The Phoenix Suns are still coming down off the high of nabbing two significant players in last week's NBA Draft, but there is no time to rest on one's laurels. Friday, July 1, marks the beginning of the free agent moratorium period, wherein teams and players can negotiate and agree to contracts but not sign them (as Dallas knows well from last year).
With the new TV deal kicking in and bumping the salary cap to a projected $94 million, virtually every team will be flush with cash to spend on improvements. That includes the Suns, who will enter free agency approximately $28-29 million below the cap (including Tucker, Williams and Jenkins, but not counting cap holds).
The only question left is what to do with it?
While it is tempting to cut loose, throwing money around like a virgin in a brothel, GM Ryan McDonough and the Suns would be better served sitting on their hands and doing nothing. It may not be the glitzy choice, but it will prove to be the right one down the road.
This year's free agent crop is not a strong one, with LeBron James and Kevin Durant head and shoulders above the rest. James, however, is not leaving Cleveland (this year, at least), and Durant hasn't so much as sniffed in Phoenix's direction. That leaves the Suns to fight with 29 other teams over the services of second-tier players like Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Dwight Howard. Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed that all those named are big men, and considering the Suns just spent two lottery picks on big men in Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss and still have Alex Len and Tyson Chandler on board, it would make no sense to pursue any of those options — even in the unlikely event they were interested in joining the Suns.
DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal, and Mike Conley are the few second-tier pieces that don't play in the frontcourt, but none of those players appear interested in the Suns, which works out since the Suns should have interest in none of those players.
So what's left?
The Suns options become reduced at this point to pursuing Lance Stephenson, Harrison Barnes, Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, Rajon Rondo, Chandler Parsons, Evan Turner, Bismack Biyombo, Ryan Anderson, Jeff Green or a number of other eminently replaceable cogs — and expensive cogs at that.
What do the Suns need?
Well, when you lose 59 games, you need a lot, but signing average to marginally above-average players to bloated contracts isn't one of them.
And according to Phoenix's likely depth chart, they have no glaring holes to fill, either. Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker will command the lion's share of the minutes at the guard spots, with Archie Goodwin and Tyler Ulis seeing occasional time there. Small forward will see P.J. Tucker and T.J. Warren most of the time with a smattering of Bender for good measure. Power forward will be manned by Bender and Chriss, and center has Len and Chandler returning to their platoon roles. Looking at that, power forward is probably the area of greatest need, but the Suns would be foolish to sign someone who will carve too deeply into the development time of their prized young bigs.
Who do the Suns sign?
The Suns will have 10 guaranteed contracts once Bender and Chriss sign for their 120 percent of scale and assuming Tucker is retained. That leaves a minimum of three and a maximum of five roster spots to be filled. Ulis will likely get one of those spots as a highly regarded second-round pick who could make as little as $543,471 this season. Alan Williams could also get a nod depending on his Summer League play and helped by his $874,636 value contract for next season. John Jenkins remains in play, but his future is sketchier.
Phoenix's best bet would be to target free agents who would be amenable to playing support roles behind the team's young players, and a few of them are already familiar with the team.
Ronnie Price could likely be had again for $1,551,659, which is the minimum for a player with 10+ years. As last year proved, a team can never have too many emergency point guards. He's been hanging out with the team on a near daily basis since season's end, so one would expect the Suns would keep him for the minimum.
Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer could also be retained, but with the demand for stretch-fours being what it is, Teletovic will likely find more playing time elsewhere. Leuer is in the same boat, with bigger roles potentially existing with other franchises. However, as the market begins to take shape and rosters fill up, either player could find himself returning to Phoenix on a $6-8 million deal.
As well, other players like Darrell Arthur could be in play. Ultimately, whoever joins the team in the frontcourt must accept a role of 10-15 minutes per game and be happy in it.
The salary cap floor
For a $94 million salary cap, the floor will be $82.8 million. If the Suns were to sign Ulis and Price for their respective minimums and Leuer/Teletovic for $8 million, that would put the Suns at the required 13 players and still leave Phoenix about $12+ million below the salary floor. And barring something completely unexpected, that is where they should remain.
Not reaching the salary floor has no actual penalty. For teams that fail to reach that threshold, they simply cut a check for the difference, and it gets distributed between the players on the roster. In other words, the salary floor means far more for players than it does for teams.
The Suns will do themselves more good by maintaining their financial flexibility instead of spending it on extra players just to meet some arbitrary standard. They will be able to act as an intermediary between teams working trades and looking to clear space. Like the Philadelphia 76ers did for several years, the Suns can absorb bad contracts into their space and be compensated for the assistance.
For instance, in order for the Golden State Warriors to acquire Durant, they would need to move Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut. There is no reason the Suns shouldn't stick their noses in there and try to facilitate if that scenario were to come to pass. And that goes for helping other teams, too, especially around the trade deadline when most teams will have used their cap space and be looking for teams to facilitate. The compensation may not be great — a late 1st round pick — but Phoenix just used a late 1st, a former late 1st (Bogdan Bogdanovic), and a 2nd round pick to help acquire Chriss, a lottery pick. (Plus, acquiring another team's unwanted contract later on in the season saves Robert Sarver some money due to the nature of the salary cap rules.)
Maintaining flexibility to acquire assets while developing a bevy of young, talented players sounds much better than acquiring a player who will only serve to play in front of a guy in need of experience or overpaying to avoid something that possesses no real penalty.
What about winning now?
It's not happening, and there is no one in free agency outside of James and Durant who change that. After them, there are only players who help Phoenix lose less. As painful as it may be in the short term, the Suns need to focus on developing all these young pieces and forget about the playoffs. If they become the 2016-17 version of the Portland Trail Blazers and make the playoffs because the young guys on the team developed enough to get them there, so be it. But Ws and Ls aren't the endgame for this season.
This season needs to be what the 2013-14 season was supposed to be — a chance to develop the young players and build for the future. The only difference is there are many more young players in need of developing this time around. Len, Goodwin, Warren, Booker, and now Bender, Chriss, and Ulis all need time to grow, and even though they are farther along, Bledsoe and Knight need time as well to learn to co-exist. This is not the environment you bring pricey free agents into.
There will be a time for free agents. The summer of 2017 already looks to be a much stronger free agent crop, and if the Suns practice restraint this summer, they will have even more money to work with under a $110 million cap. In the meantime, the focus must be on developing from within, not the chaos of the July free agent period. The last thing this team needs is another Josh Childress signing.