensive end and defensive end. The 10-point differential rivals the best teams in the NBA.
Dual playmakers requires depth
But the Suns didn't have the depth to sustain their two-headed playmaker system through injuries. Those two only started 40% of the Suns games together last season, and didn't even finish all of those games healthy. Dragic had recurring ankle injuries while Bledsoe missed more than half the season with knee and shin issues.
Without one of those dynamic guards, the Suns were a lottery team. With them, the Suns could have made the playoffs. Both of them are almost certain to return this next season, but depth had to be added. When Ish Smith is your best backup plan at playmaker, you need to upgrade.
Enter veteran Isaiah Thomas. Thomas plays a different game, but it's the same playmaker style the Suns get from Dragic and Bledsoe. Thomas was one of only a handful of NBA players to put up 20+ points and 6+ assists last season. The three of them can share the two-playmaker duties to make the Suns more dangerous than ever.
Why so many shooting guards?
If your ideal system revolved around two playmakers, the traditional shooting guard seems to be a luxury along the lines of an NFL fullback. It appears, on the surface, that Bledsoe, Dragic and Thomas will eat up nearly all the guard minutes.
Yet the Suns continue to add depth to the shooting guard position.
The shooting guard of the present is Gerald Green, 29, who stepped into the starting role on nearly half the games last season and had a career season putting up 16+ points per game while making nearly 40% of his three-pointers. But Green is a free agent next summer and might be eclipsed for playing time by a younger player anyway.
The Suns drafted Archie Goodwin, 20, last season to be the shooting guard of the future. He's not a pure playmaker in the Suns system, but he can be a dangerous scorer from inside and outside and become a lockdown defender if he reaches his potential. Goodwin can be a playmaker, but not on the level of the Suns other playmakers.
This summer, they drafted Bogdan Bogdanovic, 22, to be a potential shooting guard of the future as well, though BB almost certainly won't come to the NBA for at least two seasons no matter how ready he looks. He signed a contract with a team in Europe that has a buyout nearly as big as his slotted rookie NBA salary. He won't want to play in the NBA for free, which is how that would work out unless some hocus pocus is performed. BB can be a part-time playmaker, but is much more a traditional shooting guard than anything else.
And now the Suns look to be after Zoran Dragic, 25, who plays shooting guard as well. Zoran, who is Goran's younger brother, profiles as a shooting guard at 6'5" who can play bulldog defense and make the occasional three-pointer and pretty left-handed drive to the hoop. His ceiling appears lower than either Goodwin or Bogdanovic, but at 25 he's more of a sure thing. Plus, he might help the Suns keep Goran next summer.
Why such an emphasis on shooting guards who aren't true playmakers, if your system does not include shooting guards? isn't that like signing three fullbacks just to stand on the sidelines?
Looking ahead to 2015-16
Apparently, the Suns are hedging their bets for the future. They know how to evaluate guard talent, so they're improving the depth without regard to position, and without regard to the 2014-15 season. All on excellent contracts.
None of Goodwin, Bogdanovic, Zoran Dragic or rookie PG Tyler Ennis are needed to fill big time minutes in 2014-15. Those minutes are already reserved for Green, Thomas, Bledsoe and Dragic.
But of those four only Thomas is signed past next summer. The other three will likely be unrestricted free agents (if Bledsoe takes the qualifying offer) who could easily take bigger offers elsewhere. Green, Bledsoe and Dragic, if they play well again this season, will get massive pay raises on the open market. No way the Suns match the market on all of them.
In case the other three leave the team, the Suns will have to rethink their system for the 2015-16 season. One possible direction is to convert back to the traditional system that employs pure shooting guards next to a full time point guard. If that happens, why not have a stable of young shooting guards on rookie contracts ready to go? As it is, the Suns will only be spending a pittance on them.
Spreading the eggs to more than two baskets
Last year, the Suns were wholly dependent on two players to make the system work. With Dragic and Bledsoe, the Suns can make the playoffs. Without both players happy and healthy, the Suns are a lottery team.
And it looked this summer as if the Suns would have to spend up to $34 million per season (more than half the current salary cap) starting in 2015-16 just to keep them long-term.
While that's great if you're going deep into the playoffs, the injury concerns for both players must be taken into account. They only played 34 games together last season.
As well, the team doesn't want to be held hostage to either player's contract demands. Bledsoe is already demanding $85 million over five years, an average of $17 million per year. Dragic won't hold out for big contract demands, but it seems clear that he is better than Bledsoe at this stage of their careers and should command that much on the open market. Now we're talking $34 million per year for your starting back court.
Let's look at the acquisitions this summer.
- June 26: PG Tyler Ennis, SG Bogdan Bogdanovic
- July 10: PG Isaiah Thomas, F Anthony Tolliver
- Sept: targeting SG Zoran Dragic
Hedging their bets indeed. Only Anthony Tolliver plays in the front court, and he was signed specifically to replace Channing Frye's skill set. The other four acquisitions are guards, and all would be on valuable long-term contracts.
In fact, their contracts are so manageable that the Suns can now afford to pay big money to Bledsoe and Dragic to stay. The Suns now have inexpensive depth for years behind their highly paid starters.
Dragic and Bledsoe are still the two best players on the Suns roster. And if the Suns want to make the playoffs, they need to keep their best players. But that has to be a two-way street. Those players have to want to stay in Phoenix, in this system, to make it work.
Alternately, the Suns have back court trade assets at every performance level a team might want, from proven difference-making veterans to young prospects.
And finally, the Suns have put themselves into a better bargaining position. No one player is irreplaceable. No one player can hold the team hostage in free agent negotiations.
After falling short on the big-time plans of acquiring multiple max players this summer, the Suns clearly decided to spend the rest of the summer hedging their bets and improving their bargaining position in the summer of 2015.