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Alex Len needs to take ownership of his career

With or without the Phoenix Suns, playing to his strengths must be focus in 2017-18...wherever that happens to be

NBA: Orlando Magic at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

When Phoenix Suns center Alex Len waded into the free agent pool for the first time in his career, it is doubtful he expected to be sans team with the calendar racing towards August. Yet here he is, holding only a less-than-generous qualifying offer and zero leverage while nary a murmur about potential landing spots for the former No. 5 overall pick surfaces in the rumor mill.

As far as signs go, this ranks up there with “Pool closed due to fecal contamination”.

In fairness to Len, he’s not the only restricted free agent sweating especially hard this summer. Nerlens Noel, Mason Plumlee, Nikola Mirotic, and JaMychal Green have also had no luck drumming up a market, and their teams seem to be in no rush to bid against themselves.

Free agency 2017 hasn’t exactly been the NBA Rumspringa 2016 was, and this tightening of purse strings has hit those in restricted free agency especially hard. Whereas Otto Porter Jr. got his max deal, Joe Ingles was rewarded handsomely, and less heralded restricted free agents came to terms quickly with their original teams, players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1 year, $18 million from the Los Angeles Lakers) and Jonathon Simmons (3 years, $20 million from the Orlando Magic) had to wait until their rights were renounced before a team bit. And Tim Hardaway Jr. only got out of Atlanta after the New York Knicks broke the bank for a shooting guard with a career scoring average of 11 points per game.

This is just not a healthy environment to be a restricted free agent. Especially if you are a restricted free agent who happens to be a traditional center in a league moving away from them. And extra especially if you are a restricted free agent who happens to be a traditional center in a league moving away from them who has also struggled to leave a lasting imprint on the league over his first four seasons. Yes, we’re back to talking about Len.

Career averages of 6.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks on 46.5-percent shooting from the field do not get teams to stumble over themselves to put forth an offer sheet. Even ranking in the top 10 in block percentage two out of the last three seasons (fifth in 2014-15, third in 2016-17) isn’t enough to separate himself from someone like JaVale McGee, who brings many of the same skills as Len but is settling for another vet minimum deal with the Golden State Warriors in today’s market.

So what’s to be done if you’re Alex Len? Unfortunately for him, very little at the moment. Barring unexpected interest from another team, his options are to negotiate a modest deal with the Suns that would likely land in the neighborhood of what teammate and fellow restricted free agent Alan Williams signed recently (3 years, $17 million) or sign his qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next season.

If Len has any sense at all — or an agent worth keeping around — he’ll pursue the latter.

It’s easy for someone on the outside to recommend passing up $15-18 million in guaranteed money. After all, it isn’t mine to begin with. But this suggestion isn’t rooted in finances. It’s about extending the viability of Len’s career, and at present it has precious little viability in Phoenix.

The Suns have always wanted Len to be more than what he is — a big, strong center with decent mobility who is at his best when focusing on rebounding and defending the basket. At one time, trying to tap deeper into his well of talent was a smart plan. He did have a nice stroke on his shot, after all, so perhaps he could become a solid pick-and-pop five. But as the years have gone by, he has never found a way to develop consistency in his shot. Still though, the Suns continue to bang their heads against that wall, even sending him out to attempt a career-high 12 3-pointers last season.

Coach Earl Watson is fond of his analogy of putting people in the right seats. Alex Len as sniper extraordinaire is not his right seat. Never has been, never will be. It’s helping no one.

Along those same lines, the Suns employed another curious tactic last season with Len that he seemed ill-suited for. A couple times a game, they would run a set for Len to post up while everyone else…cleared out and watched. Now, I may just be a no-talent hack posting under a pseudonym on a basketball blog, but who in his right mind thinks to himself when designing NBA offense: I’ve got it. Iso Alex!

Len gets pilloried by many for his low field goal percentage, but he shot 66.9 percent from 0-3 feet last season and was third on the team (61.7 percent) from inside the restricted area among teammates who attempted at least 100 field goals from there, behind T.J. Warren (71.2 percent) and Tyson Chandler (69.8). Could he be more efficient? Absolutely. But the bigger issue isn’t whether his offense is bad (and nobody’s arguing he’s a scoring savant on the precipice of breaking out); it’s that what he’s being asked to do makes him look worse than he is.

Of Phoenix’s three big men last season (Len, Chandler, and Williams), Len was disproportionately asked to play away from the basket. And the same held true between Chandler and Len in 2015-16 as well.

The travesty here is that the Suns do know how to use Len effectively. It’s the same exact way they use Chandler. It involves lobs, putbacks, and easy bunnies around the basket facilitated by point guard play. It doesn’t involve iso ball and pick-and-pops. Watson doesn’t run plays that result in jump shots for Chandler. He isn’t asked to iso in the post even semi-regularly, either. The problem is that the Suns so desperately want Len to provide a change of pace from Chandler that they have pushed him away from the basket and out of his comfort zone for two years now. It has to stop.

Could Len develop these skills down the road. Absolutely he could. He’s only 24. But that’s a bridge to cross when he gets there, and he is most certainly not there. Yet Phoenix has continually tried to cross a bridge that doesn’t exist. This isn’t Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You can’t just step out and expect a bridge to magically appear beneath your feet, which is exactly what is happening every time they run a play for another Len outside shot.

Len has his own issues to conquer, chief among them how to survive in the NBA despite not being a natural basketball player. (Tip: Figure out what Robin Lopez did, then do that.) What he doesn’t need is his own team hurting his standing in the league by asking more of him than he’s capable of giving.

This is where Len must finally take a stand. If he plays next season on a one-year deal, it will be the most important season of his career, and it is not hyperbolic to say that. Another season of middling impact will almost assuredly leave him sifting through veteran minimum offers — if it doesn’t land him in Europe or China, trying to rebuild his crumbling NBA dream. Should he return to Phoenix on the qualifying offer, he has to put his foot down and refuse to be held to a different standard than the team’s other centers. This is his livelihood here, and if the team can fail to give him the two extra starts it would have taken over the last two seasons for him to earn the full qualifying offer, he can demand to be put in position to showcase the best of himself.

If Phoenix is unwilling to accommodate this for some reason, then he and his agent should work to have the team renounce its rights over him and see how unrestricted free agency treats him. Even if it meant taking a minimum deal now that most of the money has dried up, he would at least be able to choose a team that would utilize him more effectively, thus bolstering his value in 2018 and solidifying his foothold in the NBA.

The worst option, by far, is a hedged-bets Alan Williams-type deal, where he returns to what’s familiar at a cut-rate price only to languish for a few years in basketball purgatory inside a system that plays to his weaknesses. It would be akin to choosing to be in Brandon Knight’s situation. Yes, he’s getting paid in Phoenix, but his standing around the league may never recover.

Ideally, Phoenix would embrace Len for what he is and come to terms on a fair contract for both sides, and much can happen between now and when a decision ultimately needs to be made, including trades. But if the situation can’t be salvaged, then he needs to be willing to fight to go elsewhere.

Bigs who can rebound, block shots, and finish around the basket will always have a place in the NBA, but the silence surrounding him in his free agency foray is due at least in part to doubts teams have that he can provide those skills at a better rate than cheaper alternatives. Len needs to use 2017-18 to prove to the entire league that he can do exactly that and not let the peripherals — jump shooting, etc. — get in the way. It may require betting on himself, but if he aspires to do anything besides trudge through his career as a fringe player, it’s a gamble he needs to take.

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