It may have taken a little while, but Alex Len is finally starting to look like a player that the Suns can build around in the future.
Len, the 5th overall pick from the 2013 draft, struggled to start the season. But he has been terrific since the All-Star break, averaging 17.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. He churned out another phenomenal outing last night against Golden State with 26 points and 13 rebounds in 31 minutes. Take a look at the highlights from some recent games.
Len still has his share of weaknesses. He's only shooting 42 percent from the field since the All-Star break despite putting up so many points on the board. He's a good free-throw shooter but his mid-range shot is still streaky and his post moves are not dominant. His block rate has also plummeted since last season, though he's still contesting plenty of shots at the rim. According to NBA.com/stats he allows opponents to shoot 49.7 percent at the rim, tying him with Dwight Howard and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Even those who still see Len as an injury-prone, tantalizing prospect can probably recognize his great strides in the past couple months. As a result, it is now time to start thinking about the contract extension which isn't too far down the road.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough has done a great job of accumulating rookie contract players for the team, but those players only stay cheap and affordable for so long. Len and Archie Goodwin will both be restricted free agents in the summer of 2017. T.J. Warren is up for an extension in 2018, and Devin Booker in 2019. These dates are coming sooner than you think.
Even though the Suns have a lot of cap space right now, that space can dry up very quickly if the team chooses to extend every rookie contract player who hits free agency. The Suns already owe approximately $40 million a year to Bledsoe, Knight and Chandler, so if they want to have any flexibility to chase after other free agents they won't be able to give every player they draft an extension worth $10 million per year or more.
For the purpose of this piece we're focusing solely on Len. On the one hand, Len could choose to sign an extension this summer and lock himself into several more years with the Suns before he even enters his fourth season. That's what the Morris twins did in the summer of 2014 and part of the reason their contracts looked so affordable at the time.
But Len has very little incentive to do that. Though no official numbers are out, according to this ESPN article from last year the NBA salary cap, which is currently $70 million, is projected to jump to roughly $89 million next season and $108 million for 2017-18. That is as a result of the NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion TV deal kicking in.
With the salary cap increasing by 27 percent this summer, the value of contracts being handed out to free agents will already be unprecedented. But Len has the advantage of being able to wait one more season until he hits restricted free agency before committing to a new contract, by which time the cap will have increased by another 21 percent.
Just how big is a max contract under a $108 million salary cap? For players with 0-6 years of experience, a maximum salary is worth 25 percent of the cap.
Under a $70 million cap, you have guys like Enes Kanter signing max deals for an average of $17.5 million per year. People thought that that signing was ridiculous at the time. Now imagine forking over about $27 million per year to someone like Alex Len.
And you thought the Chandler contract was a behemoth.
Common thinking is that as the salary cap increases so much, fewer max contracts will be handed out. Perhaps that's true and the $30-35 million annual salaries will be reserved for LeBron and Durant. Len certainly hasn't proved himself worthy of a max contract yet, so it's hard to justify paying him that much.
That doesn't erase the fact that center is still among the weakest positions in the NBA. Even if the Suns don't want to pay Alex Len $20 million per year or more, another team could force them to match an offer sheet. The Portland Trail Blazers have done this to other teams in the past, forcing Indiana to re-sign Roy Hibbert to a 4-year, $58 million deal in 2012 and later pressuring OKC into handing Kanter a 4-year, $70 million deal this past summer.
The same thing could happen to Phoenix in the summer of 2017. And then suddenly you enter the 2017-18 season with about $60-65 million committed to four players, one of whom will be a 35-year-old Tyson Chandler. That doesn't even account for Goodwin's extension, if there is one, or for the fact that Warren and Booker will be waiting in the wings for extensions of their own.
On the bright side, all of this new salary cap garbage is putting the contracts of Bledsoe and Knight into perspective. In the summer of 2017, free agent point guards like Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday and George Hill could all be looking for $20-25 million per year or more. At the same time, a 28-year-old Bledsoe and a 26-year-old Knight will make a combined $29 million. Bledsoe will not hit free agency until 2019 and Knight is under contract until 2020.
Welcome to the new NBA, where every contract signed from now on will make you dust off your basketball shoes and think about how you should have pursued a different career path regardless of what your 6th grade basketball coach said.