As everyone is now well aware, I am sure, the Phoenix Suns recently signed Tyson Chandler to a 4 years, $52 million contract. The 33 year old center immediately went about recruiting the Suns' other major off-season target, LaMarcus Aldridge, who met with team representatives including Chandler earlier in the week.
The move was widely hailed as a positive one on Basketball Twitter. Particularly, commentators have noted how much the Phoenix training staff will mean for Chandler's longevity:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Tyson Chandler will play until he is 40 now.</p>— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) <a href="https://twitter.com/HPbasketball/status/616325722118955008">July 1, 2015</a></blockquote>
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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Tyson Chandler + Phoenix training staff? Yes please.</p>— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) <a href="https://twitter.com/SethPartnow/status/616324260273872896">July 1, 2015</a></blockquote>
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Outside of these commentaries on fit, and a few scattered assurances that the years/dollar figure isn't outlandish, the twitter-sphere has been relatively quiet on the question of whether this was a wise move for the Suns.
Suns fans, however, seem to feel ecstatic about the move. As we saw yesterday in the survey following Samuel Cooper's fine piece on the merits of acquiring Chandler, the vast majority of Suns fans seem to think the pickup of Chandler was fine and dandy, even if the team strikes out in its attempts to land LaMarcus Aldridge.
I can appreciate the enthusiasm of Sam and others. First, McDonough has come out really aggressive this offseason, and given how the front office has seemed mostly reactive in recent months, this is a refreshing change of pace. Second, Chandler is a player many of us have admired for a number of years, and to have a strong rotation at the 5 is something the Suns have almost never had. Third, the addition of Chandler immediately changed the discussion of the potential of Aldridge signing with the team.
The Short Term
That being said, I am going to dump some cold water on the revelry. Lets get hot take number one out of the way immediately:
Even if we get LaMarcus Aldridge and combine him with Tyson Chandler, the Suns probably are not better than a 5th seed in the West next year.
The best possible outcome of this trade is that we land Aldridge and Chandler. The problem is, even if we land Aldridge, this team likely does not cross into the top half of playoff teams in the West. Here is the aggregate win-shares of the proposed Suns roster compared to the (somewhat likely) starting units for the Warriors, the Thunder, the Rockets, the Grizzlies and the Clippers.
|PG||7.0 (Bledsoe)||6.8 (Conley)||10.6 (Westbrook)||3.5 (Beverley)||16.1 (Paul)||15.7 (Curry)|
|SG||4.5 (Knight)||4.8 (Lee)||1.1 (Waiters)||16.4 (Harden)||6.7 (Redick)||8.8 (Thompson)|
|SF||4.9 (Tucker)||5.2 (Green)||19 (Durant)||6.6 (Ariza)||5.5 (Pierce)||6.7 (Barnes)|
|PF||8.6 (Aldridge)||7.2 (Randolph)||5.6 (Ibaka)||4.7 (Motiejunas)||9.0 (Griffin)||8.5 (Green)|
|C||10.3 (Chandler)||10.2 (Gasol)||6.2 (Kanter)||3.6 (Howard)||12.8 (Jordan)||5.2 (Bogut)|
Now, there are some very important assumptions that go into that prediction. The first is that players stay at their current level of production. I'm sure the first thought that will have come into many of your heads is that "Our team is young, they're going to improve!" I would challenge this statement quite strongly. Of the projected starting 5, only Knight has a serious likelihood of growing as a player. Bledsoe may see small improvement in his win share production, but I seriously doubt he sees massive growth. And the kicker here is that three of our projected starters (Tucker, Aldridge and Chandler) are on the wrong side of thirty, meaning that they're as likely to decline in production as they are to produce better. Chandler, in particular, is likely to see regression. After having his best career season at age 32, it seems highly unlikely he produces at that level again.
The second major assumption of the table above is that the starting unit is incredibly important for predicting the total wins of a team. We know, however, that bench units are actually really important as well. This is where the best outcome is important to stress. In the best outcome, the Suns lose the Morrii, and see Gerald Green and Brandan Wright leave in free agency. Those four guys, combined, accounted for 16.6 win shares last season. The remaining players we have on the bench (Warren, Len, Goodwin, Granger) accounted for less than 5 win shares. Assuming we get more win shares from those four and the chaff we pick up in any trade, we might get to 10-12 win shares from the bench.
Again, the specter of growth may spring in here. You may say, "But Geoff, Warren, Len and Goodwin have a high likelihood of increasing their WS contributions!" Its true that this is a possibility. In particular, I think Warren has a very high likelihood of doing so, as his WS/48 number was similar to the Morrii. Seemingly, then, if the team gave Marcus' minutes to Warren, there would be no dropoff. However, it seems unlikely we're going to see an increase in win share production from Goodwin to match the level of production of Gerald Green. For as frustrating as Green could be, his WS/48 level was still nearly 5 times larger than Archie's. And it seems unlikely Len produces more win shares, or even matches Wright's total, as he was far lower than Wright last season despite playing a roughly equal number of minutes.
