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Phoenix Season Preview: Sarver, Babby and McDonough Spend Dollars with Sense

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Robert Sarver and Lon Babby have seen some rough days as leaders of the Phoenix Suns' front office, but their worst days are behind them. They've learned their lessons. They've refined their positions. They are staying in their lanes. And they've got the Phoenix Suns poised for long-term success.

Things are looking up for Robert Sarver
Things are looking up for Robert Sarver
USA TODAY Sports

I appreciate Robert Sarver.  I think that while he may have made mistakes as an owner, he's always tried to act in the team's best interests.  This is a guy who wants to be the man who brings the first NBA title to Phoenix so badly that he hasn't always seen the big picture.  He's wanted to "win now" for so long that it took watching his franchise disintegrate like one of Amare Stoudemire's knees to make him take a step back and take the long view.

Lon Babby's another guy I've grown to respect.  He's a former agent who appears to be a pretty straight shooter.  Sure, right about the time he started with the Suns, a bunch of his former clients got signed to big deals with Phoenix, but can you blame a guy for bringing guys he believes in to his new team?  It's too bad those guys were Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress instead of Tim Duncan and Ray Allen (also former Babby clients).  And instead of Tim Duncan, Spurs legend, we got Lance Blanks, Spurs cast-off.

I'd like to think both Sarver's and Babby's worst days are behind them.  Early on, both eschewed youth in the name of the present, bringing in ill-advised veterans in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle or preventing the Steve Nash dream from dying.  But they've learned their lessons.  They've refined their positions.  They are staying in their lanes.  And they've got the Phoenix Suns poised for long-term success.  See Exhibit A below.

Exhibit A

Ryan McDonough

Gif credit: Sreekar

Ryan McDonough. He is the culmination of a decade of front office experiments under Robert Sarver that included Steve "Moron or Genius" Kerr, Mike "Boris Diaw is totally worth $45,000,000" D'Antoni, and Lance "Luke Zeller is the best shooter in the world" Blanks.  I actually thought Kerr might pan out, but none of these GMs' tenures were as well-received as McDonough's has been.

While Sarver and Babby ultimately control the purse strings, McDonough has been their savvy personal shopper.  He sniffs out the deals and unearths the gems.  Babby negotiates the transaction and Sarver writes the check.  Every knows their role and everyone stays in their lane. And the results have been a beauty to behold.  See Exhibit B below.

Exhibit B

Corrected Salary Table

Those are the Suns' salary commitments for the next few years.  At the bottom, you'll see this year's salary cap and luxury tax numbers as well as next year's projections. I haven't seen details emerge for the Bledsoe and Morri deals, so for the purposes of this table, I simply averaged the total money over the life of the contract. UPDATE: I've corrected Eric Bledsoe's salary numbers and a spreadsheet error that was preventing some columns from tabulating correctly.  Measure twice, cut once, Lisboa.

If I'm a Suns fan, I'm basking in the glory of this table.  Why should we bask?  Let me count the ways:

  1. The Phoenix Suns are fielding a complete, young, and dynamic roster for almost half of what the New York Knicks are paying to their considerably less young and dynamic team.
  2. The Phoenix Suns are doing this after committing $173,000,000 in free agent contracts in just this off-season alone (Isaiah Thomas, P.J. Tucker, Anthony Tolliver, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Eric Bledsoe and Zoran Dragic).
  3. Even if Goran Dragić doubles his salary next season, Phoenix will have close to $11,000,000 in cap space.
  4. That $11 million can be used to retain Gerald Green and/or pursue a marquee free agent. UPDATE: I forgot to include Bird Rights (thanks, SunsUp!). The Suns will have the Bird Rights to both Gerald Green and Goran Dragic.  Essentially, this means they can go out and spend a boat load of money on a marquee free agent, THEN go over the salary cap to resign Dragic and Green.  This gives them more like $30 million in salary space to pursue a free agent and re-sign Dragic and Green without going over the luxury tax line.  How much rosier can this salary picture get?
  5. Ignore numbers 3 and 4 above.  (I had good numbers and a bad table.  Sorry for the confusion.)  Next season, the Suns' cap picture can vary wildly depending on what options they choose to exercise.  If they exercise all team options (Len, Plumlee, Goodwin), those along with the cap holds on Gerald Green and Goran Dragic will actually put them approximately $3.5M over the salary cap as reflected in the table above.  However, without the Green and Dragic cap holds, the Suns are sitting at $52M in guaranteed salary, assuming they pick up all those rookie options.
  6. Not pictured: the Los Angeles Lakers' top 5 protected pick and the Minnesota Timberwolves' top 12 protected pick.
  7. Every single one of those contracts, like the aforementioned draft picks, is eminently tradable.
  8. Any perceived holes or weaknesses in this roster can probably be solved using items 5-7 above.
  9. Bledsoe, Thomas, Tucker, the Morri, and Alex Len are all under contract for the next 3 seasons.  Assuming Goran re-signs, that's a strong 7-man core to have locked up.
  10. Paying Michael Beasley not to play for your team is kind of fun. And that's the worst number on the table. (OK, worst number is the $7,300,000 the Suns are paying Josh Childress to not play for them, but it doesn't count against the cap so it's almost like it's not even happening, right?)
There may be questions about the sustainability of last seasons' success or the quality of the Suns' front line, but one thing about which there should be little debate is whether or not the Suns' are spending their money well.

They may have missed out on the biggest of the big free agents, but they managed to take care of the one in their own backyard.  While the Bledsoe situation may have gotten ugly, it's hard to argue Babby and Sarver committed any mis-steps along the way.  And while the Suns' failed to make any splashy big man acquisitions, it hardly seems like there was better free agent value than what they are now paying the Morris twins.  Any quibbles about the recent contracts are just that: quibbles.

After 10 years of "Win Now", the Suns have finally adopted a model of "Win when you can."  "When you can" just happened to be "now" last season.  And the Suns have embraced the players that made last season possible while maintaining flexibility to improve in the future.  That kind of sustainability is only possible when one can not only see the big picture, but acquire the assets to realize that vision as well.  Sarver, Babby and McDonough have lain a strong foundation for their sustainable future and Suns' fans should reap the dividends.