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Phoenix Suns need to make decisions on Chandler and Len before anyone else

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With the Suns entering into a rebuild year, they will need to address their logjam at center very soon. It would be unwise to commit up to 1/3 of their cap to two traditional centers in 2017-18.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Free Agency opened up about five days ago, and already nearly every impact free agent has either agreed to re-sign or pick a new team already. The first 45 free agents agreed to new deals averaging just under $17 million per year.

The record deals were a product of the league's TV money nearly doubling under their new ABC, ESPN and TNT contracts. With only about 1/3 of the league's players available on the market, teams had gobs of money to throw at them. And even after the spree, almost ten teams STILL have $15+ million available under their cap.

Money to burn

The Suns are one of those teams, with just over $20 million still available under the cap.

suns-sal-cap-july6

The league's CBA requires each team to spend 90% of the cap on players, which means the Suns will at some point have to spend another $10 million or so before the end of next season. The Suns will either have to enter into some transaction that nets another $10 million in spending, or they will have to split that $10 million among the rest of the players on the roster.

The roster is already 12 deep, not including the likely re-signing of Ronnie Price at some point this summer and not including the non-guaranteed contracts of John Jenkins and Alan Williams. Jenkins' and Williams' guarantee dates are later this month. Williams will participate in Summer League beforehand.

Even without Price, Williams and Jenkins, the Suns have a two-deep or three-deep roster at every position.

Could the Suns just give Price that $10 million and enter the season without any more movement on the roster? Yes, they could.

But there are good reasons to continue tinkering with the roster.

Transactions recap

Since the end of the second-worst regular season in franchise history, very little has changed on the roster.

Out:

  • PF Mirza Teletovic (21 minutes, 12 points, 4 rebounds) left for the Bucks for a 3 year, $30 million contract
  • PF Jon Leuer (19 minutes, 9 points, 6 rebounds) left for the Pistons for a 4 year, $42 million contract
  • 13th overall pick (Georgios Papagiannis)
  • 28th overall pick (Skal Labissiere)
  • Detroit's 2020 second round pick

In:

  • PF/SF Jared Dudley (26 minutes, 9 points, 4 rebounds) signed for three years, $30 million
  • PF Dragan Bender was taken with the 4th overall selection
  • PF Marquese Chriss was taken with the 8th overall selection (acquired for the 3 draft picks)
  • PG Tyler Ulis was taken with the 34th overall selection

That's it.

The Suns have swapped out two backup forwards for two draft picks and another backup power forward (who will likely start, but only until Bender or Chriss are ready).

Not as bad as it looks?

So a bad team is setting itself up for another bad season and another high draft pick in 2017, right? Not a bad plan, considering the alternatives.

But it's not that easy. It's never that easy.

Part of the Suns problems last season were injury issues. Eric Bledsoe was playing at All-Star level before missing the rest of the season. Brandon Knight was putting up big numbers before straining his groin and eventually missing most of the rest of the year. Tyson Chandler had a lingering hammy injury in December.

If all those guys stay healthy all year, and Devin Booker continues his progression, the Suns just might find themselves back in 30-40 win no-mans-land.

Which is NOT where they want to be.

Three-year plan

So let's look at the roster with a critical eye toward what should be a three-year rebuild plan that starts with a challenging season that gives them one more high draft pick before what could be a rapid rise after that.

Power Forward and Shooting Guard

The power forward (Dudley, Bender, Chriss) and shooting guard positions (Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin) are now strategically set up for a medium-term rebuilding plan. Only Jared Dudley is over 24, and only Archie Goodwin is up for a new contract in the next three years.

Each position has at least one high-ceiling player that could develop into an All-Star caliber starter in the next three years. It's ultimately up to the players to produce, but the Suns can help by being patient and letting them play through their speed bumps.

Any of Devin Booker, Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss have the talent to become stars. Their individual ceilings are higher than any draft picks taken by the Suns since Amare Stoudemire in 2003. They could all fail too, but like the Arizona Lottery the Suns won't know if they don't play. The Suns need to spend the next three years finding out just how good Bender, Chriss and Booker really are.

The only guys to worry about here are Brandon Knight and Archie Goodwin. If they don't want to come off the Suns bench next year, the Suns might have to look around for quality replacements.

But these guys are not the Suns top priority any more. Knight is under long-term contract and has never been a complainer. Archie has a year left before becoming an RFA, and will probably play his butt off next season to be the next Allen Crabbe or Moe Harkless who turned one good season into tens of millions of dollars. Allen Crabbe is about to get a $18 million per year offer based on one good year. While a talented shooter, he has not yet been any better than a rotation player with questionable defensive chops and happens to be a bit undersized for the off guard position.

So leave the shooting guard and power forward positions alone at least for the next year.

Small Forward

T.J. Warren has two more years before becoming an RFA and requiring a big new contract, and P.J. Tucker is a bargain as the savvy veteran while Tucker develops.

The Suns could easily play this coming season with Tucker and Warren in tandem at the small forward position. That would give the Suns another year to figure out Warren's ceiling.

