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Phoenix Suns spending money again, pushing to rejoin playoff ranks

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The $52 million the Phoenix Suns committed to starting center Tyson Chandler represents the largest free agent commitment the Suns have made to another team's player since signing Steve Nash away from Dallas 11 years ago.

With the signing of Chandler and the re-signing of Brandon Knight as the main catalysts, the Suns are now 16th in the NBA in total salaries committed for the 2015-16 season (thanks to spotrac.com). 27 of 30 NBA teams are above or within $1 million of the $70 million cap, because the CBA requires teams to spend at least 90% of the cap every year so they just plan on it anyway.

The Suns haven't been above the salary cap since 2011 (15th). They dropped down to the bottom of the barrel after Steve Nash exited: ranking dead last (30th) in 2012-13, 28th in 2013-14 and 24th in 2014-15, all according to spotrac.com. Those numbers do not include the annual $7.5 million to Josh Childress, who was amnestied in the summer of 2012 so his salary would not count on the official player payroll. Nor do they include the $5+ million to waived Michael Beasley from 2013-15.

Chandler's contract is the most the Suns have given to someone who'd never before worn the Suns colors since Tom Gugliotta got $60 million in the wake of the Antonio McDyess defection in 1999.

The Suns usually reserve their big contracts for guys who've already worked their way into Suns fans hearts. In 2004, they brought Steve Nash back home for $65 million. In 2005, they kept Amare Stoudemire with a max extension ($73 million). In 2006, they gave a croissant-load to Boris Diaw ($45 million). In 2014, they gave $70 million to Eric Bledsoe, then another $70 million to Brandon Knight this year.

But no free agents as good as Tyson Chandler have left their team to join Phoenix since Nash. And no one since Googs has gotten that much money to come here for the first time in their career.

But that doesn't mean the Suns are a bad choice or that the Suns are cheap. Few players change teams.

The NBA is, and has always been, structured to entice players to stay with their franchise in free agency rather than choose another team. The home team is allowed to offer more years and bigger raises than anyone else. So the best players almost always stay with the team that drafted them.

"When you look around the league," Lon Babby said. "High end free agents almost never leave. Free agents of [Chandler's] caliber do not move from team to team very often. The opportunities are few and far between."

This summer, only a handful of the best free agents got more than Chandler's $13 million per season to switch teams.

  • Robin Lopez got $13.5 million per season ($54 million total) to join the New York Knicks after they struck out on bigger names.
  • DeMarre Carroll got $15 million per season ($60 million total) from the Raptors straight off of being a minimum-salary NBA player over his first ? years in the NBA.
  • Greg Monroe got $16 million per season ($51 million total) from the Milwaukee Bucks after taking his qualifying offer last summer from the Pistons.
  • Wesley Matthews somehow got $17.5 million per year ($75 million total) from Dallas despite an achilles tear that might kill his 2015-16 season, if not his career.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge got more than $20 million per season ($80 million) to join the San Antonio Spurs.

Almost all the other big names on the market this summer took the money their own teams were offering, preferring either more years, more annual pay or simply the convenience of staying "home".

But when free agents are ready to move on, the Suns want to be that preferred destination.

"I've said many, many times this is a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to play," outgoing President Lon Babby said this month. "We've done everything we can over the last few years to make this the most player friendly environment not only for the players but for their families. The training staff, family room, all those kinds of things."

Last year, the Suns convinced Isaiah Thomas to take a backup role because he loved the city and the team's presentation so much he didn't even entertain other offers. The Suns were his first free agent visit.

This summer alone, the Suns were first on Chandler and Knight's lists, and maneuvered their way into second place on LaMarcus Aldridge's list. They had a meeting set up with DeMarre Carroll too, but cancelled that when Chandler accepted the Suns offer and Aldridge listed them as a finalist.

"It's been very gratifying this summer to have some of that resonate with the players we brought in here," Babby said. "A gold medalist, NBA champion, [Chandler] very quickly decided Phoenix is the place to be."

Chandler agreed that the Suns checked off a lot of his boxes even before free agency began. He wants to be with a team that can win a lot of games with him at center. He likes the makeup of the Suns roster around him. Now the Suns have to hope that he lives up to that contract. Tom Gugliotta was ultimately a bust in purple and orange.

Last year, Chandler was second in the league in dunks (179), behind only DeAndre Jordan, and was in the top 5 in rebounds. By comparison, the Suns leading dunker (Alex Len - 66) finished 28th in the league, and their leading rebounder (Markieff Morris) finished 42nd.

As recently as 2013, Chandler was an All-Star. And in 2011, he was the league's Defensive Player of the Year - the first time the Suns franchise has ever had a current or former DPOY on their roster.

But they need Chandler as much for his presence on the floor, at practice and in the locker room as for his statistics.

"The thing about winning, it's a full time job," Chandler said about making the Suns winner. "It's not just about game days. The preparation has to start every day in practice. We have to be locked in, we have to be serious, really paying attention to details. And it's just kind of getting that focus around the locker room. Making sure everybody's engaged, everybody's locked in."

The Suns struggled with maturity last year. They didn't know how to police themselves when the coaches weren't barking at them.

"As a coach it's great," coach Jeff Hornacek said of adding Chandler. "We're out there, they listen to us (coaches) every single day, we're constantly saying stuff, but when your teammate's can help them out and mentor them, that's when guys really make strides."

Hornacek often mentioned last year that the Suns needed a leader in the locker room and on the court. He hoped Brandon Knight, Danny Granger or Brandan Wright could have provided that leadership last year, but bringing them in mid-season and none of them being long-term starters really hurt their ability to help.

"Let's face it," he told me after the presser. "You can't have a 10th or 11th man be your leader. It's gotta be your main guys."

The Suns players will need to make strides. Banding together as a unit and controlling themselves is a big first step.

"Almost all good teams I've ever been on," Hornacek said. "You have somebody that's gonna get on guys and you have players who accept that too. They're not gonna say, 'screw you, Tyson'. They know he's a veteran guy who won a championship. He's gonna be that leader. Guys are gonna follow that."

Before playing a game, Tyson Chandler is already the best center the Suns have had since Shaquille O'Neal in 2008-09.

And if he can lead the Suns to the playoffs, he would be the Suns best playoff center since maybe Alvan Adams thirty years ago.

I'd say that's worth a big dive into the free agent pool.