The deadline to sign rookie-scale players to contract extensions is fast approaching, with Giannis Antetokounmpo the latest to agree to a deal (4 years, $100 million). The Phoenix Suns have two players who fit that category in Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, and while it would be a massive surprise if the Suns extended Goodwin before the Oct. 31 deadline, Len is another matter.
Len’s frequent vacillation between budding star and fringe NBA talent surely has flummoxed Phoenix’s front office as much as it has fans, and that complicates placing a monetary value on him as a player. Will he always be this way? Or is his confidence issue something that can be corrected as he matures? These are the questions general manager Ryan McDonough must grapple with as he decides whether or not to extend Len in the next month and a half.
If Len and the Suns do not reach an agreement by Oct. 31, then Len will enter the summer of 2017 as a restricted free agent, and as things stand presently, that’s exactly what should happen.
Allowing Len to enter the 2017 free agent pool is a calculated risk. By not locking him up now, Phoenix opens itself up to a number of variables, like having another team swoop in with an offer that far exceeds what they are willing to pay and thus losing Len for nothing or having his price go up due to a big season. But what are the chances of these things happening? Let’s take a look.
The potential suitors
After the bacchanal of spending this past summer, the summer of 2017 should be tamer, with the NBA projecting the cap to increase to only $102 million for 2017. According to spotrac.com, once cap holds are figured in, only four teams will have the cap space available to offer a deal in excess of $15 million a season to a player they don’t possess the Bird rights to: Philadelphia, Minnesota, Denver, and Brooklyn. Obviously, other teams could become factors as next summer approaches, but predicting which teams those will be involves too many variables to be reliably done at this juncture.
So sticking with the teams that currently will have the necessary cap space to sign Len outright, would any of those four teams actually be willing to break the bank to sign Len?
Philadelphia 76ers (cap space: $33,351,587)
The Philadelphia 76ers already possess a glut of big men in Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and Joel Embiid and would be ill advised to spend big bucks to pry Len away from Phoenix. That money is likely earmarked for a point guard.
Minnesota Timberwolves (cap space: $21,980,063)
The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Rookie of the Year center Karl-Anthony Towns last season and signed Cole Aldrich to a two-year deal over the summer. With the chronically injured Nikola Pekovic still under contract as well, adding another pricey center doesn’t seem to be a logical choice, especially when Minnesota still has to deal with the future of Gorgui Dieng, who will command far more than his $3,384,596 qualifying offer on the open market.
Denver Nuggets (cap space: $20,781,627)
The Denver Nuggets are the first plausible candidate to attempt to pry Len from the Suns. However, Denver is very fond of Nikola Jokic, who was named to the All-Rookie team last year, and still possesses Jusuf Nurkic behind him. Len does not represent a clear upgrade to either player at this moment.
Brooklyn Nets (cap space: $17,409,678)
The Brooklyn Nets are just desperate enough to pose a real danger to Phoenix. After a summer where they gave Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson offer sheets that far exceeded market value, they could do the same for Len, viewing him as a solid defensive option behind the oft-injured and offensive-minded Brook Lopez. And with a number of cap holds they could easily renounce, the Nets could find more than enough cap space to reach max-contract territory.
Luckily for the Suns, most teams that will have a need at center this summer will not be able to offer anything close to what the Suns can offer Len in a deal, and teams like Brooklyn that can match Phoenix monetarily cannot offer him a better role or more team success than the Suns. While circumstances can change, the way things stand now should provide Phoenix with some breathing room when weighing their options.
The breakout season
Another risk in not agreeing to an extension now is in Len having a breakout season that drives his value up. Most Suns fans are painfully aware of this risk and how taking the gamble can come back to bite a team (Joe Johnson, circa 2005). However, there are two problems with this line of thinking, the first being situational and the second being with the reasoning itself.
First, the chances of Len having a breakout season are not much better than they were last year. Tyson Chandler remains a roadblock at center, and with the days of Len playing power forward likely dead and gone, a platoon system is not the ideal environment for a player to break out.
Joe Johnson, on the other hand, had advantages in 2004-05 that Len does not, like being a starter and playing alongside Steve Nash. Len’s potential for growth year over year is not nearly as great as Johnson’s was.
And if Len does manage to exceed everyone’s expectations and morph into a max-caliber player, is that such a bad situation? Sure, the team will have missed out on the opportunity to sign him to a Stephen Curry deal, but at least they will know what they are paying for. Choosing to pay a max player max money is far better than finding a year or two from now that you’re paying a middling player $20 million plus.
So what should happen?
If the Suns and Len’s representatives can reach an agreement before Oct. 31 that comes in at $15 million a season, then Phoenix should close the deal. That is good value for a young center who has at least shown the ability to rebound and be a rim deterrent. Anything more, and the Suns should stick it out until restricted free agency rather than bid against themselves.
Rushing to pay Len $18 million a year now just because someone like Timofey Mozgov received $16 million a year from the Los Angeles Lakers does the team no favors. The Suns should not pay based on other team’s overpays and instead remain financially disciplined. The 2017 market will not be flush with cash the same way it was in 2016, and most of the available space will be used by teams paying their own players, leaving the Suns with a leg up in any negotiation.
Len may choose to forego negotiations and instead bet on himself this season as some players do in hopes of earning a bigger payday in free agency. If he does earn it, Phoenix remains in prime position to keep him with the ability to match any deal. If he doesn’t earn it but another team, like Brooklyn, offers him a huge payday anyway, the Suns should pass. Phoenix does not need to strap itself to a bad contract if Len has not shown the development to justify such a contract. They’re not exactly keeping a championship core intact.
Again, the Suns and Len have until Oct. 31 to make a decision. That’s a full training camp, preseason, and a handful of regular season games to evaluate Len’s growth from last season. The front office has shown admirable restraint this summer in committing to players long term, with no overpays to speak of. Here’s hoping the same holds true by Nov. 1.