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Phoenix Suns so far outside the fray of crazy NBA transactions

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When Jared Dudley signed to come back "home" for $10 million per year, Suns fans got what equates to a misty splash from the free agent wave breaking against the NBA shoreline.

The Suns appear to be building around potential franchise player Devin Booker and a host of young players with lots of potential: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, T.J. Warren and Alex Len.

As those players grow and mature, the Suns are at least content to spend the next year watching the NBA craziness from the sidelines.

The salary cap jumped up by $24 million this summer over last year, from $70 million to $94 million, which opened up every team's coffers for chances to improve quickly. Or, at least, spend a bunch of money quickly on whoever would take it. It just so happens that the $24 million increase is roughly equal to a "max" contract as defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, meaning that more than half the league suddenly had the room to add the best available players.

The biggest consequence was allowing the league's best team - Golden State - to add the league's best and most expensive free agent in Kevin Durant by only clearing out a few second-level players. When the owners collectively bargained the current CBA, with all its player salary limits, they did not foresee the impact of dramatically increasing league revenues thanks to a lucrative new TV deal. All revenues are split just about 50/50 with players. Yes, that means the 30 owners get half, while the 450 players get the other half.

But when you split revenues, you get something like what we saw this summer. The players union, the other side at the bargaining table, refused to agree to a "smoothing" implementation of the cap increases, resulting in this summer's huge jump.

Anticipated consequences

The much-anticipated impact was this: each year, only about 1/3 of the league's players are free agents good enough for their agents to negotiate competitive, market-rate deals. The other 2/3 are already under contract, or are bound to CBA-controlled salaries (rookie contracts, salary minimums, salary maximums). The league's very best players are just choosing between the same max contract offers, while the league's worst players are just choosing between league-minimum offers.

So only about 150 players, at most, were vying for nearly $2 billion in spending money this summer. That's how Solomon Hill, with career averages of 6 points and 3 rebounds per game, got $12 million per year from the Pelicans. And how Jarryd Bayless got $8 million per year - early on! - from the Sixers. Timofey Mozgov* got $16 million from the Lakers in the opening minutes of free agency. Even Turner got $17.5 million per year.

*Quick aside on Mozgov. Dude has been a rotational center his whole career. His career averages are 6.9 points and 5 rebounds per game. He barely played in the last two Finals series for the Cavaliers. He embodies the outdated notion of big lumbering center. Yet he was successfully traded for TWO first round picks a year ago, and now gets $16 million per year dropped in his lap the second the clock turned midnight on July 1! WTF is going on here! What dirt does he have on who?

I digress.

Let's look at the Suns. Going into the summer, the Suns had zero power forwards under contract. They had traded Markieff Morris, and both Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer were free agents. Teletovic and Leuer did yeoman's work last year, but the fact is that neither was a clear cut starting caliber player for a 23-win team.

Both Teletovic and Leuer were and are career backups at the power forward position. Lovable as they, they are eminently replaceable. Yet this summer, they both earned $10+ million per year to come off someone else's bench for the next 3-4 seasons.

The Suns just wanted someone to hold down the fort until super-rooks Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender were ready to take over. But they still had to spend $10 million per year just to get that placeholder, who turned out to be Jared Dudley. While some fans rung their hands over giving him $10 million per year, given the state of the marketplace he was a relative bargain.

Then they threw $4 million at former Sun Leandro Barbosa for a year (the second year is only guaranteed for $500k) to come off the bench with some predictable production. He won't play a lot, but when he does the coach will know what he's going to get. And that, my friends, costs you $4 million these days.

That's the price you pay when sign TV contracts to get richer.

Unanticipated consequences

When the owners could not negotiate a "smoothing" of cap increases, they were stuck with the players' preference to get all the money all at once.

  • The cap jumped roughly the equivalent of most players' max salary limits
  • When coupling that $24 million cap increase with a CBA that limits top-end player salaries, every team in the league suddenly had the wherewithal to acquire any player they wanted.
  • The CBA's built-in "home team advantages" (longer contracts, slightly higher raises) became completely irrelevant with a fast-rising cap because the best players are signing shorter deals now. 2017's cap will be at least 10% higher than today's cap, so who cares if the home team can give 7.5% raise versus another team's 4.5% raise? Just sign a two-year deal with a player option next summer, allowing the player to get that 10% raise no matter who he plays for.
  • The 7-day negotiating period between July 1 and July 8, where players and teams can negotiate but not sign anything yet, allows teams to talk to "who" first and then figure out the "how" later.

So the Golden State Warriors, of course, went out and got Kevin Durant. They wooed him and negotiated his deal first, and then made the necessary cap room later. All before July 8.

And all thanks to the confluence of events that made this summer the craziest NBA summer yet. Imagine if the free agent pool was actually GOOD?

