The Phoenix Suns will likely enter the summer of 2016 with enough cap space to sign a maximum salary free agent, even after drafting a Top 5 pick to supplement a young roster.
And guess what? After not only striking out on LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge the last two summers, but also ruining team chemistry in the process, the Suns plan to do it all over again and for some reason they expect a different result.
What if they succeed? What if a top free agent like Al Horford comes to Phoenix on a max deal this summer.
Will that be enough to make the Suns fun again? Will it push them into playoff contention?
Let's take a look at the details.
Suns roster moves
Before you look at the current Suns roster, I implore you to expect a lot of turnover this summer. The Suns have never just kept the same rotation year over year, and coming off a 23-win season means they won't change those stripes.
One or more of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, and a young player will be moved this summer in an effort to shuffle the deck chairs and hit upon a winning formula. Bet on it. Most of that will happen in July, but some will happen even earlier.
Before free agency starts in early July, the Suns roster might already look quite different. A top-5 pick will now be included in the Suns "future" along with Devin Booker.
If that new top-5 pick is a small forward like Brandon Ingram or Jaylen Brown, then you can expect T.J. Warren and/or P.J. Tucker to be headed out the door before the season starts so that new players gets all the minutes they can handle.
If he's Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield, that of course means moves in the back court. But then the Suns aren't dumb enough to add Buddy Hield to somehow play next to Devin Booker, right?
If the Suns are stuck in the 4-6 range on draft night, don't be shocked to see them draft someone like PG Kris Dunn, which would kick off a trade of Bledsoe or Knight. And if the Suns are going with Dunn at PG next to Booker at SG, then you can expect Tyson Chandler to be on his way out too because it'll be a youth movement.
If that new top-5 pick is a power forward like Dragan Bender, Henry Ellenson or if the 13th pick is a project PF, then you can expect Mirza Teletovic has probably seen his last day in a Suns uni. Why? Because as you'll see below, the Suns need a starting caliber PF and likely will spend their free agent money or enact a trade to acquire that player so Bender, Ellenson or the other project isn't required to play a lot of minutes in year one.
The only draftee that might not (necessarily) signal a dramatic roster shift is Ben Simmons. Simmons would slot right into the PF job and earn 25-30 minutes a night, which allows the Suns to bring Mirza Teletovic back to bring scoring off the bench and wouldn't force any other domino moves. Simmons at PF means the Suns can keep Len, Warren and Booker in place to grow together.
But no matter what happens on draft night, the Phoenix Suns will likely make a major move or two this summer to shake up the roster and bring in a fresh start for the next season.
Suns available cap space
This is where the Suns currently stand, in terms of expected cap space given a $92 million salary cap for the 2016-17.
With the rising cap, no Suns player counts more than 15% against the cap by themselves. While Eric Bledsoe's cap number rises steadily throughout his contract, both Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler agreed to dips in their contract for the 2016-17 season. This was likely a maneuver to allow the Suns to build upon a successful playoff run.
Anyhoo, you'll see that Michael Beasley's contract outlasted both of the guys who signed him. Finally, 2017-18 will see a clean cap sheet when it comes to Michael Beasley but not until then.
If you count in P.J. Tucker's full contract (which is only $1.5 million guaranteed if he's released but there's no way the Suns would release him) and John Jenkins', as well as all three first round picks, the Suns can expect to have as much as $28 million available on the free agent market.
This number assumes the Suns release their cap holds on Mirza Teletovic, Ronnie Price, Jon Leuer and Chase Budinger, who add up to just under $11 million in "holds" to keep their Bird Brights. Since there's no way the Suns would pay any of these players more than another team would pay them, there's no need to hold Bird Rights on them.
What can $28 million buy you?
In the new world of the rising cap, it doesn't buy you a whole lot. In the NBA landscape, the Suns will begin the summer in the bottom half of team's cap space numbers. Nearly all teams will have enough money to sign a big time free agent. Some teams will have enough for 2 or 3 of them.
Let's put these numbers into perspective. But before you continue, I need you to do me a favor. Swallow hard. Sit down. Breathe. Breathe again.
- Free-agent-to-be SF Harrison Barnes can command 25% of a team's cap, which would be a $23 million starting number this coming year. Before you laugh, remember that SF DeMarre Carroll got 21% of the Raptors' cap last summer with his $15 million/year deal, and that SF Chandler Parsons got 24% of the Mavericks' cap two summers ago and will likely be a max player this summer too.
- Free-agent-to-be PF Al Horford can command 30% of a team's cap, which would be a $27.6 million starting number this coming year. Before you laugh, LaMarcus Aldridge got 28% of the Spurs cap last summer and as you know there were multiple teams offering that salary.
- PG Mike Conley fits into the same pool as Al Horford, with nine years in the league, meaning that he also is eligible for a starting salary number of $27.6 million this summer. Again, I implore you not to laugh at this. Conley is the only viable starting point guard on the market this summer, and more than half the league will have enough cap space available to make an offer. Certainly, Memphis will offer Conley something comparable to entice him not to test the free agent waters. Memphis is in danger of irrelevance and cannot afford to lose him.
Suddenly, Brandon Knight's $13 million doesn't look so bad does it?
Who are the Suns targeting?
The Suns have always been tight-lipped about their free agent targets, except for the top-of-market guys. No one had a clue last summer about Tyson Chandler until after he was already signed. And frankly, few of us had them going hard after LaMarcus Aldridge.
The first rumors of the year were posed by John Gambodoro on his radio show last Friday.
Gambo says the Suns are targeting Nic Batum, Harrison Barnes and Al Horford. All of them fit the same mold: two way players who make a difference in multiple ways on a game.
This shows the Suns still want to win games in 2016-17 and still believe that the right mix of kids and veterans can win big while developing young players.
Barnes is still only 22 years old, and still has not entered his prime. He's a key cog on a championship level team who can play both power forward and small forward, and play good defense in both positions. But really, would Barnes move the needle on the Suns win total that much? And if he doesn't raise the Suns competitive level, do we want to see Harrison Barnes making TWICE what Brandon Knight makes?
Horford and Batum are veterans the Suns have coveted for a decade, and who would bring some fun and excitement back to the team in spades.
But do we really want to see Horford in a Suns uni in 2016-17, which makes the playoffs a necessity to justify his contract? If you sign Horford, you go all in on 2016-17 being a competitive season. You keep Chandler which stunts Alex Len's growth. You limit the playing time opportunity for T.J. Warren because you know P.J. Tucker will be getting a lot of minutes. You continue the push for developing AND winning at the same time. We know that hasn't worked well the last three years.
Batum would be a fun signing. He'd replace Tucker on the roster, which still allows the Suns to give all the minutes they want to kids at his position (Warren) and others. While Batum could command the same salary as Horford and Conley, he most certainly won't garner that kind of contract. He'd likely command a Chandler/Bledsoe/Knight level contract instead, which would be more palatable.
Have at it, Suns fans...