Now we have to talk about the worst possible outcome. In the worst possible outcome, as John Gambodoro points out, the Suns are forced to trade both Morrii, and Tucker, and several of the young guys, in order to create enough cap space to sign Aldridge. In this scenario, it seems even less likely that the Suns compete for anything more than a 5th seed in the West, as the bench would be even weaker than I projected in the best case scenario.
So, in the short term, the Suns probably get a playoff birth, but the team isn't likely a challenger for a championship, and almost definitely suffers from a weak bench unit.
The Long Term
Surely, at this point some of you are saying, "You're missing the broader point, Geoff. Once the cap goes up next year, these contracts are going to seem minuscule, puny! With all the cap space next year with the increase, we'll have so much more room for activities!"
Unfortunately, this is a bit of a misconception. In the starting 5 alone, the Suns would be sinking $67 million dollars (Bledsoe and Knight at $14 million each, Chandler at $13, Tucker at $5 and LMA at $21). If we want to keep Len, that's another $5 million. Want to keep at least two of Warren, Goodwin and Bullock? That's another $5 million. And don't forget about our latest rookie, Trevor Booker. That is another $2.5 million. Combined, then, the Suns are looking at a 2016-17 salary of about $79.5 million, give or take about $2 million. The projected salary cap that season is around $89 million dollars. So that would put the Suns in the running for, say, a DeMarre Carroll. Or perhaps a Jae Crowder and a Jonas Jerebko. But certainly none of the big boys, unless we're a) trading one of our better players away (Tucker's salary won't be enough to get into play for a real big boy), or b) getting rid of our young guys.
Options do begin to open up in free agency in 2017-18, but then you have a different problem: you still have 2 guaranteed years on the contracts of 32 year old Aldridge and 35 year old Chandler. Those two contracts are worth around $35 million dollars, or roughly a third of the projected cap that year. Even with the confirmed warlock skills of Aaron Nelson and the Suns trainers, it seems unlikely that those two are going to be producing at a level that warrants a third of the cap. Individually, both contracts are easier to move in the face of the higher cap, but neither is THAT easy to move.
Perhaps a bigger problem is that, in both the best case scenario and the worst case scenario mentioned above, the Suns are trading away multiple first round picks in order to dump salary. These are the accumulated assets of recent years, and we'd likely be leveraging them to dump salary for what is very likely a futile playoff run. There is some possibility we get some useful developmental talent back in said swaps - maybe a Euro stash player, or a young player who has failed to live up to potential - but the far more common outcome is that we get some garbage-time players who are never better than 3rd string guys.
Wither Went Aldridge?
I'm going to deal with this section pretty quickly. If we don't get Aldridge, the signing of Tyson Chandler is a worthless endeavor. The team doesn't notably improve next season with Chandler - we're still competing for one of the last two spots. Maybe Chandler's signing helps us in the 2016-17 free agent market - we would have notably more cap room - but its at best a 50/50 shot. Beyond that, he simply becomes a movable contract, but one that I think is harder to move than many imagine, higher cap or not.
As Bryan Gibberman has pointed out many times, the idea that Chandler will somehow provide a great locker room presence is overblown. Chandler has been part of two of the worst locker room environments in recent memory, with the Knicks and last season with the Mavericks. Chandler's presence seemed to have little steadying influence on either of those situations.
Finally, having Chandler doesn't exactly seem likely to help with the development of Alex Len as a player. Chandler will eat up minutes that would likely better be spent in developing Len and getting a firm evaluation of him as a player. There is no strong evidence that Chandler is a great guy for young players to play against in practice. No center who has backed up Tyson for a significant period of time has gone on to much success, with the possible exception of Ian Mahinmi.
The Major Problem
The major problem with this signing, in my mind, is that its leveraging the future for a vain attempt to compete now. Barring major, absurd growth from Bledsoe and Knight, the projected Suns team in the best case scenario, which features Aldridge and Chandler, is still not a championship contender. Its not even a likely top-half of the playoff bracket finisher.
Chandler and Aldridge are very good players. Even combined, however, those two guys aren't enough to push the needle on this team in the short term, especially given the very strong likelihood that bench depth will have to be sacrificed to get Aldridge. Once the team will actually have enough cap space to bring in some help at the SF position, however, Chandler will be 35, Aldridge 32, and their time as good-to-great players will be over. In the meantime, they've been taking playing time away from guys like Len, or Warren, or some other, younger guy we could have had instead of Chandler and Aldridge.
If we do not get Aldridge, there is no seemingly strong reason for the signing of Chandler. It may push us over the hump, but that just means an early playoff exit and continued mediocrity.
Over the last few years, the McDonough-led Suns have preached patience. The motto for the last season was "Ignite the Future!" We were told that our future lay in our young guns, in our ability to grow talent and hopefully surround it with top tier free agents.
These moves, to me at least, aren't in that same mold.
These moves seem designed to get us just a taste of the playoffs. Not even contender status. A taste.
I don't want a taste. I want to compete.
If that means I need to be patient, so be it. But I want to see a consistent direction. I do not want to see us selling low and buying high - as we are with Chandler and would be with Aldridge. I do not want to see us sacrificing long-term player development for short term satisfaction.