What's next?

The Suns, luckily, had the stones to sit out this free agent period. There was so much money available, they could have spent big on a real starting-caliber power forward who would post starting caliber numbers. They could have brought in a new, younger small forward with a more solid game than either of T.J. Warren or P.J. Tucker.

But that starting caliber forward - either power or small - would have had a lower ceiling than Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss and maybe even peak T.J. Warren. We've seen over the past week that there is potential in the rookies that could easily make them bargains over their rookie contracts, and there's no need to bury them on the bench for the next 2-3 seasons.

So are the Suns done? After letting go of Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer and (likely) Ronnie Price while signing "JD3" and "LB for 3" and drafting three playable rookies, are the Suns just going to keep the rest of their roster intact?

I doubt it.

The Suns just extended the guarantee deadline on John Jenkins' contract to after training camp ends in October. Jenkins is making league minimum and basically 5th on the shooting guard depth chart, which means more expendable than Jon Leuer or Ronnie Price.

Signing LB and extending Jenkins' deadline means, to me, that the Suns think they are not quite done tinkering at the shooting guard position.

Here's the current depth chart at shooting guard

  • Devin Booker (going NOWHERE)
  • Brandon Knight (half-point, half-SG; signed for next four seasons at $13 mill/yr)
  • Archie Goodwin (not a PG!; one year from restricted free agency)
  • Leandro Barbosa (just signed for $4 million)
  • John Jenkins (non-guaranteed, but still on roster)

By my calculations, there's no need to keep John Jenkins AND Leandro Barbosa AND Archie Goodwin AND Brandon Knight on the roster all playing behind what's likely a 35-minute per game Devin Booker.

Someone's got to go. Maybe multiple someones.

What kind of deal might the Suns do?

Who knows. The most likely scenario is being nice and trying to find Archie Goodwin a home where he can get some playing time next year before becoming an RFA.

We've all seen Brooklyn swing and miss mightily on the RFA market so far this summer. Their successful summer signings include Jeremy Lin, Greivis Vasquez, Joe Harris and Randy Foye. Archie could easily earn playing time there, and the Nets would likely prefer having their own RFA to match offers on.

There's also Philadelphia who need scorers. Archie could be a good option to come off the bench there. His only competition at shooting guard are Nik Stauskas and Gerald Henderson, with Jerryd Bayless and T.J. McConnell fighting for PG minutes with Euro import Sergio Rodriguez.

And that's just off the top of my head. I'm sure there's a few other teams Archie could join and get solid chance at minutes. He's not been around the Suns facilities all summer - quite the contrast from prior years - so it's quite likely the Suns and Archie already have a mutual agreement to part ways.

The Suns could also move on from Brandon Knight, but that appears less and less likely now. While his contract is suddenly a bargain (Tyler friggin Johnson makes almost as much, while Allen Crabbe makes 20% more now), most teams have shored up their starting point guard positions. And, the Suns may no longer be hot to trade him. If he's willing to take on a sixth man role, there's few better suited for it in the league right now.

Of course, the Nets could use Knight, but there's absolutely no assets the Nets can trade to get him. They literally have almost nothing. They cannot trade a draft pick until something like 2050, and their roster is one big pupu platter. Did I mention they upgraded by signing Jeremy Lin and Randy Foye?

The Sixers could use Knight, but they already gave Sergio Rodriguez a big paycheck and might not see Knight as a good long term starting shooting guard. And frankly, I'll admit again that I don't want what the Sixers would want to trade back. The Sixers would want to trade Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor, and they'd want to do it WITHOUT acquiring Tyson Chandler in return. But I'd rather leave the front line alone for now if no one's taking Chandler. No, I really don't want all-offense-no-defense Okafor, and Len is roughly a wash with Noel and much bigger. If the Suns could rid themselves of Chandler, I might change my mind on this.

Most likely, the Suns will end up as a bit-player, third-party participant in a much larger trade.

For example, the Celtics are trying to swing for the fences and acquire Blake Griffin to pair with Al Horford.

With both teams capped out, it's unlikely they can make a clean two-team trade. So someone's going to have to step in to help make salaries and roster spots work. The Suns have fungible roster bodies, lots of cap space (about $16 million) and a close friendship with both the Clippers brass (Doc Rivers) and Celtics brass (Danny Ainge).

I wouldn't be surprised to hear the Suns help close that deal, without getting markedly better or worse in 2016-17. But maybe they can turn expendable parts - Chandler, Tucker, Goodwin, Knight, Jenkins, Alan Williams - into a future asset or two that could someday play.

Stay tuned, Suns fans. But don't hold your breath for anything big.

Everything the Suns have done since draft night's big haul has been to make this upcoming season all about the kids and letting the wins and losses come organically.

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