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McDonough, Suns ready to "embrace the underdog role", unlikely to strike big in free agency

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While the Suns very well could go all in next week in free agency, their current thinking is leaning toward a low-key approach like summer of 2013.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When asked in several forums last week after the Suns drafted two more teenagers to add to All-Rookie teenager Devin Booker, General Manager Ryan McDonough hedged away from clear statements on the Suns' expectations regarding the playoffs next year.

For the third summer in a row, he has alternated between saying they are committing to their young players while also expecting to fight for a playoff position. The results in the last two seasons have been predictably frustrating - it's almost impossible to truly rebuild while also competing for a playoff spot.

So it's time to go back to the 2013 plan.

After successfully adding two high-ceiling teenage forwards - Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss - and a pace-pushing point guard Tyler Ulis last Thursday night to supplement their existing young guns Alex Len (23), T.J. Warren (22), Archie Goodwin (21) and Devin Booker (19), McDonough is becoming more and more comfortable with setting low expectations for the coming season.

"I don't want to set unrealistic expectation for the team, to set us up so to speak," McDonough said to Bright Side in a one-on-one last Friday. "Next year my guess is that externally expectations will be low."

The Suns rotation will almost certainly boast three teenagers on opening night, making up three of the 15 youngest players in the entire league.

But he couldn't help throwing a bit of optimism out there with the memory of the 2013 Suns who were picked to finish 14th in the West.

"As you know, externally, three years ago expectations were extremely low and we won 48 games."

Frankly, McDonough is in a very tough position. The Suns have missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons - a franchise record worst - and many of the season ticket holders are either declining to renew or openly grumbling about wanting to watch a better product.

Another challenge has been managing partner Robert Sarver, who sides with the season ticket holders on wanting a playoff team in Talking Stick Resort Arena not named 'Rattlers'. But even Sarver seemed content with growing with the kids when he ambled through media row on draft night after the big moves and reminded us with a smile, "Remember, they're only 36 years old combined."

Until last Thursday night, the Suns still didn't have a solid foundation of players on whom to hope for perennial playoff contention. For the past six years, the Suns have not boasted a single All-Star, nor have they developed any players who project to be named to multiple All-NBA teams.

But now, one could easily make the case that the future of the Suns franchise is in the hands of a trio of healthy, high-ceiling teeenagers several years away from major contract demands.

Devin Booker, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are a great start on a new foundation upon which Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ulis and Archie Goodwin can develop. None of those seven players will be over 23 next year. Even Brandon Knight is only 24, and Eric Bledsoe is only 27. The only "old" guys the Suns have to set the competitive tone are P.J. Tucker (31) and Tyson Chandler (34).

Booker came out of the late lottery to be the third youngest ever to score 30+ points, one of only four teenagers ever to have 6+ 30-point games (others: LeBron JamesKevin DurantCarmelo Anthony) and become the fourth youngest player ever to score 1,000 points. The only others on this one? LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Kobe Bryant.

Bender has been on NBA radars for three years already, and been projected all along as one of the best prospects in the world, predicted to go at or near the top of his draft as soon as he's old enough to join the NBA.

And Bledsoe was playing at an All-Star level more than once the past three years, only to be scuttled by injuries time and again.

"We like our young talent," McDonough said.

Now he is preaching patience, and dabbing in a bit of optimism.

"We're excited about what these guys can do," McDonough said. "They are talented guys, and like you saw last year with Devin Booker, some of these guys just figure it out quicker than others and you have something special."

Don't expect either of Bender or Chriss to be as NBA ready as Devin Booker, but maybe we can see some flashes of the future. Bender, in particular, has been playing professionally for years now though he mostly sat on the bench for a very veteran Maccabi Tel-Aviv team this past year, which lowered his draft stock to where the Suns could grab him with the 4th selection.

Free agency starts next week, but the Suns figure to approach free agency much like they approached it in 2013. That summer, they stayed away from the big-money free agents and focused on balancing out the roster.

Depth Chart

This summer, the roster is deep already. There are no glaring holes needing bodies. What the Suns really need is to cull the excess to enhance playing opportunities for their best young players.

  • PG: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis (R)
  • SG: Devin Booker, Brandon Knight, Archie Goodwin, John Jenkins
  • SF: P.J. Tucker, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender (R)
  • PF: Dragan Bender (R), Marquese Chriss (R), Alan Williams
  • C: Tyson Chandler, Alex Len, Dragan Bender (R)

Salary Cap Update

Salary-cap-June-27

The $35 million is a MAXIMUM amount of money the Suns could spend in free agency, and only if they release Tucker, Jenkins, Williams and (after signing him) Ulis AND renounce their cap holds on Mirza Teletovic, Ronnie Price, Chase Budinger and Jon Leuer.

Cap Holds

The Suns have four unrestricted free agents, who each have a "cap hold" on the Suns salary cap to various degrees for the Suns to retain their 'Bird Rights'. Bird rights allows you to offer higher maximum salaries, a fifth year, and to exceed the salary cap to re-sign them.

Suns-cap-holds-Jun-27

The Suns won't need those Bird Rights on any of these guys. If the Suns renounce those rights, they can still sign any and all of these players to regular contracts just like any other team.

They might re-sign Mirza Teletovic or Jon Leuer, as well as Ronnie Price for some continuity. But none of them will command salaries in excess of what other teams could offer.

Final Word

McDonough might not chase the biggest free agents next week, but he won't shut the door on a cinderella season. He's seen it in Phoenix in 2013. And he saw it last year up in the Pacific Northwest.

"We could use what Portland did last year as a blueprint," McDonough said. "They were picked to finish 14th or 15th in the West. I'm not saying we will be that, I don't know where we will be picked. But we kind of embrace the underdog role. Especially with the age of our team."