But Tucker will be a free agent next summer. At 32 by then, he won't be in high demand but Jared Dudley just got $30 million over three years so that's all relative. Would the Suns stay with Tucker long-term while Warren develops?

Warren is already a smokin deal of a bargain. SF Maurice Harkless, an RFA from Portland, has not yet signed an offer sheet, but given the offers made to Harrison Barnes, Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson so far, you have to assume that Harkless will command $15-20 million per year.

This is not to suggest the Suns should sign Harkless. This is simply to say the Suns have a bargain in T.J. Warren and should definitely spend the next two years figuring out how much a bargain that is.

Warren has innate ability to score from any angle, and he can create his own shot. He also began making 40% of his three-pointers last year, showing he can extend the defense and make his driving lanes even more wide open. However, he's never been a great defender and has done little in 1.5 seasons to show a propensity to turn that around.

The Suns have the next two years to figure out if T.J. will become a great player or just a pretty good one. In the meantime, P.J. Tucker is great stop-gap and gives the Suns flexibility to work around Warren over the next two years while they see what they have in him.

If the Suns make any moves at small forward, it would be to bring in other players with the same profile and maybe even higher ceiling.

But the clock is not ticking loudly yet.

Point guard

This one's tough to get a handle on.

At starter, the Suns have Eric Bledsoe under long-term contract (three more seasons) and he's been going out of his way to become a leader and embrace the youth movement facing the Suns.

But he's "old" compared to the rest of the roster (age 27 this year) and playing just below All-Star level. He wants to win games and, when healthy, gives 110% toward that goal on a nightly basis. His career trajectory doesn't exactly match that of a three-year rebuilding plan.

His primary backup is Brandon Knight, who is a lot younger (24), under long-term contract, and could easily fit into the team's three-year rebuild window. But he's not a real starting caliber point guard and has not yet accepted the long-term role of sixth man scorer off the bench.

Add in that both have had injury issues, and the Suns ought to look in a different direction over the next 12-24 months. At some point before Bender, Chriss and Booker reach their NBA apex, the Suns will have a different point guard running the show.

Does it need to happen right now? No. The Suns could ride with Bledsoe and Knight (and rookie Tyler Ulis and old man Ronnie Price) as the ball handlers for another year to see how it all shakes out.

Center

The center position is where the bomb is beginning to tick loudly.

Next summer, Alex Len will be a restricted free agent awaiting massive offer sheets and Tyson Chandler will be approaching 35 years old with two more guaranteed years on his contract. Both are traditional centers where in today's NBA one of those is good but two is unnecessary.

Given the current market where RFA rotation players are getting wild offers from $12-24 million per year, we should expect Len's number to be somewhere toward the higher end of that range. While we might be curious about Archie Goodwin's open market value, the value of Len has already been set.

Enes Kanter got $17 million per year a year ago. This year, Ian Mahinmi, Timofey Mozgov, and the like are all getting $14-18 million per year. Len is younger (only 24 next summer) and overall more talented than those guys. Next year, the cap will be 10% higher, if not more. So today's $14-18 million is next year's $16-20 million.

The Suns also have a long-term question in Tyson Chandler. Does Chandler really want to play on a team not even trying to sniff the playoffs next year? I doubt it. The problem, though, is finding a taker for him. While $13 million a year is chump change these days, the center market was deep this summer and most teams have already filled their vet quota. Yet, his value can only get lower as the years pass.

Let's play this out: Chandler stays, and the Suns re-sign Len next summer to a market-rate contract. Can the Suns really afford to commit $33 million of the projected $104 million cap on the center position?

I think not. Something's got to give.

Final Word

While the Suns might just make some small moves this summer, it's quite possible they pull of a big trade or two as well.

Archie Goodwin seems disenchanted with his role on the Suns and his game doesn't demand to be played, so the 21-year old might be better off on another team. I can see Archie blossoming someday if he fixes his shooting and defensive shortcomings. I'd suggest a minor swap of Goodwin for some other team's under-played youngun that needs a change of scenery.

Brandon Knight doesn't want to come off the bench, and frankly shouldn't want to. It might be better for him and the Suns to find him a new home where he can start or at least compete for a starting shot. Knight's value should be high, considering Jeremy Lin and Tyler Johnson got $12 million in Brooklyn and everyone seems to be high-fiving the Nets for such good deals. If the Suns trade him, look for them to bring back a quality asset. Until then, Knight has a home here in Phoenix.

Tyson Chandler would be a good guy to trade, so the Suns could give the center position full time to Alex Len while rotating small-ball lineups around him. I'd be happy giving Len the $20 million as a 15-25 minute traditional center as long as Chandler isn't taking up the other 20-25 minutes. Chandler's contract is no longer a problem, given that lots of rotation centers are getting $12-18 million this summer. But it might take an injury on a playoff-pushing team to get a good offer in return.

The bottom line is that the Suns don't HAVE to trade anyone.

But if they want ensure a sub-30-win season and want to give their veterans like Tucker and Chandler a chance to play for a playoff team, we might see some movement anyway.